The Vision ary Lea Leadershi dershi p Conference Santa Cruz, Califor Calif orni nia a - Jun June e 16 16-20 -20 1 1997 997 A Per so nal View Part One The milling bodies, the glazed eyes, the flashing lights, and the juddering and screaming of the machines suggests something from Terminator 2 that was left on the cutting room floor. I am in the games arcade underneath the Cocoanut Grove building in Santa Cruz, California, the hallowed home of NLP. Above me in the huge ballroom and seminar room, the 1997 Visionary Leadership Conference takes a break. One hundred and sixty NLP trainers from twenty six countries around the world have come here to celebrate twenty one years of NLP, and to peer into the future, even to try to create a future for the next millenium. How successful will we be? Where are we now and where are we going? I am playing the video game Terminator two in the arcade, my idea of relaxation, shooting down cyborgs, destroying hunter killers and helping the human resistance to defeat the machines. I run out of tokens. Back to creating the future. Monday 16th June Iclock arrive San Francisco the earlyImmediately afternoon according to the onatthe wall, but my International body tells meAirport its lateinevening. I meet a friend, Viktoria from Vienna and we talk until the airporter bus arrives to take me across the mountains to Santa Cruz. Bumping along highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains I imagine what it must have been like here in 1976 when NLP started, where an associate professor of linguistics and a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz began a discipline that has now spread throughout the world. Then it was brash, confident, iconoclastic, like an adolescent that needs to assert his identity against those entrenched and respectable psychologies that surrounded him like stuffy, established adults. Now NLP is twenty one years old, with all the adult privileges, and perhaps it no longer needs to attack others to establish its identity. This conference could be a recognition of adult responsibilities, a rite de passage into maturity. I check into my hotel, I know I am in America because the receptionist is friendly, helpful and patient above and beyond the call of duty. I unpack and walk down to the beach. Santa Cruz seems deserted. Few pedestrians, but that is normal in American cities, where police regard you with suspicion if you are out walking. I am surprised at the absence of cars. There are some of the big yellow taxis on the streets that I will come to know well in the next few days. The freeways were more crowded than this city. The Cocoanut Grove is a huge yellow building backing onto the beach. It looks from the outside like an old cinema that has been converted to a large multiplex, blown up out of all proportion. It has a health warning beside the door that tells me the state of California has ascertained that this building contains materials that are hazardous to health. Nothing personal, many public building have these warnings. This is the doorway where the small contingent of smokers will congregate during the breaks in the conference, the Cocoanut Grove is a no smoking zone. I climb the stairs, taking me safely above the
chaos of the arcade below, but arrive too late to contribute to the preliminaries; interest groups have been formed and most people have dispersed. The conference starts tomorrow. Tuesday 17th June The first full day of the conference. I meet many old friends and make many new ones. Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Tim Hallbom, Suzi Smith and Lara Ewing are our hosts on stage. There is a terrific feeling of occasion, a constant, excited buzz of anticipation that fades just out of earshot when the proceedings start. Everyone is excited, moving greeting friends, meeting soon to be friends who are already known from their training, books, or virtual contact through E mail. Many hallucinations are being confirmed and dispelled. This is a very special occasion and the leaders make us feel welcome. The seminar room is huge, an extension of the ballroom in the middle of the building. The windows are at the back looking over the Pacific. We face the front of the stage, where Robert, Tim, Suzi, Lara and Judith are sitting. Robert introduces the three ladies as, 'the witch, the fairy godmother and the sorceress of NLP', but wisely refuses to say who is who. Brightly colored balloonsispainted red and gold butterflies float the at the sidesmasks. of the stage, the atmosphere like a with Brazilian carnival, we lack only exotic There is an excellent sound system, and the whole conference is being recorded on videotape. The butterflies seems to be the metaphor for the conference. Butterflies are beautiful, yet they last only a few days. Can the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Santa Cruz cause a storm in Brazil? Or England? Small movements can have great consequences if the time and place are right. For now, the time and place seem right. We do some preliminary exercises in the ballroom that lies behind the stage further into centre of the building, tables ring the room set up with books and materials. In one corner the stage is there for the marimba band this evening, and for the rock band booked for Friday evening. The round, crystal chandelier hangs above us and the hundred and sixty people barely fill a tenth of the space. First, we arrange ourselves around the room to represent how far we have come. There are twenty two states of America represented and America takes a sizeable proportion of the floor in our metaphoric map. Europe spreads out over the other half of the floor, and Australia jostles for room in the south east corner. This is a subjective map and not a cartographic one. Next we arrange ourselves in order of how far we think we have traveled to be here. Some people who have come from countries geographically distant, place themselves very close - they feel they have always been here in spirit. Then, we arrange ourselves by the number of people who are here, that we know. Next, Robert asks us to form a semi circle based on the degree we believe we will achieve the visions we manifest in the next four days. One end of the semi circle represents none. This is the uncompromising pessimist end. The other end of the semi circle represents – the unbounded optimists. We around mill around and mark, the a and pattern crystallizes.all Most people are hopeful, we bunch the 70% that finally is
where I am, although I feel this is a little over optimistic, it seems better to commit to what I hope will happen rather than what I fear might occur. Certainly I intend to realise three quarters of the dreams I have for this conference. There are some skeptics, but no total pessimists. Robert then asks us to change our perceptual position and take another place in the semi circle to find out what that feels like. People wander around. I experiment by standing with Robert in the middle of the room and feel keenly interested in the whole process. Then I go to the ten percent mark and indulge in feeling a little smug as a committed realist. We go back to the seminar room and share with different people what brought us to NLP. For me it was a seminar on guitar music in 1983. The tutor showed us the diagram of the funny face with the eyes staring in different directions, and I remember thinking this had definite possibilities. How right I was. As we all return to our seats, Wyatt Woodsmall asks the question that has been weighing on the minds of all the trainers here, and it's a relief when it finally comes. How do we address the fact that Richard Bandler is suing several individuals, including John Grinder, Steve Andreas, Chris Hall and Lara Ewing? To sweep this under the plush blue carpet would be denial and not leadership. There is scattered applause. The cat is out of the bag, and incongruence start to seep into the open. We all hope that this conference will help NLP to heal, but in the meantime, there is a difficult present state. Robert asksas that notcreate give this conflict more energy than it deserves, it has quite enough it we is. do Let's something beautiful instead. Then he says that John Grinder and Carmen St. Clair would be visiting us tomorrow not in the room - but out on the beach tomorrow evening to give their statement and answer questions. This is a strange situation - a major NLP conference without either of the founders. I do not know if they were both asked. Altogether this has been difficult for the organisers, who rigorously play fair, and fairness is a quality we need when we are not sure what is right. We go to a wonderful buffet lunch in the huge room next door. As we go in, the light is blinding for a moment, the sun streams down through the glass roof onto the tables with their parasols. It reminds me of a vast greenhouse without the flowers. The food is excellent, salads, chicken meat and a mahi mahi, one of the local fish with a wonderful firm taste that is a little like haddock but without the oily taste of the North Sea. The mahi mahi has a great sauce that strips the roof off my mouth and makes me afraid to breathe out in case I set fire f ire to the napkin. That afternoon we move on. We begin to make up the fluid forums that will become the special interest groups. Already NLP trainers are living up to their reputation of keeping options open, and being internally referenced in deciding what to do. All the chosen fields are interrelated and a lot of people would like to be in all of them, but we are asked to assign ourselves to one home group, on the understanding we can move around later. There are twenty two of these discussion forums. Arts and creativity is one, the business group splits into three sub groups, organisational development, communications and networking, cross cultural relations, media, environment, epistemology and modeling alsotwo splitsub i nto three into groups), family and community, health(this has groups. Then there is professional standards and ethics, research, politics and the shadow (these latter two
seem to be natural bedfellows and the groups merge into one), human rights and social issues, and finally spirituality is represented by two groups. I wander around completely lost for several minutes between these strange attractors. I am drawn towards the media group, and the education group and the business group, before Alix von Uhde takes me firmly by the arm and steers me into the epistemology group, for which I owe her a big hug, it's a great group. These groups will be the centres of the visions, plans and strategies that will come from our four days together, and it will be no easy task for our hosts to keep us on task and provide some structure that we will actually stay with. Who are the most difficult people to lead? Well sheep can be told what to do, but this is hardly the sort visionary leadership we were engaged in; it is hard to empower sheep. Leaders are the most difficult to lead, because they have their own strong opinions and generally want to do what they want to do, rather than be led anywhere. How do you lead a conference of leaders? How will the conference go? Can there be a structure that is loose enough to allow people freedom to form their visions, and clear enough to prevent visionary chaos? The afternoon passes quickly, and emerging blinking into the mid afternoon sunlight, Iscene see alooks luminous moon, low in the sky and almost full, hanging fiction over the water. The like an impossible alien landscape from a science film. It seems too large to be real. I enjoy a meal with Jules and Chris Collingwood from Inspiritive, Australia at a bar on the beach, and the evening evening vanishes.
Part Two Wednesday 18th June Summer is officially here, and the sea mist burns off the front earlier today. The air is less clammy this morning as I walk down Beach Street, propelled by the thought of coffee, eggs and a short stack that are waiting at the excellent Beach Street Café opposite the Cocoanut Cocoanut Grove. The waiter puts the coffee down an and d asks me, 'Are you with that conference at the Cocoanut grove?' I admit it. 'What's this NLP stuff?' he asks. At this time of the morning I have no idea, so I mumble something about communication skills and we chat until my eggs come. Rex Steven Sykes of IDEA seminars joins me for breakfast. We have crossed swords in cyberspace in the legendary NLP section of the AI Expert forum on Compuserve, in 1995. Today, we have a delightful meal together as real people and not virtual protagonists. Day two starts promptly at 9.30, and Robert and Lara give us some trancy food for thought. Imagine, they say, it is the year 2017. What was happening twenty years ago? How was that significant? We look back on the present as if it were the past and try and evaluate the significance of what we may be doing. The desired state has become the present state from which to evaluate the present state…or something. My submodalities fractal and my develop a shadowstart like showing an old film on ainterference poor qualityeffects, video tape, butinternal I can't pictures find the tracking button. button. Robert c continues ontinues merc mercilessly. ilessly. What do we want in 2017? What
questions do we need to ask? What impossible dreams have come true? I feel like putting my head in the iced water machine. The morning flies by after this. We spend most of it in our focus groups. My group is large and we talk about modeling and epistemology. We have an anchor for our discussion - a table in the dining room, close to the window, looking out over the sea. The room is quiet and still, and seems darker when it is not being used for lunch. The epistemology group is culturally very diverse. There are fifteen of us, representing ten countries. We spend most of our time round the table today, sometimes drifting off to find out what other groups are doing. Charles Faulkner has brought his lap top computer, so he is elected to take notes for our group. Many people have brought lap tops - mostly Macs; the Mac and NLP seem to have an affinity. The Mac was a great idea… way ahead of its time…began in California…extravagantly praised… very user friendly... poorly marketed…no general strategy… tied into niche markets…never went mainstream… lost its lead and was betamaxed by Microsoft. It tried to keep exclusive control of its technology while the open architecture of its rivals won the day. Is there a lesson for us here? Some groups are organising their visions on the communal computers scattered around the conference room. Robert plans an instant book of the projects and visions at the end of the conference; desktop publishing at its most frenetic. There is even software available that makes it easy to organise the data in the form of a Disney strategy - we are encouraged to structure our visions around the Disney strategy. Arghh!! I have a confession - I am becoming allergic to the Disney strategy. It's getting everywhere. Disney in health, Disney in Leadership, Disney in Business. NLP is becoming a theme park, with dreamers, realists and critics wandering around in Goofy, Dumbo and Snow White costumes. And, no thank you, I don't want an allergy cure. My dreamer wants to force feed my realist with magic mushrooms, and my critic wants to bang both their heads together. Not content with dominating our outer screens of films and television, the man is making a posthumous bid to dominate our inner screens as well. Before we can say Donald, he will be installed with Perls, Satir, and Erickson, in the NLP pantheon of gods. Resist the Disneyfication of NLP! Let's take the Mickey out of the Disney strategy!! Sorry, I'm OK now. I decide to ignore the Disney strategy. It seems to me that if we code our thoughts in existing NLP distinctions we are unlikely to find anything new, and epistemology is about exploring distinctions. At first we get nowhere. Epistemology and modeling seem insubstantial, and getting something down on paper is like trying to pin jelly to the wall. Our group talks around the we because circle the what subjectwe likesay hunters, knowing that bothour hunters and topic, hunted aboutwary, epistemology will we layare bare own
assumptions, so we circle and circle and go to lunch a little frustrated, feeling pressure to produce. Lunchtime. The whole room wakes up, in fact it leaps out of bed, grabs you by the shirt and yells in your face. The sun on the white table clothes is blinding, and the hum of conversations and clink of the cutlery is louder than life, the room has the acoustics of the Sydney Opera house. I would just hate to be hear with a hangover. Queueing up for the wonderful buffet, the mahi mahi catches my eye again, and immediately the image of the inside of a blast furnace snaps into my mind, so I stick to fruit and salad. I chat with George Zee from Hong Kong about NLP in the Far East. Our group returns to stalk our epistemological quarry. We are determined not fall into the trap that Gregory Bateson described in his story about a conference of conference organisers. This was a three day event and halfway through the second day nothing had been settled or achieved, but, that did not bother the participants because they knew from their professional experience that nothing ever gets settled in the first half of a conference. Unfortunately, their complacency stopped them feeling the urgency of the situation, so they never got down to work, and the conference ended with nothing concrete attained. We think about how to work with the group process that is emerging while honoring the wider system of the conference and producing something finally that will be of value to everyone. Suddenly we catch light, ideas start coming, we start jamming like jazz musicians, each adding to the idea and something takes shape between us and around us. In half an hour we have a total composition that was fun to create and we think it has value for the wider group too. The afternoon passes quickly. Robert, Judy, Lara, Tim and Suzi are fighting a losing battle with group time keeping. Yesterday, the group assembled about ten minutes after being asked to come back. This morning it was twenty and this afternoon, after half an hour, they bow to the inevitable and let us get on with it. Now it's half past five. John Grinder is outside on the grass beside the Cocoanut Grove. The group divides into three factions. Those that openly support, or are sympathetic to John. Those that are unsympathetic and support Richard's position. And those that say with Shakespeare, 'A plague on both your houses!' Most people come out to listen to John. Lara alone of the presenters joins us. Carmen Bostic St. Clair is with John. I haven't seen John for three years, and it's good to meet and talk to him again. John is very informal, he tells us that he and Carmen, Lara, and Steve and Connirae Andreas are banding together to fight the law suit. Chris Hall is taking separate advice. John distributes his statement and talks about it for about an hour, there some questions, not many, I sense that most people have made up their minds on the issue already. John doesn't try to persuade, just put his position. The event is reality with attitude, pure theatre without being theatrical.
Thursday 19th June Today another thirty people have joined us for the second half of the conference 'fresh meat' as Robert says. Only Robert and Judy are here today. No more buffet at lunchtime, so I wander a quarter of a mile to the wharf, enjoying the scene. The environment is hot, but on a California beach the other neurological levels are very cool. I walk down the wharf, it juts out to sea, a quarter mile of very old, seasoned wood, housing several specialised fish restaurants, as well as the inevitable tourist shops. The wharf reeks of fish, it's like walking into an open air sardine can. There are many wooden benches to sit on, some are commemorative, dedicated to friends, husbands, fathers, mothers and children, memories that are tangible and enduring. A little way down on the left I see one dedicated: 'To memory of Todd Epstein' I sit down here and look out to sea. Huge gulls with thick yellow beaks circle below and above the wharf, many strut on the wooden rails, hoping for scraps of food from the open air diners. These are the jumbo jets of the gull world, each looks more like an albatross than a gull. One settles on the ledge opposite me, expecting some food, and hops forward awkwardly, it has only one foot, the right leg ends halfway up. It balances patiently, but I have nothing to give it. It flaps its wings and takes off, gracefully skimming the sea, perfectly free in flight. If only it could fly all the time. I walk down to the bottom of the wharf to look for the sea lions, There are six viewing platforms cut into the floor where you can look down at the huge wooden cross struts washed by the waves under the wharf. The sea lions apparently like to come and lie on them, just a little out of the water, but today there are none, and I start back, disappointed. Thursday afternoon is an epistemological blur. Friday 20th June The last full day, and stuffed to overflowing. Which reminds me. The course manual is awesome, a huge ring binder crammed with nearly 250 multi colored pages, all you ever wanted to know about leadership. It needs two hands to carry, and I have to buy another suitcase to get it back to England. It is good reference material, but we don't use it at the conference. Robert, thank you for all the work you put in…and….it would have been good to have it on disk. I carry my manual carefully, for dropping it will register on the Richter scale and scare a lot of people. I like California and don't want it to slide into the Pacific. Robert also shows us the first two volumes of the Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP. These are huge as well - an incredible amount of NLP information. I'll take it on CD ROM, thank you. Throughout the afternoon, people keep disappearing into a back room, only to emerge a few minutes later looking bewildered. Then it's my turn. We are all being interviewed on video. There will be a videotape of the conference: NLP's Greatest Hits – Santa Cruz 1997. Be there, get the T Shirt, see the video. Drake Zimmerman asks me questions, - what brings me here? I say the first thing that comes into my head to betowith friends. minutes later, I've recorded my guest appearance and it's my- turn stumble out Five looking bewildered.
Everyone is getting ready for their presentation tomorrow morning. All the groups have five minutes on stage tomorrow to let everyone know what they have been doing. There is a lot of good work going on, and a rock and roll band at eight o'clock for those that survive the day. Saturday 21st June The last day. We finish at one o'clock. It's been a good trip. The whole morning is given over to group presentations, many are very entertaining. Every group has its five minutes on stage to give its results. I particularly remember the Media and Communications group poking gentle fun with a skit on an imaginary NLP switchboard (1-800-NLP-CHAOS) answering (or rather not answering), customer queries. Sympathetic laughter showed we recognised ourselves here. Then, by contrast the NLP switchboard of the future, (1-800-NLP-CLARITY), dealing with the same queries rather more effectively. At the end of each group presentation, everyone warmly applauds and each member is presented with the beautifully designed NLP Community Leadership Project Certificate. All the presentations are collated and everyone receives another huge book with all that material as well. And perhaps the most important, a networking list of all the participants. Then…the cake! Happy birthday to NLP, twenty one this year! A big birthday cake comes in, with twenty one candles, and everyone gets a piece. Now the energy is beginning to break up, even before Robert's final words. He thanks us all and particularly those behind the scenes who have done so much to make this conference possible, Teresa Epstein, who organised so well and has been incredibly helpful and knowledgeable throughout. She is the 1-800-NLP-CLARITY right now. Also Drake Zimmerman who has so much to make sure the video and audio taping go smoothly. And then it's over. It seems like we have been here for months and not four days, many people are leaving tonight, more tomorrow morning. And, many more are staying for the NLP and health Conference as I am. It will be on the University California, Santa Cruz campus up on the hill behind the city. It starts in less than five hours. Back to back action. I need a break, so I am going to visit some friends in the North Bay area and join the Health conference tomorrow. Final thoughts? A wonderful conference, however not really about leadership. I suspect the networking, the meetings and the friendships began and strengthened are significant and may be more important than the actual projects. I think too that a great deal more went on at the edges, over lunch, over a beer, chatting on the beach, than in the main, formal conference, and that's fine. Also the States is no longer the centre of the NLP universe. NLP is changing in its own way in Europe, in the East, in Australia, each with a distinct flavour. NLP is undergoing undergoing cultural evolution. Thank you to Robert, Judy, Lara, Tim and Suzi, and Teresa for providing the space, literal and metaphorical for those relationships and visions to form. If only one per cent of all the visions that were expressed here come to fruition, that will be substantial and worthwhile. The brighter the future vision, the larger the shadow it casts, and the more chance to stumble in the dark.
I have a sense that the conference was dominated by the dreamer, and I fear many visions will float off into the sky like helium balloons, for they have no firm anchors in the real world. Pretty maybe, but uncatchable. I hope many of the balloons are not pure helium and that they stay anchored to the ground, and are strong enough to support us when we want to fly. Individual butterflies are beautiful, but many only last a day. Like them, we need to renew ourselves, I am glad I was here to be part of that renewal. Joseph O'Connor July 1997 Material about the Visionary Leadership Conference is at the NLP University web site. The Result of Richard Bandler's lawsuit is on the NLP general information server