Interview: Sofia Bustamante and Mamading Ceesay on London Creative Labs

Sofia Bustamante and Mamading Ceesay on community in practice

Thank you for taking the time to contribute to our Cultivating Flows project. I have been so impressed and inspired by your work with London Creative Labs, as well as your other endeavors. I am not the only one inspired. Sofia, from March 2010 to September 2011 you were one of 15 “London Leaders” selected by the London Sustainable Development Commission. You also won the People’s Vote at the Ogunte Women’s Social Leadership Awards 2013. I was honored to vote for you! And Mamading… I am not sure where we first met because I think you have shown up in so many different circles of mine over the last 6 years – alternative currency, community-supporting collaborative software, and social entrepreneurship.

Can you first share with us about London Creative Labs?

It began in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  After years of following the work of Nobel Prize-winning Banker for the Poor, Dr Muhammad Yunus the founder of Grameen Bank; Sofia met Dr. Yunus on a number of occasions and read his books on Microfinance and Social Business.  Sofia went on to undertake life-changing field visits to Bangladesh to see Grameen’s work on the ground and to interview key Grameen personnel.  Her aim was to see for herself if her direct experience matched the rhetoric. She found that it did, and observed that it had achieved its impact without mission drift since its founding over 40 years ago. Looking more closely she observed how Grameen’s principles were upheld through its practices. For example, contrary to many other micro-finance organisations, in the case of a borrower dying, the debt of that borrower is not passed onto the family. Since the organisational mission is to move people out of poverty, passing on the debt would likely go against the mission as it would plunge a newly vulnerable family into a likely unbreakable cycle of debt. They say the devil is in the detail. These kinds of practices reveal whether overall principles are being upheld or not.

Having gained a deeper understanding of the underlying community-oriented principles at work based on her own background as a highly experienced process designer and facilitator, Sofia was inspired to found London Creative Labs (LCL) in June 2009, an organisation that would use Social Business to systemically address poverty and other serious social problems she could see around her in London, one of the wealthiest and yet most socially divided cities in the world. Six months later, Mamading joined her full time on this journey while LCL was still just an idea.  We started adapting Sofia’s core idea to the reality of the structures (organisations and systems) on the ground, and began to develop a workable solution. Thus abiding by the wise words that Dr. Yunus gave Sofia at the beginning of her journey to “work with the existing structures”.

As a small unfunded startup, we saw urban poverty was rather too large a challenge for us to tackle, so we decided to focus more specifically on disadvantaged people living in social housing who are stuck in poverty due to persistent un(der)employment.  We believe that the traditional approach to getting people off welfare benefits and into work is fundamentally flawed. Due to the current economic environment as well as ongoing economic trends, the supply of job vacancies in the labour market simply cannot meet the demand of all job seekers who are looking for work. Furthermore, many people are excluded from work due to systemic issues often neglected by various traditional programmes.   Social Startup Labs were designed by LCL as a Grameen-inspired systemic intervention to poverty that both creates new opportunities for work through enterprise and uses that enterprise to address other barriers to employment.  The accompanying interventions, such as Skills Camps and Social Startup Incubator, are required to deliver a holistic solution to worklessness.

The ultimate aim of these activities is to create a community-powered ecosystem that stimulates the local economy to create work and reduce out-of-work poverty.  They are primarily targeted at the most deprived urban areas.


Maybe it is my own limiting beliefs, but my sense is that you are working in a community that may have limiting beliefs or self-imposed constraints, how do you transform that?

That is something we are still in the process of discovering!  It is true that these communities typically show many signs of self-imposed constraints. Mamading describes them as presenting both anti-economic and anti-social norms.

What we see these manifest as, is a lack of agency, both at an individual and a community level.

At an individual level, for example, Jason, 23, does not even go for an interview as he assumes he is not the sort of person sought despite an excellent skills match.  Jason also has no budgeting skills and gets into debt and is not able to hold steady eye contact in an interview.

At the level of community, lack of agency can be observed in our neighbourhood (Brixton, South London) by the low propensity for groups to self-organise and address common issues. There is scant active citizenry that brings out the collective agency and power of these communities. The local government was stuck in a paternal centralized governance model. To give a local example: as the property market inflates and financial support for social housing is cut, the cost of affordable housing goes up relatively. The rent arrears of social landlords sting harder. Swathes of people are being ousted out of their area through the propensity of Social Landlords to lose sight of their original raison d’etre, and convert existing stock into housing for the better off. Combined with the effect of austerity measure such as the highly questionable “bedroom tax” we have observed wholesale removal of housing estate tenants to other areas as the affordable housing disappears. Despite this adversely affecting these communities, there is little to no effective collective organising, resistance and/or collective negotiating to improve terms for those displaced. Typically there are town hall meetings set on the terms of the local council, where voices are raised and a few disgruntled activists “meet” the politicians. The orientation of this meeting is one of opposition (a clash) devoid of meaningful dialogue.


But, how to have a realistic assessment of the level of agency?

This was a real lesson for us – and where a lot of the learning in hindsight was – Having a model within which to assess the level of agency and deliver appropriate interventions.

What we have learnt is necessary, is:


  • A realistic developmental framework for communities.


  1. Working within this framework, articulation and dissemination of the skills that are needed to shift the culture to the next development stage.
  2. A clear lens through which to view the communities and assess them against the framework.


  • Leadership that is aware of its own blindspots. Ongoing Reflective Inquiry and calibration is key.


  1. To hold open this window of possibility until such a time that culture change has taken a life of its own.
  2. A clear change hypothesis. Much might be unknown, but there is always some articulation possible. The articulation should do justice to what IS known/suspected. Else system entrepreneurs will sell themselves short. A subjective and inter-subjective approach is needed to measure this impact, alongside the objective measurements.
  3. A design approach to measure impact that is brave enough to ask the difficult questions, and properly timed to capture the meaningful information and smart enough to catch leadership blind spots early on.
  4. A willingness to OWN one’s own results, according to one’s own change hypothesis. Due to cognitive dissonance, it is quite possible that ground-breaking work will remain invisible to the existing measurement frameworks. Despite empirical evidence of value, if it does not fit within the accounting books of local government or evaluation criteria of other agencies, it may well be missed out of other reporting processes. Hence – take ownership of one’s own results – in terms of documentation and reporting.
  5. Leading upwards – For example when we did our final report for our JP Morgan-funded initial programme, we took care to summarise our report so that it could be a learning experience for the sponsor organization. We hacked their reporting form so that there could be a transfer of learning upwards.
  6. An ecosystem facilitation approach, and consequently an ability to lead at Level 4+within the following leadership models, and facilitate the necessary partnerships (see below).
  7. Distributed Leadership (Skills). Peer coaching and training to disseminate these skills.

A realistic assessment of the level of agency

The need for collective and individual agency is, as mentioned, undeniable. We came across two very useful models that coincided and overlapped somewhat.


The Tribal Leadership model

Mindset – the overarching narrative of the inner dialogue of the person.

Level 1 – the world is dangerous. It’s f***ed. I have to fight to survive.

Level 2 – the world can be great for others. But not for me.

Level 3 – the world can be great for me. But I must hide my weaknesses and it’s a competitive world. I’m on my own. Somehow, no one is ready, willing or able to help me, so I can only rely on myself.

Level 4 – the world can be great for us – for our organisation/team/community. Let’s not get stuck in my or your individual agenda. There’s no I in team. It’s all about We not Me, the sum is greater than the parts and we can all get our needs met by working together.  (Zappos)

Level 5 – the world can be great for everyone (Nelson Mandela, Buckminster Fuller)

Please note that this is a very over-generalized summary of the model, please refer to Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan and Ron King for a full exposition.

Interestingly this scale matches another scale from a different domain – that of the Japanese martial art Aikido.


Isshinkai Aikido leadership model

Denis Burke, Founder of Isshinkai Aikido (and Sofia’s Aikido teacher) has laid out 6 levels in his recently published book, “Purpose & Practice”.  The 6 levels can be experienced on the mat when practicing this martial art and correspond to real world dynamics off the mat.

The levels are comparable to the Tribal Leadership model whose Levels 1 and 2 are paralleled by Level 1 of the Isshinkai Aikido model.  In this model we already see ‘agency” at Level 2. From Level 3 onwards, the models are pretty similar.


The Isshinkai Aikido leadership model:

Level 1 – “People are usually against me. I have to fight. The strongest wins. If the other is stronger, I collapse”

Level 2 – “I have agency – I can do things, despite others”

Level 3 – “I can flow with others – when they can help *my agenda*”

Level 4 – “What do we both want to create? How can I make an “aiki” (a connection) with my opponent/partner?”

Level 5 – “What do we all want to create?”

Level 6 – “Who do I need to be, to manifest my vision for humanity?”

The above are Sofia’s interpretations of the Levels. They are fully articulated in Purpose & Practice as referenced above.

Tribal Leadership Aikido
Level 1 Level 1
Level 2 Level 1
Level 3 Level 2
Level 3 Level 3
Level 4 Level 4
Level 5 Level 5
Level 6


What is interesting is that in the Isshinkai Aikido model, the intervention only becomes co-creative at Level 4 and above. It makes a huge difference to the experience of the forms, and in what becomes possible. This matches the Tribal Leadership model. It is only at Level 4 that the consciousness moves beyond its own individual ego-driven agenda. In both systems, there is a turning point at Level 4.

We prefer the Isshinkai Aikido model as it gives some very important distinctions between Level 4, 5 and 6.

It is vital to understand the development stage of the community as accurately as possible. It will not work to speak with a group of participants who are mostly at Level 2 in the tribal model, which is Level 1 in the Isshinkai model, about what they can do to change their neighbourhood, without first addressing their perception of their own ability. I.e their confidence.  They may dream of it in their hearts deep down, but the dreams will not be very active on the surface, and there will be little confidence to actualise it – because they are still operating in mostly “fight or flight” mode when they see challenges and will tend to collapse if they don’t get their way, which depletes confidence. It would be more effective to help them to raise their confidence about their own ability to make things happen first. What is essential in this case is to see people as having the POTENTIAL for agency, and helping them further along the developmental scale into EXERCISING agency. This means moving from Level 2 to Level 3 in the Tribal Leadership model and from Level 1 to Level 2 in the Isshinkai Aikido model.


Having a clear lens

(Please see Appendix B for a section on The Value of Embodied Leadership on Having a Clear Lens)

As listed above, what we believe to be critical, in any intervention, is the lens one uses to view those communities. Seeing disadvantaged people not as having deficits and being without agency but seeing them as assets and having agency (or potential for agency). We like the re-frame from disadvantaged communities to “communities of untapped potential”, the latter term as coined by Martin Murphy.  This is built into our change hypothesis which is described in the next section.

Having a clear lens through which one views reality will enable one to accurately assess the potential for change more easily. It is through holding on to the possibility of this potential, that one does not fall into the trap of premature conclusions, thus reinforcing the self-imposed limitations of individuals, groups and communities..

One example of how this can play out in practice is in the choice of narrative when engaging with such groups. The question posed “What is possible for us to do together?” – allowing that answer to be addressed by the group. First helping the group to access a positive state of mind, and then offering such a question, assumes within the question, an ability to respond.

If the lens is not one which holds them as powerful; having the potential for agency, then the choice of how to help those groups becomes necessarily more paternal/maternal.

The difference will also be seen when people “act out” or “act in”, and how the intervenor responds then.. It is possible to say two sentences, with exactly the same words in them, and yet for them to be delivered with very different assumptions.

For example, at a point when a participant, Serena (36), was about to give up on the programme, one of our team took her aside and told her quite directly that this was an opportunity that she simply could not let pass her by. My team member took a strong role and staked a claim that she would not see such an opportunity as this one and that it was time that she did herself justice.  Tough, un-neutral words, but they were said with a lot of caring, and with an assumption that she was capable – that it was simply her choice. He did not judge her pain or belittle it. But he staked a claim. When she came to me, I was also direct, and also withheld all judgement. She shared that although she saw the benefit of the application of tools, she still found little motivation to apply them to the very situation she was in, of wanting to walk out. I told her that often I would only apply certain tools when the pain was big enough. I said that I thought that the pain was not yet big enough. She agreed. In our team we share notes, did what we believed to be right, albeit slightly different from team member to team member, what was held sacred was the quality of the relationship and our non-judgement of their potential.

We cannot ultimately say for certain what made the difference but the next week Serena returned and stayed late to finish all the fieldwork. She proceeded to complete the course. There were tears of joy at the end. It was very moving for all of us involved. Incidentally, on her registration, she shed tears at the possibility that she might be able to make a life for herself based on what she cared for. We saw this as her memory connecting with a future she had up to that point forgotten. That future unleashed emotion and she got a sense of what was to come. The course lived up to the level of challenges she expected! She floundered mid-way, (all the participants did, without exception). How we held the possibility for them at that juncture was crucial. How we responded would have enormous influence. It was vital that we as leaders, do the work necessary to keep our lens as clean as possible so that we can maintain the quality of relationship and the potential field of transformation available to individuals and groups.

The ability to hold the window open for enough time so that a new culture can take hold – this is a key skillset.


Our Change Hypothesis

Social Startup Labs were designed to bring the whole system in the room and facilitate bigger picture awareness for the whole community, while directing fresh (newly unleashed) energy to use hidden, overlooked, underused assets to address unmet needs using an enterprising approach that generates Social Startups that can create employment.

For example, if a community becomes aware of a need for affordable childcare, then it could be possible for a new venture to be launched that makes use of the spare time that mothers have, who are already qualified in childcare. That venture could be a business or not-for-profit, depending on what was deemed most appropriate.

The Social Startup Incubator would pick up from where Social Startup Labs left off, taking the ideas generated and the teams formed, giving them the support to make the ventures a reality. However, we faced a conundrum: even if we did bring some of the disadvantaged groups of the local community into this process, how would we ensure that their participation was meaningful?

Thus the need for a third intervention – Skills Camps.

Our aim with Skills Camps was to design an intervention that enabled disadvantaged people to show up and feel equal to a Harvard Graduate, albeit with different strengths, by unearthing both their inherent skills and building on their existing healthy programming. This in itself was quite audacious. The target audience for this were people that the local branch of the government-run employment agency had all but given up on.  This was tough work. We knew that no two people would begin at the same place. We were prepared to do whatever it took to ensure that that we broke the norm in terms of dynamics of marginalized group participation in the whole-systems work in the local area. I am thrilled to say that we succeeded in this aim.

Please say some more about the Social Startup Labs? Where did this idea come from? How has it played out?

Organically grown startups are the net creators of new employment according to research by the Kauffman Foundation. Typically such startups are founded by well-educated, well-connected middle-class people, who in turn tend to recruit and cater to people like themselves.  A new approach is needed to serve disadvantaged people who are typically excluded from the networks and ecosystems surrounding startups.

Essentially, Social Startup Labs are about enabling a local community to become more aware of the assets they have, the unmet needs and the inherent opportunities. By being aware of this bigger picture, any actions inspired from this to create ventures, will be “IN-FORMED” by this bigger picture. “For a system to be conscious it needs to be connected to itself”. (Fritjof Capra). Social Startup Labs was designed on this premise to be a space for the community to generate local enterprises that in turn can generate employment for local people.

But, who is the community and who states what the unmet needs are, and from where are the assets inferred? The people who make up the Social Startup Lab will define these variables. So we realised, we had to do something to overcome the probability that disadvantaged, socially excluded groups will not show up to or fully participate in the Social Startup Labs as is typically the case. This is why we came up with the Skills Camps. Once people had understood their own ability to contribute, and were able to own it, they were more likely to participate at the Social Startup Labs in an entirely different way. This is meaningful participation.


Social Startup Labs as Skills Disseminators – for community building

Social Startup Labs workshops guide a diverse range of local participants, including Skills Camp attendees and disadvantaged residents, to form Social Startups that offer products and services to address market opportunities around them. The act of spotting them, with others in the community is part of the process of teaching the community the composite skills of community agency.

  • Seeing systems,
  • Connecting systems
  • Owning their own data
  • Identifying opportunities
  • Taking opportunities from idea to reality (incubation)
  • Linking social capital
  • Bridging social capital
  • Increasing economic complexity (particularly attractive to the local council – who stated they wanted to replicate our model 1000 times over)
  • Leading networks

Some of these skills begin to overlap into the domain of Facilitative Leadership:

Facilitative Leadership skills would enable people to:

  • Lead human systems
  • Learn how to work with, and not try to control, chaos
  • Learn how to create order but veer away from control
  • Learn how to design human interventions
  • Learn how to harvest human gatherings so as to create community memory
  • Learn how to be mindful of the intervenor’s own influence


What happened at the Social Startup Labs

The Social Startup Labs took off with a bang. It was incredible, above all, to watch people handle, physically, their own data.  To see with them, meaning emerge from the data they contributed. To observe opportunities emerge in their midst.  Finally to see how much untapped passion and responsibility there is within their communities to make things happen. Teams formed and people had the sense that they had connected with their area in an entirely new way. The whole system was in the room and the teams that emerged all crossed demographic divides which was one of the key objectives of the Labs design.


How Skills Camps ensure a holistic intervention

The Social Startup Incubator would pick up from where Social Startup Labs left off. However, we faced a conundrum: even if we did bring some of the disadvantaged groups of the local community into this process, how would we ensure that their participation was meaningful?

Thus the need for a third intervention – Skills Camps.

Formally, Skills Camps help hard to reach unemployed disadvantaged residents become market-ready.  How Skills Camp accomplish this is through specially designed career coaching courses that build confidence, interpersonal skills and help identify transferable skills that enable people who have difficulty getting employment to understand their distinctive offer in the labour market.


Poverty as an inability to give

Poverty can be defined as an inability to give. From day one, we get the participants to start coaching each other in and out of the sessions.  This enables them to start experiencing themselves as givers with skills, thus undermining the limiting beliefs and self-imposed constraints they are often suffering from.  They develop the capacity to coach themselves and others.

One of our participants – Owen, after a coaching session had an experience that changed him. He saw for the first time that he could help another person in the deep way that he too wanted to be helped. He was thrilled and I remember his attempt to articulate what he felt. He had a very strong sense of who he was after that and moved forward with much more confidence.

This is where we help people understand what they have to offer and build their confidence and communication skills – so that they own their own contribution. We also wanted to help people make use of their best resource – each other. In “Social Intelligence”, Daniel Goleman says that “We create each other” in how we see each other. Our intention was, through our intervention, to unlock the skills to bring out the natural talents of each other. We would start with what people already had.

Even a nobody is a somebody! Often those who think they have nothing to offer, are sitting on a goldmine of skills, character traits, and life experience. Many of the unemployed mothers had a host of resource-management skills that they were entirely unaware of. They had not seen them as management skills. Many people had skills such as critical thinking, which they had only used in a negative light and simply understood themselves to be cynics and to have given up. They simply needed to extract the skill in order to be able to view it.

With Skills Camps, we were able to address these points and more.


Typical Mindsets (limited beliefs) of Individuals encountered at Skills Camps


  • “there are set roles for me”
  • “I have nothing to give”
  • “I do not have influence”
  • “I cannot challenge anything.”
  • “Things are against ‘people like me’.”
  • “I am not worth anything”
  • “No one I am close to has ‘made it’”
  • “I can only barely look after myself. I couldn’t possibly look after wider community interests”
  • “People cannot be trusted. Eat or be eaten or avoid new people”
  • “I cannot cope so to avoid explicit failure, I will sabotage by acting out or acting in”
  • “Institutions are not there to help me”
  • “Life is hard”
  • “I am poor”



Limitations of Agencies working with these marginalized groups

With agencies that worked with individuals from marginalized groups, we found the following:

  • Little personalization of the services
  • No ability to do any effective career coaching
  • Little interest in raw talent
  • Lack of understanding of relevance of raw talent
  • Lack of understanding of how talent and enthusiasm are linked
  • Low expectations of achievement
  • Not understanding the importance of a sense of agency and the need to cultivate it

We heard mostly negative reports of the relationships that most institutions seemed to build with these individuals. It smacked of the presence of a filter through which those individuals are viewed. A filter that categorised them as being beyond help & perhaps not being deserving of help. They seemed often to coerce individuals into roles that made no sense whatsoever with respect to building an empowered and sustainable workforce. For an example, rather than encouraging Mariela, a 35 year old Spanish immigrant worker to continue to volunteer on a community development organisation local to her and acquire skills and experience aligned with her previous career and future professional aspirations, the local employment agency stated that she was expected to travel halfway across the city to gain (unpaid) work experience in office cleaning. We were often left wondering what the decision criteria were and who benefited from such decisions. We wanted to assume that these poor decisions were benign and arose through lack of skill and awareness of the potent effect of the lenses that we view others with.


What to do in the face of such hardened perspectives?

Our aim: prove that these groups of people are not beyond redemption – break assumptions made by local institutions through changing the reality on the ground. All of our work was about planting seeds for long-term changes.

In this sense, we wanted to change the system, but not at the expense of any individuals along the way, and also not at the expense of short-term gains. Our intervention had to be useful now and also laying the seeds for changing the game in the future.


Tracking Our results with Skills Camps

To measure our results we used the Young Foundation Framework of Outcomes:

  • Hard Changes (External change in job or training in skills necessary to enter desired job): 73%
  • Soft External Changes (Attendance at interview where none previous, applications made to jobs where none previous): 93%
  • Soft Internal Changes (Improved self-esteem, aspirations and self confidence): 95%

What delighted us the most however was that our change hypothesis passed our test!

25% of Social Startup Labs participants were Skills Camps graduates. And what is more, their participation was exemplary. This is significant as these are hard results in terms of creating a more inclusive economy.


In plain English, people who would normally turn up and participate very meagerly, thus compounding their existing social exclusion showed up as full contributors.


Breaking Through

We broke through many limiting beliefs, as participants moved from Level 2 to Level 3 in the Tribal Leadership model. (And Level 1 to Level 2 in the Isshinkai model)

However, In terms of breaking through limiting beliefs and self-imposed constraints, we found room for improvement in all areas:

  • By participants towards themselves
  • By local agencies towards participants and vice versa
  • By ourselves towards the participants and vice versa
  • By ourselves towards ourselves
  • By ourselves towards the agencies and vice versa

The danger is always to get stuck – in perspectives towards the different actors in this system. But by knowing this, we can take care to monitor these perspectives.


Skill Disseminations And Applications

In all of our interventions the aim was to disseminate skills: articulating them, modeling their implementation and training others to use them. Those skills were applied just as much towards ourselves as to the participants.


Owning Our Own Results

We took a multi-pronged approach:

  • Telling – Putting a stake in the ground. Letting people know our intentions to change something. Not expecting that they would believe us. (For example, to the local politicians.) This was so that, later down the line, we could reference this intention.
  • Showing – By doing it anyway, regardless of other’s opinions, and without friction.
  • Inviting – People to participate by maintaining openness in how we operated. (We invited local politicians to witness the awards ceremony and within that ceremony we carefully articulated the achievements as a means by which to shift the lens through which these groups are viewed)

The Doing was the level at which the breaking of limiting perspectives was the most critical. I remember a quote from a modern day explorer Robert Swann. “When you do what you say you are going to do, people listen to what you say in a completely different way”. By changing the facts on the ground, we would open a possibility for people to get interested in our work.


Social Proof

This did pay dividends. We ended up receiving an invitation from the local authority, to train their staff on the principles underneath our methods. In the end we did not pursue this, for different reasons. But it was heartening to know that what we had done had raised eyebrows, broken through assumptions.


Distributed Leadership

In the section below we are articulate work needed to cultivate community. What we believe very strongly is that the distribution of this leadership will happen person to person, through new methods of working that are dissected, and thereby reveal new sets of skills, practices and models that people can learn to apply themselves.


Grounding this work on our local example:

Limitations from individuals towards cultivating community with each other

We found that there was initially very little interest or willingness to contribute to community building with in that group, even if (we assumed) it would seem to serve them to do so. They might see that logically, but their emotional experience was fraught with bad experiences. One participant even took us aside on the very first day to “warn us” that there was a lot of diversity in the room and that we woud need to take this into account, to ensure there was respect for all concerned. There was no suggestion of how, it was said with a cautionary tone and with an assumption that we would enforce rules. We noticed how quickly misunderstanding turned to huge levels of distrust towards others. A common presenting issue was the perception of how seriously people were taking the coursework. Since those who were convinced of the worth of the course depended on others in order to complete their coursework, situations often became fraught with tension over breakdowns in agreements, and what we noticed was the lack of skills in addressing these misunderstandings and again, how quickly situations became entrenched.

In hindsight, we can understand this given the Tribal Leadership model (see sidenote). In a sense, people showed up on average at a low Level 2 on the Tribal Leadership scale.

We turned this situation around by:

  • Systematically addressing typical core limiting beliefs (using tools to address them directly).
  • Encouraging participants to *immediately* trial the skills that build community, one by one.
  • Enabling them to benefit immediately from the consequences. (pre-framing their experiences – especially in terms of giving and receiving… so that they were more mindful of those benefits. This was part of teaching an appreciative rather than critical mindset. We outlined the difference between criticism and discernment.)

Although the intervention was focused on employment, we never saw the participants as solely looking to improve their work situation. They were always whole people, and we helped them to become aware of their whole lives, within which work fitted.

Our work was labour intensive. We believe that when one is addressing a community that is to all effects, burnt out and harboring much anger and resentment and despair under a thin veneer of depression, the social investment has to be loaded up front. Once the skills are disseminated in the group and embedded amongst key seeds, then generative effects begin to appear. Our hope was that the benefits would seep into people’s families first and foremost.

We did not skimp on that initial 1-1 investment. We worked to support them one by one, to engage and to reach out to others so that they could complete the peer-support work that was built into the course.

We reiterated time and again about the benefits of reciprocity.

Much research has been done about the importance of the relationship between service provider and recipient. We were insistent on prioritization of the quality of those relationships. Each of the LCL team members was chosen for the ability to empathize and create relationship. This too paid off dividends. Our team grew to 7 and all of those 7 are still in touch with different participants from the course through their own volition.

Our messages were consistent:

  • If you can only relate to others by whether you are above or below them, then you are caught in power dynamics. How about we are equal, but with different strengths and weaknesses?
  • If you are better at some things, then don’t complain that you are held back by those around you – prove this by helping someone else, since these are the skills we are practicing!
  • If you feel intimidated by others, then practice asking for help, and for everyone – learn to say an honest “no”.
  • A rising tide lifts all boats.
  • How you do anything is how you do everything.

The Skills Camp course consisted of several tools that we chose for this work. One of the key tools was The Work of Byron Katie (aka The Work). It was a risk to teach this tool – I had not done it before and it seemed culturally very distant. My own team mates were nervous about it. But we took the leap – adapted it and the rewards for all were immediate. It was the highest rated session of all the modules that we ran, with module scores of 10/10 by the participants. Participants had direct experiences of completely turning around worldviews and judgements of others that they had lived with nearly all of their lives. Incredibly ground-breaking work that led to many stories of situations that participants had turned around for themselves.


The Personal Leadership Revolution that can empower Peer-to-Peer systems

We believe that the core skill in The Work – suspending judgement – is a key skill for conflict resolution – and thereby one of the key democracy building skills as outlined by Frances Moore Lappe in “Getting a Grip”.

This, combined with reflective inquiry was woven through many aspects of the course.  Few of our own peers are aware of The Work of Byron Katie. So we felt very gratified that we were able to share it with this community.

In Skills Camps, we also wanted to begin to equip people to be part of the new emergent landscape of work. So we introduced a host of new skills that we felt were missing from the literature that advises people on skills for the workplace, to help them be aware of the changing landscape of the workplace.

The “Personal Leadership” skillset that we identified consisted of:

  • Sense-making – Reflect, absorb and assess reality
  • Visioning – Seeing with all senses, a future scenario
  • Taking initiative – Taking a risk for a vision
  • Critical Thinking – Reasoning, weighing consequences
  • Systems Thinking – Seeing systems and perspectives
  • Managing change – Adapting constructively to changes
  • Bridging – Seeing the connectedness of different systems
  • Political Awareness – Seeing power dynamics in organisations
  • Relationship Building
  • Pattern Recognition – Seeing patterns in people, things
  • Aligning – Finding a place for oneself within a system (organisation, community)
  • Teamworking – Helping to create a better team dynamic
  • Followership – Ability to work with a leader to achieve goals (without collapsing my own sense of self & integrity)
  • Sharpening the saw – Keep recreating, developing myself
  • Self-awareness – Recognising thoughts and emotions and how they affect my actions
  • Self-motivation – Doing what I need to do
  • Persistence – Coming back again and again to my goal
  • Focus – Ability to put attention on the goal
  • Deliberation – Ability to pause for thought vs a knee-jerk response


Where does Skills Camp end and where does other support begin?

There is a model within Tribal Leadership, of levels of leadership in the community, or levels of agency. With reference to this model – Our work with Skills Camps enabled us to shift people from Level 2 to Level 3.

In order to move into Level 4, we would need to go to the next level in activating an ecosystem of support in the area. This, we began to do with our Facilitative Leadership Programme. Facilitative Leadership training is about encouraging those people who are tending towards or strongly in Level 4. This would gather those who are more likely to be interested in whole systems change. By encouraging activity at this level, it would provide a feeding ground for those at other levels of leadership, in which to gather and pour their energies into collaborative activities.

To create a sustainable platform for Level 4 leadership, it would require other partners to come on board. This tested our own leadership capacity and in all honesty, required us to step back in order to develop more of Level 4 leadership within ourselves.

In summary – we achieved Phase 1. Moving people that have little agency towards a situation where they have some. From low Level 2, to Level 3.


I am not aware of your funding model. Are you bootstrapping? How are you making the financial flows work to keep doing this work?

Our Social Business model proposition was to sell “paying tenants” to Social Housing Organisations as a revenue protection measure in the face of changes to the welfare system which have drastically increased the financial risks that they are exposed to.

And to a lesser extent, to sell new taxpayers to government.  As we completed our proof of concept programme, we were in talks with Metropolitan Housing – a leading Social Landlord with a strong local presence and thus a stakeholder with local assets.


Bootstrapping Phase 1.

We are happy how we bootstrapped this phase:

We’ve been able bootstrap the entire proof of concept phase through a mix of paid community facilitation/consultation gigs, philanthropic donations, grant funding, credit card debt, peer funding, loans from family and friends as well as the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.

Under the British flagship Work Programme, government welfare-to-work contracts are poorly suited to keeping small third sector players financially viable and enabled to deliver.  We have worked on designing an innovative sustainable funding model for what we do, but it requires scale and support from the appropriate players in the localities we work in, most notably social landlords who are in the business of providing public housing (in the UK, these are typically housing associations and local authorities) also the engagement of social investors. As our own leadership moves to more consistently operate at Level 4, we will ourselves be better prepared to facilitate the necessary partnerships.


How have you designed the ecosystem to continue to expand value?

What we have designed are generative systems. Incidentally we do like the word system entrepreneurs, as this goes beyond social entrepreneurship. We could not say what kind of venture would emerge, or how people would ultimately develop, but we knew that they would develop and that ventures would emerge! And they did.

We have striven to be open about our methods, always harvesting our events online for all to see, and with references to the training and research material behind it.

We have aimed to leave the system better connected to itself. Since we bridged social capital – networks that would never have met have coincided and a plethora of new connections formed. Worldviews adjusted as people crossed demographic divides. We aimed to increase the economic complexity of the area.

Since this is a place-based intervention, the participants are within ongoing reach of each other and have funneled into each others activities without our further intervention or support.

We made strong contributions to the thinking of the local council  – introducing the notions behind Facilitative Leadership at many levels, even persuading the local authority to entertain the notion of government as facilitator rather than leader and service provider.  We are slowly introducing the notion of generative interventions.

We look back and see an area that has changed since we began our work here. We cannot lay claim to all of it, or even a specific part of it. But we see our footprints everywhere.

A next level iteration of this work would involve partners that help us to:

  • deal with the next level of human potential blocks – pathologies, addictions veering into the grey area of healing/mental health work
  • addressed more of the practical recruitment needs, the more mundane aspects of employment solutions
  • create more apprentices and opportunities for work placements that fed into the local business ecosystem
  • Create more partnerships with commercial organisations – tailoring Social Startup Labs technology to their needs
  • Create even more links with the Maker communities
  • Build on our recent forays into the tech/game world to create opportunities for young people to enter this domain
  • Take the Facilitative Leadership work to the next level. So as to seed the area with Level 4 Leadership and ensure that others are ready, willing and able to nurture the ecosystem we’ve initiated.
  • Bring in resources to support the resulting Social Startups.


Personal Assessment

An interesting point to note – is that we feel we were operating at Level 4 in our leadership, this is of course a subjective viewpoint. Although we have been commended by the way we led, we are aware that there was room for development in our leadership. Part of the work since has been in uncovering our own leadership blind spots. We have actively gone in search of them. I (Sofia) speak for myself. I can see where I have sometimes been at all of the levels in this continuum. Though this came from a Level 5 initial intention, I am human and my leadership has certainly been challenged by this process. I do believe that if I had exerted more influence in some points and less in others, I would have at times made better decisions. Of course it’s easier in hindsight to say this, but deep down, I know that I was not always operating at Level 4.


Always Learning!

In any case, building on our strengths and identifying our weaknesses will be the subject of our next project!


Walking our talk, Sustainable change.

We believe that change making must not leave the change maker burnt out as is often the case!  We have identified gaps in the landscape for supporting system entrepreneurs. And we have also identified gaps in our inner landscape that we are actively working to fill. This may seem removed from focusing on social interventions but what we believe is that the inner domain of leadership and the outer domain of social flows is inextricably linked, as Jean writes in Thrivability.

“The quality of the intervention depends on the internal state of the intervener.” –Bill O’Brien.


Applied Mindfulness

Ultimately Mindfulness, now a growing buzzword in personal development, should be applied in our interventions and in our projects. This takes a very advanced skillset! But it should not deter us. It is one thing to become mindful during one’s daily meditation, but quite another to maintain this mindful state during a meeting where there is a lot at stake.

The social flows that arise from practitioners whose blind spots have been much reduced will have necessarily fewer conflicts that thwart the achievement of the full potential of their intervention. It is generally assumed that politics (small p) will usually thwart one’s best intentions. Most of us however, have had an experience of a project that went ahead with little of the common turf wars that arise in the world of work. And the third sector is no exception.


At the Foot of the Mountain

Yet these experiences are often difficult to replicate. We believe that greater levels of proficiency in these skills will render more projects in the template of those utopian projects that are usually filed in “mysteriously seamless teamworking”.

Yes this might seem like a utopia given the low expectations and common group dynamics (See Clay Shirky’s Etech 2003 talk A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy), but we think that necessity breeds invention… that this is the domain of new levels of generative interventions and that it is the next edge.



A – Case studies for Skills Camps

B – The Value of Embodied Leadership


Appendix A – Case studies for Skills Camps

Case Study: Cheryl*

Cheryl is a Black British resident of Brixton and is a lone parent, aged between 45 and 54. On joining the Skills Camp, Cheryl was unemployed for over a decade, trying to find a career path, and looking for work. She heard about the Skills Camp via a letter through her door, as well at the Job Centre, and decided to sign up as she felt she needed help with her confidence and a push to move forward. Cheryl’s last job had been as a Saturday school tutor and she had ambitions to become an art teacher or school counsellor, however she rated her confidence of achieving her ambitions as 3.5 out of 10. Cheryl was particularly attracted to the coaching element of the course as she felt it was aligned with her interests in counselling.

Cheryl had a high level of satisfaction with all elements of the course and said that she ‘loved’ learning new coaching skills and would refer others to the Skills Camps, including young people. She described the work on transferable skills as ‘very enlightening’ and commented that:

“I have more experience than I thought. I don’t give myself much credit….I know that I can apply for more jobs than I thought I could.”

At the end of the Skills Camp, Cheryl rated her confidence of achieving her goals as 8 out of 10 and she felt that she had come a lot further than she thought she would in terms of her own personal development.

As a result of the Skills Camp, Cheryl changed her views about the possibility of finding employment, and has gone on a work placement that she didn’t think she would get as it was a management job. The Skills Camp also helped Cheryl to become more resilient in the face of setbacks and she feels that she is more likely to persist in her job search until she finds what’s right for her. As she said:

“Every day is a new day.”

Cheryl has since been employed in a school as an art support assistant working with disadvantaged children.

*Name changed for purposes of anonymity


Case study: Jane*

Jane lives in Clapham and is aged between 25-34. Jane is unemployed, and participating in training. She describes her ethnicity as ‘White Other’. Jane’s last employment was in an Educational Foundation in Chile, and she is looking for a job in which she can use her professional and personal skills. Jane found out about the Skills Camp through a leaflet in a local organisation and signed up because she wanted to feel more confident about her professional and personal skills as well as meet other people in a similar position.

Jane feels very positively about her experience on the Skills Camp, and particularly appreciated the opportunity to develop a new skill set in coaching. In fact she identifies her greatest achievement on the Skills Camps as:

“Having been able to coach someone and really feel that I did meaningful work for them and I could help them.”

She also appreciated the opportunity to widen her social circle and has exited the Skills Camp feeling ‘more empowered’ as a result of her new coaching knowledge and experience.

On joining the Skills Camps, Jane was clear about her career goals but was lacking in confidence about how to achieve them. The Skills Camp has given her this confidence.

“Now I feel I have a better knowledge of my skills and I can see different ways to develop my career…I still have the same goals, but I know better how I can reach them.”

Jane has applied for voluntary roles whilst participating in the Skills Camp, and has been inspired to start a career in career coaching and relationship coaching.

Finally, the Skills Camp has given Jane more confidence in finding meaningful employment:

“Now I believe that I can find the kind of work I want and dream of.”

Jane is now employed in a charity (UK equivalent of a non-profit) working with homeless people.

*Name changed for purposes of anonymity


Case study: Diana*

Diana is an African mother of two children who has successfully completed Skills Camp gaining life coaching skills with an emphasis on career coaching.  We found her to be a very positive person full of good will and enthusiasm.She is an example of a Skills Camp graduate who went on to apply the skills in a different context, reaching people that we aren’t.  She has started a project that delivers basic, flexible IT training aimed mainly at over 50s who are socially isolated, lacking basic computer & internet skills.

Besides skilling up older people, the intention is to increase their wellbeing through more one to one contact.  There is an emphasis on creating a convivial space where they can meet new people & orientate themselves for older age as they get more free time & to find work that fits their lifestyle.The learning is informal & unpressured, allowing participants to build their confidence in using the technology over time.  This is being delivered as a weekly session in a part of Brixton where people are often lacking support and services.

With support from London Creative Labs, Diana was able to obtain the funding to get her project off the ground.  Her team includes another Skills Camps graduate and she continues to be supported by London Creative Labs in developing her project further.  She originally intended and has since demonstrated that she can inspire her participants that even at their age, they can still learn, achieve & contribute to society.

*Name changed for anonymity

Appendix B –  The value of Embodied Leadership for accelerating the clarity of one’s lens.

Interestingly, in terms of developing a clear lens – direct perception – to observe reality as is;  a dojo is one place in which this skill can be trained. The degree of ability to perform a movement on the training mat can always reveal where the mind is and what assumptions are at work. This physical training ground has the advantage that feedback on one’s assumptions are immediate! For example, If one is overextending in a movement (and hence unstable), it will reflect the propensity of one’s mind to overextend and perhaps one will observe areas in one’s work where one is overextending in an unsustainable manner. Or If one tries to short-cut a technique through the use of brute force, it will backfire immediately. This can reveal areas in one’s life where one might tend to force issues. Author Denis Burke has given a lot of attention to the fine-tuning of this ability through the practice of aikido.


The Value of Embodied Leadership

In this world, where there is so much abstraction and delusion, disembodied leadership is potentially dangerous.  The body learns at a different rate to the mind, but its learning is more holistic and must be included in any leadership training.

In the workplace (and in life in general) we experience many different kinds of pressures. We need all of our faculties to be present to be able to meet that pressure with the best of who we are. This means not leaving the body out of the picture.

Someone recently reflected on the need for some kind of calibration system for leadership and that it didn’t seem to exist.

Actually, we believe that it is worth looking at the martial arts system of human development.  It is a calibrated training ground for development that includes the body, and mind, and can include impact on wider society. In aikido, after the 3rd degree black belt, higher degrees are achieved by one’s impact beyond the dojo. But by that time, the calibration system that ensures integrity between the mind and body has ensured a high degree of fine-tuning of personal leadership.

Aikido was developed as a “practice of peace”. The training is never to attack first. Attacking first separates and this is parallel to the notion of creating a “them and us” mentality. Many people subscribe to this philosophy, and do so with good intentions.

But in reality to live this philosophy takes a lot of discipline.

In martial arts, tt first the student learns to re-train reactions under gentle conditions. Little by little the pressure is raised. We are taught that you cannot say that you “know” a move unless you can perform it under any condition, any pressure, anywhere. Very soon, one realises that one cannot progress on the mat until one lets go of certain assumptions of the mind. Each form that is learnt is like a fractal. The same twenty or so moves are practiced for decades. At first there is a low-resolution understanding of what makes the move work. Several decades later there will be a much higher resolution understanding, as the training has happened along multiple dimensions. And this should be reflected in the person’s conduct outside the dojo.

Taking this concept into the workplace, imagine the training needed to protect one’s principles without the use of force, in any situation anywhere in the world. Imagine the kind of leadership possible then; our leaders being able to stay at Level 6 in their leadership, no matter how high the pressure, when sitting in small rooms negotiating with other powerful influences, in the corridors of power.

Hence the value of training until these character traits become the natural way to respond. And we need a training ground that allows us to observe immediate feedback, as Denis Burke says.

Much of what we need to change lies in our subconscious mind. As the late Candice Pert showed through her ground-breaking research, the body IS the subconscious mind. It is clear that we operate largely driven through impulses that originate here. Moral Foundations Theory as proposed by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph is based on an identical proposition.  Hence the need to include the body for any developmental training to be holistic. There are both reactions to re-train and also our natural talents and enthusiasm to reclaim through this path.

The world needs more wisdom, not more disconnected knowledge, and so harnessing our own wisdom as leaders is paramount. We can learn from those martial arts that are focused on developing the whole human being in all its dimensions.