Partner Spotlight: Meet Chris Clark

Chris Clark is passionate about realizing human potential, and he sees an emerging phenomenon wherever he goes—a growing interest in wholeness at work.  “There’s something bubbling up, something capturing people’s attention and imagination. We’re dreaming new dreams.”

Chris, a change management consultant and systems thinker, has been an invaluable collaborator in the Whidbey Institute’s governance and strategic planning work, and a dedicated volunteer since 2013. He’s spent countless hours helping us evolve our staff roles, intra-organizational agreements, and governance processes in order to liberate more human energy in alignment with the Institute’s deep purpose. He’s held a vital role as a sort of “balcony view” strategist—looking down at the dance floor, so to speak, and seeing how the big picture relates to our individual experiences. He sometimes challenges our old assumptions and habits or offers a view not yet considered, and holds a unique ability to name unseen challenges or leverage points—from the subtle to the blindingly obvious.

“I’m naturally someone who sees opportunities to up our game,” he said. “It’s something I do professionally, taking that 30,000 foot view. A lot of leadership is in seeing the larger perspective of what’s happening . . . to orient people’s attention to things they might be missing otherwise.”

During a recent interview, my thanks for the gift of Chris’s time and expertise elicited a laugh. “It’s a gift, but it’s one that gives to me,” he said. “I’m connected very deeply with the Whidbey Institute community—the ‘seekers of bold change’. What the Whidbey Institute offers us is a place where we can both grow and rest; where we can explore things within the organization’s nurturing embrace. This has become a home for my work.”

Through Anthem, his change management and organizational systems consultancy, Chris helps organizations improve team performance, strengthen community engagement, and reinvent structures in order to summon the very best of everyone involved. “The vast majority of people in our culture are disempowered by authority structures. It’s become very easy to abdicate responsibility to lobby for change, especially near the bottom of a pyramid. My work is about helping people take back their initiative,” he said. “I want there to be organizational structures out there that help people—that place leadership capability and decision-making in the hands of more people. What you get, then, is an organization which is more sensitive to changing conditions, and able to respond faster. When people are engaged to bring their intelligence to work, to take responsibility, and to step forward, organizations become more creative.”

Chris has found a kindred spirit in his friend and collaborator Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Perceiving a cultural shift toward—and a necessity for—organizations which liberate individual purpose and passion in service to the whole, Chris is now lending his expertise to the development of a Reinventing Organizations wiki. In the spirit of empowering individuals to act on behalf of a common purpose, the wiki itself will serve as an example of shared authority. An online community for individuals and organizations doing this work has already engaged about 180 people from five continents—each of them passionate about bringing their whole selves to work on behalf of their own organizations.

The impulse to empower more people through reimagining the structures in which we work came to Chris during five years as a pastor. “I discovered that the tools I had to help people were really inadequate,” he said. “A core group of people were very invested in the church, and among that group there was an incredible rate of burnout. In an organization with a mission about spiritual awakening, I saw that the majority of people were not deeply engaged, but had what I would call ‘consumer’ expectations. I looked around, asking ‘where are people really engaged in a community?’ I discovered that this problem was not unique to the church: it’s a function of our society.”

Chris pointed to the expectations placed on a church leader—from a sparkling moral record to an authoritative presence; from a commitment to the status quo to a willingness to set direction; from visionary heroism to a knack for putting out fires—as symptoms of a societal system out of balance. “In our culture, leaders and managers accept that kind of authority, but they struggle with the consequences. Authority stands opposed to leadership—it keeps things safe, it maintains the status quo. Leadership, by default, destabilizes security. It leads people into new territory.”

“We’re living with the legacy of deeply embedded, complex, industrial age structures—educational, political, economic—and yet we’re discovering that our cultural and societal aspirations grow beyond them,” Chris said. This realization, and the hunger for new and empowering ways of working together, led him into a master’s program in organizational leadership at Seattle University. There, his mentor Phyllis Shulman (now an Institute board member) made the connection between his aspirations and our work at the Institute. “I really wanted to pay attention to places where people could thrive in all aspects of their lives,” he said, “and Phyllis thought the Institute might be one of those places.” Chris joined board member Kate Snider in developing our 40th Anniversary book, and through that project experienced a deep immersion in the Institute’s history.

“I saw evidence of these seeds, planted 40 years ago—bringing people together to pay attention to authentic community life; living in harmony and in right relationship with the Earth; attending to our spiritual needs without dogma—it resonated with me.” In the months that followed, Chris watched as the evolution of our organization paralleled the trajectory of his own professional passions. Together with other key collaborators including Rick Jackson, Barbara Schaetti, and members of our staff and board, he joined us as we studied, tested, and implemented new practices and policies which support our organization in whole-hearted engagement of diverse talents and in greater responsiveness to emerging needs.

The relationship between the Whidbey Institute and Chris Clark has been one of rich mutual benefit. “I strive to help create workplace environments where people can show up more authentically . . . where people are empowered to follow their passion, vision, and mission as individuals,” he said. “By liberating that purpose and passion, organizations really get engaged people—people who are working toward a collective purpose as well as toward their own actualization. That’s happening here.”

“People say [the Whidbey Institute] is a place where the deepest, truest, most essential parts of themselves are welcome. A lot of people are putting their highest and best into service here, and the opportunity to be a part of that is a rare thing.”