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Beauty Unveiled: Prof. Peter Hawkins on the Power of Beauty to Thrive in Business, People, and Life.

Beauty Unveiled: Prof. Hawkins on the Power of Beauty to Thrive in Business, People, and Life.
Beauty Unveiled: Prof. Hawkins on the Power of Beauty to Thrive in Business, People, and Life.
“I perceive beauty as a force that awakens us to that which transcends us, that which unexpectedly comes knocking at our door ... Can we see beyond our self-concern, beyond the bottom line, beyond our goals and ambitions? ... What can you uniquely do that the world of tomorrow needs?” Prof. Peter Hawkins

Professor Peter Hawkins, renowned for his work in systemic coaching, presents beauty as a transformative force urging individuals and organizations to align with their core values for a sustainable and harmonious future. Advocating to move away from transactional leadership, Professor Hawkins calls for a model that recognizes each person's inherent beauty, fostering belonging and mutual respect.

Stephen Matini: How did you end up writing so many books?

Prof. Peter Hawkins: I began by drafting chapters for edited books, with people suggesting, "Hey, why don't you write a chapter on this topic or that?" Since then, each book I've written has stemmed from a genuine need for a fresh approach.

My first book focused on supervision, came from finding myself in a supervisory role and I realized there was a lack of clear guidance for supervisors. Each one seemed to have their methods. I thought, "We need something that consolidates this."

Then, delving into topics like coaching, systemic team coaching, and leadership, it was always because I reached a point where I couldn't find the resources I needed to continue learning. So, I ended up writing about it. 

Through writing, I not only articulate what I already know but also uncover what I have yet to learn. Writing is a delightful journey of discovery. I've always been drawn to integration and eager to bridge across different disciplines. Through writing, I'm able to weave together insights from diverse traditions.

SM: Can you elaborate on how your latest book, "The Beauty in Leadership and Coaching," synthesizes the various ingredients you've encountered throughout your journey as a prominent figure in coaching?

Prof. PH: My book seeks to place coaching, leadership, and organizational development within a larger context, where this context encompasses both evolution and epistemology, as well as spirituality and ecology.

Essentially, in the book, I am extensively examining the significant challenges that we face as a species. I'm asserting that fundamentally, they are all interconnected, and at their core, they are all symptoms of our inability to evolve human consciousness at a pace commensurate with the changes we've made to the Earth. Thus, I view beauty as an energetic force guiding us on the journey back from the contraction of our consciousness and our manner of interacting with the world, from participatory consciousness to collective consciousness, to individual cognitive consciousness which has become increasingly left brain dominated.

In the Western world, particularly in the American context, we have moved further away from embodied consciousness toward cerebral consciousness. Moreover, we have retreated even more deeply into the dominance of the left hemisphere. 

I perceive beauty as a force that awakens us to that which transcends us, that which unexpectedly comes knocking at our door. Therefore, the idea of following beauty serves as an awakening, leading us out of our left hemisphere and into our whole brain, integrating our brain with our hearts, guts, and embodied knowledge, thus reconnecting us to relationships.

SM: How does incorporating elements outside of business into your professional life impact your creativity? Could you elaborate on how figures like William Blake, Dante, and Rumi inspire your work?

Prof. PH: An organization exists because there's a purpose or something that needs to be done that requires collaboration. And that collaboration necessitates organizing. We could argue that business is a way of responding to what's needed and necessary, but it's turned into an end in itself.

The purpose of the organization has become sustaining the organization so it can benefit the shareholders. There’s something deeply flawed with that. We all have tasks to fulfill, but business should never become an end in itself, which is why in my books about teams, I also advocate against discussing high-performing teams. The objective isn't to become a successful organization or a high-performing team. Those are means to an end. And the end is to create beneficial value for all the people your work serves, trying to shift our focus from means to purpose is crucial. 

And we don't create our purpose; we discover it. I believe that individuals, as you mentioned, Dante, Rumi, William Blake, Shakespeare and like Wang Wei, the Great Tang Chinese poet—they delve into essence, they explore the heart of purpose, and they transcend the narrow, individualistic perspective of the modern Western world. They reconnect us. 

As Rumi says, "Why, in the vastness of God's universe, have you chosen to fall asleep in such a small, dark prison?" And beauty, if you will, is what holds the keys to unlock the prison.

SM: How do you navigate the process of allowing clients to embrace beauty during your interactions with them?

Prof. PH: I frame it differently; my job isn't to lead them into beauty. Instead, it's about discovering the beauty within them and in what they're doing, uncovering the beauty that already exists. It's about recognizing what's already there, rather than assuming I know where I need to lead them.

SM: How do you navigate situations where resistance to change impedes the organization's ability to tap into its purpose, soul, and beauty? Can you share strategies you employ when encountering resistance? 

Prof. PH: If a client says to me, "But what matters is the bottom line," I would respond, "So Stephen, what is the bottom line? Tell me about it." If they say, "Well, it's the amount of profit we make at the bottom of the page," I'd follow up with, "And what is the purpose of that profit?" Their response might be, "So we can reinvest." Then I'd inquire further, "And what's the purpose of reinvesting?" If they pause, stuck at the surface level, my role is simply to open the windows to what lies beyond that bottom line.

SM: With the latest book, what do you hope the readers will take away?

Prof. PH: I received an amazing email this morning from a beautiful black woman in America. She shared how just reading the first chapter, which I had used as a handout in the program, made her whole body shake and brought up so much for her. It inspired her to write a poem, which she sent to me. Honestly, it brought me to tears. I couldn't help but think that if more people had that reaction, it could open up so much for them in terms of what was buried within them, waiting to surface.

If I can assist people by simply opening a window to a broader perspective, I can help them see beyond our confinement and break free from some of the limitations. Because if it helps them, then they can in turn help others. 

If it helps the coaching profession transition from being an expensive personal development tool for the already highly privileged, and if it's not just about self-improvement but about responding to what the world is asking of us, then it can shift us from an individualistic self-focus to a focus on service. And not just service to humanity, but service to the greater-than-human world. In that case, I believe I will have fulfilled a small part of the purpose, of the work I've been called to do.

SM: How do you personally perceive the burden left by previous generations and its impact on the present?

Prof. PH: Our job is to fulfill the responsibilities of our generation and then pass the torch on. However, the reality is that my generation is leaving behind a much more depleted and challenged world than we inherited. That weighs heavily, not just on my shoulders, but in  all leaders and coaches.

What is our responsibility in terms of at least doing what we can, however little, to help the generations that come after us face the even bigger challenges ahead? 

I often spend a lot of time speaking to leaders about their major roles as leaders. For instance, I was in South Africa at a large gathering of MBA alumni from across Southern Africa. I began my talk after a very inspirational speech by a South African politician. I stood up and addressed the audience, saying, "Please stand up, all those responsible for developing the next generation of leaders in Southern Africa.”

Of the 400 people in the audience, about 50 stood up—they were the HR professionals. I reiterated my question, asking them to stand up if they were responsible for supporting the next generation of leadership across Southern Africa. It took three times to ask before everyone stood up. I then asked them to turn to the person next to them and inquire what they most needed to learn, to step up to that responsibility.

One phrase I often return to this: "What can you uniquely do that the world of tomorrow needs?" You shouldn't try to be anyone else because all other positions are already occupied. What is it that only you can do? Because nobody else occupies the same place in the interconnected universe that you do. There will never be another you. This is what excites me about writing this book—amidst billions of years of creation, each being, each child, is a unique and never-before-created miracle.

The line that came to me when I was writing the book is that creation is in love with becoming. So, it relates to your question about why I write books. I don't write books to tell people what I know. I write books to push myself to my learning edge and to uncover, between myself and the subject I'm writing about, what is striving to emerge into consciousness. That's why I write them.

SM: Can you recall a time when you struggled with feeling lost or uncertain about finding beauty within yourself or achieving your aspirations? If so, how did you navigate and overcome those feelings of doubt?

Prof. PH: At the end of writing this book, I thought, "But I haven't addressed what's truly needed." Then, I reminded myself that if I fixated on that, I'd never publish the book. 

My books on leadership team coaching and supervision have reached fifth and fourth editions. Sometimes, I find myself apologizing for what I wrote in the earlier editions because, at some point, we have to ask, "Is it enough? Is it good enough?" 

As they say, "All the way to heaven is heaven." We must accept that perfection isn't attainable and share our progress in the hope of aiding those behind us on the path, as well as those alongside us, to move forward.

Many of our doubts are merely ego contortions, leading us to question our worth or engage in internal chatter. To accomplish what we must, we need to acknowledge that these doubts don't truly matter. Doubt is essential as it prompts further inquiry. Certainty, on the other hand, can be more perilous than doubt. However, doubt becomes problematic when it fosters internal hesitancy and self-doubt. Instead of succumbing to this, we should focus on doing what is necessary and ours to do.

SM: How has your perspective shifted over time regarding the acceptance of discomfort and doubts as integral parts of the journey?

Prof. PH: You see, what helps me in moments of doubt, when weighed down by depression, is the realization that at that moment, I have a choice between grumbling or gratitude. While I can't always say I can hold to the path of treating everything that happens, absolutely everything, no matter how awful, as a generous lesson from life, I strive to. I may not like it, I may feel burdened by it, or inadequate to respond. But if it's viewed as a generous lesson from life, then it becomes both a gift and a responsibility.

SM: Could you elaborate on the practices you engage in for self-nourishment and gratitude, and how they contribute to your overall well-being?

Prof. PH: I believe it's about having a deep trust, not just in life, but in constantly evolving beyond my reliance on emotional reactions. I've come to believe that life knows better than I do. 

While I might think, "This shouldn't have happened to me," dwelling on that won't achieve anything. Life has decided; it's the next thing I have to deal with. It's a generous lesson. So, the choice I have is whether to see it as a generous lesson and learn from it or to view it as something awful that I'm a victim of. I do have a choice in how I perceive it.

SM: How do you interpret the implications of defining the opposite of beauty as "solipsistic narcissism" or “dualism"?

Prof. PH: Solipsistic narcissism is ugly because it fragments and divides us from that of which we are a part. The image that came to me just then was from Philip Pullman's novels, where everybody has an animal dæmon that is a part of them. 

In that novel they conduct experiments to separate children from their animal selves, which parallels what we've all done in the modernist Western world. Solipsism is ugly because it severs the connection we have with others, while great poetry, as we discussed, sews us back into connection. It opens the windows to a world beyond.

SM: How do you perceive the prevalence and impact of ugliness in today's hyper-connected world, given the constant exposure to negative information?

Prof. PH: I feel within myself that there's a growing openness, as we've been discussing. However, we need to balance it with the awareness that we live in a world where a smaller percentage of people are dying from wars and murder than probably ever before in human history. While the actual number may be greater, the percentages are lower. There are ways in which we have become more moral.

Yet, at the same time, over the last 500 years, the modernist revolution of science, secularism, individualism, colonization, capitalism, and the pursuit of control has led to significant moral ugliness. This has resulted in a world where we experience greater mental distress and disharmony than ever before. Despite being richer, more affluent, and more educated about the world, we are far less educated in terms of being connected within it.

SM: If a young professional approached you seeking guidance on coping with the overwhelming sense of ugliness and depression in the world, what practical steps would you recommend they take to navigate these challenges effectively?

Prof. PH: I have young people around that age come to volunteer on our small organic farm, and they come to stay with us. I suggest they go out and wander through the garden or the woodlands and just be open to whatever speaks to them. I encourage them to listen to the more-than-human world and let it be their teacher.

I advise them not to try to master everything. Instead, I inquire about who and what inspires them, and what they love in their lives, to reconnect them to their source and away from mere knowledge acquisition.

I humorously say that I have these young people come and stay with us because they bridge the gap between my children, who are all in their forties, and my grandchildren, who are between nine and 15. I simply enjoy conversing with young people in their twenties. Although I must admit, I also love chatting with two-year-olds or listening to them.

SM: How can we shift our focus from achievement-oriented goals to re-discovering the joys of play and embracing the love for our endeavors, regardless of professional outcomes?

Prof. PH: I was looking at the work that Steve March is doing with Aletheia coaching because I appreciate the way he discusses the difference between self-improvement and self-unfoldment. You know, with young people, we often ask them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" which is such an unhelpful question, and many don’t know. 

But it's about aligning with the sentiments you mentioned earlier. It is not about ambition unfolding,  it's about recognizing what within you is striving to blossom. Where do you sense life urging you to evolve beyond your current state? There are numerous ways to engage and assist unfoldment, rather than focusing solely on goals.

Instead of asking, "What do you want to achieve?"—a question that often leads to disappointment—how can we return to the joy of playing? 

When I ask children, aged nine or ten, what they want to be, the boys typically say they want to play in the Premiership as a footballer, and the girls might say they want to be a pop singer. 

We can almost guarantee that the majority of them won't achieve these aspirations. So, how can we rediscover the love of the game? Whether one ends up playing professionally or not is beside the point; what matters is the love for the craft.

SM: It’s about discovering, and enjoying the process?

Prof. PH: It's more than that. It's about loving the work. It's about loving not just the person you are coaching, but loving all the people that their work serves—their community and the world beyond them. It's about loving what manifests through all of that, which extends beyond the individuals. That's why I turn to beauty. It's about loving what radiates through the team, and the organization, which transcends the surface level.

SM: How do you reconcile the concept of beauty within the often hectic world we inhabit?

Prof. PH: In one part of the book, I quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." This ties up several themes we've discussed. Because of the ugliness of narcissistic solipsism. In the poem, the ancient mariner shoots the albatross—a beautiful bird that hangs around his neck—and as a result, all the other sailors die, one by one, from a plague.

They blame him for shooting the bird, and he is left alone, cursed, and weighed down in this solipsistic, narcissistic world. Then, he sees the sea snakes under the boat. There's a beautiful line where he describes their colors and the light on them, and he says, "And I blessed them unawares." He didn't choose to see their beauty. Their beauty suddenly breaks through his loneliness, and at that moment, the albatross falls from his neck. He is released from the small dark prison he had fallen asleep in. This prompts the question: Can we see beyond our self-concern, beyond the bottom line, beyond our goals and ambitions? To what purpose do they serve?

In another one of my books, I delve into the story of Sir Percival, who goes in search of the Holy Grail. When he first sees the magnificent grail procession, he wakes up in the morning in an empty field because he hadn't asked the right question. Years later, after many journeys, he returns and asks the question he needed to ask to remain there: "Who and what does the grail serve?" He learns to see that the beauty is not in the object itself.

I also recall a story about my oldest son when he was about seven or eight. He asked, "Daddy, why aren't we born knowing everything? Then we wouldn't have to go to school." I replied, "But Adam, if you knew everything, why would you bother to learn?"

SM: What did he say?

Prof. PH: I think he just looked at me slightly puzzled; he didn't quite know how to respond. But he went back to school, which is what we all have to do, isn't it? It is beautiful that we get it wrong? 

In my courses, I even encourage people to compete on who has the most quality failures, right? We can all learn from them. What a gift it is that we fail, over and over again, because our failures take us to our learning edge. As Rumi says, "Leadership is a poison unless we have the antidote in our hearts. I would add success is a poison unless we have the antidote in our hearts." 

SM: How do you perceive success, especially considering the collaborative nature of achievement?

Prof. PH: Success is one that I recognize doesn't belong to me. In one of my blogs, I discuss why we shouldn't talk about high-performing teams. 

I tell an imaginary story of how in 2021, Zoom top team is celebrating their achievements. They've experienced significant growth in customers, revenue, and what they perceive as the bottom line. They're all drinking champagne and patting themselves on the back when one team member suggests giving special recognition to the individual who has contributed the most. 

When asked who it is, she replies, "It's obvious: Coronavirus. She's the one who has made the biggest contribution to our success." I share this story to emphasize that success is always co-created.

Success, to me, is what my Sufi teacher used to say: "Make sure that when you die, your candle wax has all been burnt up. That's how you give light to the world." True success is giving yourself away completely by the time you leave this earth.

SM: What motivated you to choose coaching among all the possible tools and paths available to you?

Prof. PH: That's what came knocking on my door. Another way of answering that would be to say, I started with a love for literature, which evolved into a passion for drama, then theater, and eventually into an appreciation for the creative unfoldment inherent in the entire process and production. 

This journey led me to mental health and becoming a psychotherapist. Along the way, I began to realize that many mental health organizations were more disturbed than the people they were treating.

This realization sparked my interest in how to heal organizations, which then extended to how we, collectively, heal humanity and bridge the gap between the human and the more-than-human world. There's a continuous unfolding there. My real interest lies in the belief that neither coaching as we know it, nor executive coaching, nor consultancy are fully equipped for the challenges of the 21st century.

Having been privileged to be involved in leadership development, consultancy, coaching, and leading, I am constantly searching for what is needed beyond those realms. 

Coaching, for me, is about more than just helping individuals sort themselves out; it's about empowering them to make a greater beneficial impact on the world around them. This journey led me from psychotherapy to coaching, to team coaching, to systemic team coaching, and ultimately to providing support to organizations as they strive to transform and make a difference in the world. But it's all interconnected.

SM: Within our conversation, is there anything in particular that you would suggest readers to focus on?

Remember, we have one holy book we all share, which is all around us—the more-than-human world of wider nature. What I teach, or what any of my teachers teach, the more than the human world is trying to impart to us all the time, but we're not very good at listening or paying attention. 

Please take some time to go and walk in the hills, around lakes, and through the woods, but walk in a spirit of humility and let them teach you. See how beauty will surprise you.

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