Meeting the energy of the bull elephant in change work

Listen to Marcos introducing the blog - Meeting the Energy of the Bull Elephant

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to work with three dynamic individuals: the leadership team of a non-profit that’s addressing a sector of the business world that’s not currently engaged strategically in the move to a less carbon-reliant economy. If that sector can get engaged, it could be a game changer. Their work is sensitive and, in some cases, high-profile, so we agreed I’d keep names anonymous.

 Our day began with an enquiry about the intended outcomes of the leadership team given the enormity and urgency of their agenda[i]. We agreed three broad outcomes:

 1) to learn about one other as a leadership team, how best to direct individual talents and energies

 2) to understand dynamics in the team and ‘what kind of change makers are we?’

 3) to get insights into our next steps, and how to approach the work in the world for best impact

 With these in mind, we explored the focus for a constellation and articulated it into a sentence of intention for their organisation. Fascinating discussions honed down to a simple and profound enquiry: “what's really needed, in order for our organisation to be truly in service of this planet”. A huge, yet heartfelt and sincere ask, I sensed.

Working with constellations is like exploring a three-dimensional map of a complex organisational terrain, and for this team, their context is multi-layered spanning wider media/societal/political/business/spiritual landscapes. Our discussions helped us to map some of the boundaries of their system. In systemic work as layered as this, it can reveal patterns, dynamics and connections (or mis-connections) in relationships. It’s helpful as a diagnostic tool to see where there’s good flow, equally where aspects of the system warrant attention, often to free it up for its next steps. You can find out more about this process of constellations here.

“I found the constellations session enlightening and fascinating. I've not experienced anything like it before. It feels like the day with you will accelerate the storming, norming and performing process through which groups travel on their journey to greater productivity. I was able to further define my own role and focus my efforts around what is required”

We started by representing their organisation and the individuals involved, using floor markers set up in the space intuitively by the team. They placed the markers in the room to best represent the reality of what they currently experienced[ii]. My clients stepped in and out of different representations, physically standing on the floor markers, to sense what it’s like from different places. I invite them to use all their ways of knowing, to forget the stories in their mind and trust their body-wisdom. We introduced more layers into their organisational system: their goal, individuals in the team, a resource for their organisation (remained undefined), the outside world, a specific spiritual resource, the qualities of pain and fear.

I’d like to draw out a number of points that arose from our work:


Learning about each other as a leadership team

  • The movements and relationships between parts were subtle, sometimes a little nebulous. Perhaps to be expected as they’re a newly- established organisation still “forming” and planning strategically.

  • In stark contrast to the majority of these subtle movements, was the powerful presence of visceral fear and anger about climate change, embodied by one of the team particularly (more on that later).

  • Language and metaphor was rich. As the constellation evolved, one of the team noted his experience of a “high-frequency energy” flowing through the organisation and its parts; it began its life as a “rack and pinion movement”, a bit clunky and mechanical, but nevertheless achieving an alignment between the parts. It gradually morphed into a “molten metal flow” running through their organisation. Systemically, I sensed that within their team is the wisdom and wherewithal to grow and mature as a leadership team so that the flow of relationships, ideas and energy can become more molten (good flow is an important indicator to me of a healthy-functioning system).

Here’s what my clients said:

"As a relatively new organisation with an ambitious mission, we were keen to prepare ourselves as well as possible to navigate the significant challenges we knew we had ahead of us. As a result of our work with Marcos, we learned more about each other as a leadership team, came to better understand the dynamics at play, between us and with the work, and gained powerful insights about what our best next steps might be. These included how we could most effectively direct our individual talents and energies and how we could work productively with our differences as individual leaders

Understand dynamics between the team and the emotion of my client’s work  

A specific piece in the constellation struck me. One of the team became aware of their anger and pain in relation to what's happening on our planet caused by climate change. He was visibly moved, feelings coursing through his body in the constellation. I invited him to bring those emotions to be physically represented in the constellation (with floor markers) as they carried a lot of energy[iii]. He almost collapsed over pain and anger, holding them close to his body. We explored what is the systemic function of pain, where does it rest in their system, with whom are pain and fear most closely identified? One of his colleagues gently challenged him: “I’d quite like some of that emotion too, can you share it round?”.

I was struck by the overlay of personal story with organisational story. The team member who initially owned the feelings was very honest: as a seasoned campaigner he’d frequently experienced feeling pain and anger. Both emotions were strongly present in his professional career as well as his family of origin. He’d learned creative strategies to be with them, and indeed make use of them.

We explored the unconscious side of these attachments. For example, if harnessed more widely by the whole team, could these emotions be systemic ‘fuel’ to their work?

 “As a result of the constellations work we did, we connected with our vision and mission in a realistic and grounded way. We each came to see the unique contributions we have to make and we developed a strong shared sense of how alignment and synchronisation between us can power our work to deliver the impact we’re seeking”.


“I am bigger than you” - the shadow that lurks for change agents

My clients’ goal is to influence and bring about tangible change to a section of the business sector that’s monolithic - like facing down the bull elephant as pictured in this article. We explored: “What happens if we don’t run, but stay facing this huge force?” In my experience of systemic work, elephant-like forces can transform into a resource that can be integrated, and paradoxically the thing that seems to threaten the very existence of a system might just contain a homeopathic remedy.


How can we face the enormous power of the ‘other’ (the bull elephant) and dialogue differently?


Here’s an interesting technique: ask an organisation, or an individual change agent that’s seeking change: “do you feel bigger than, smaller than or equal to the thing you wish to change?” In my client’s story of a small organisation facing down the power of vested business interests, what pricked my systemic ears was hearing one of the team mention their desire to ‘obliterate’ a particular form of carbon-fuelled industry. We noted how the very language used can sub-consciously de-humanise what we seek to change. Damaging as that sector might be to the planet, it is a complex web of thousands of people, with families, loved ones, livelihoods. What happens if we replace the image of the faceless industry with the faces of those people?

I spoke about this topic with a friend and change-agent, Daniel Koerner who suggested two approaches: John Croft, the pioneer of Dragon Dreaming, talks about how we silence the forces (individual people) inside a system that might sympathise with us, those would-be potential active or passive enablers by de-humanising the big player.

Daniel explained:

In every big-player system we find a range of opinions, and through our actions we can amplify the critical, progressive forces within the system, or we can shut them down by treating the system as one big beast (or bull elephant)

Daniel also remined me of Brenee Brown’s work, in particular her book `Rising Strong` in which she talks about her research on what she calls ‘whole hearted, resilient people’ in our society. One of the main differences of how this particular group tends to see the world around them according to Brown is that they believe that people generally do the best they can. Brene Brown invites us to do the same… By keeping in mind that people do the best they can regardless of whether they work in an NGO or a multi-national cooperation we are able to better relate to the humanity within that institution.

One of the leadership group in my client’s organisation said:

"Being able to collectively, as a group of directors of a new non-profit, work with Marcos on a
a day of contemplation and constellation, focusing on the project we have
embarked on, was a real privilege.
This is a luxury you cannot afford to miss.
The most valuable insight I received from the event, was how my own work
encapsulated the same qualities, as those whom our work is targeting to change.
Challenging? Yes!
Invaluable? Definitely.

Some systemic conclusions for change-makers

Bert Hellinger who pioneered the amazing body of work called constellations, talked about three forces that keep systems together: personal conscience, collective conscience and spirit mind; the latter being the evolutionary force beyond good and bad, victim and perpetrator that’s in service of the whole ecosystem.

  • If you want to change anything, especially if you feel passionately about it, I’d say first understand it, meet it and see it through dispassionate eyes - not as you’d like to it to be.  When we see all aspects of a system in their context, recognising that organisations build layer upon layer of values and ways of understanding the world, then each aspect has its place, history, purpose and inalienable right to belong.

  • If as a change agent I feel bigger or smaller than the thing I wish to change, I’m more likely to adopt a binary win-lose position. And if I do that, I’m also more likely to perpetuate unhelpful systemic patterns, like victim-perpetrator dualities.

  • Strong forces in a system can mirror aspects of ourselves that we haven’t fully integrated.  Next time you face a bull elephant, be curious about yourself and ask: is there a hint of myself that I find hard to live with, and I’m projecting onto the other? And if so, what’s possible if I seek to really own that part of myself?

  • Try this out next time you face a challenging conversation with a person you seek to change: have the dialogue as an equal with as much right to belong as you do. You may find it’s possible to meet and see the ‘other’ from the wisdom of the spirit mind.


Some questions for you in your own world of change

What are you finding challenging as a change maker? What feels confusing or stuck? What might become possible if you experienced greater flow? If these questions spark your interest, I’d be delighted to have a conversation with you to tailor some work with you or your organisation.  

“We especially appreciated Marcos’ sensitivity to our work and the deep respect he showed for each of us as people. He struck a beautiful balance between challenging and supporting us, and between providing structure and enabling emergence. It was a real privilege to have this time together and we will undoubtedly be returning to Marcos for support as we continue our journey.”


If you would like to explore your change challenges in community with others, but outside of your own organisation, read more about our Landscapes of Change series… Landscapes of Change  retreats are all bout bringing people together in community at Hazel Hill Wood to curate what it means to live and work with coherence and integrity.

For another perspective on constellations and how this approach can help us work generatively with the dilemmas we face, read my co-facilitator Kirstin’s article Working with Dilemmas.

[i] Recent climate science shows we have already moved beyond mitigation and reversal of global warming. If you’re interested in this, I highly commend Rupert Read’s ‘Shed A Light’ talk to Cambridge students:

[ii] Floor markers are widely used in constellations work, mine are multi-coloured squares or circles (representing masculine and feminine aspects). Each marker has a small V-shaped notch to indicate a direction. Representatives stand on the markers and sense that part of the system they’re representing using all their ways of sensing.

[iii] I’m often systemically interested where there is strong emotion, or its opposite, lack of emotion and disassociation. They’re pointers to where there might be systemic patterns worthy of deeper exploration