How can Appreciative Inquiry be embodied as a practice of Inner Leadership?

Last week I hosted an Open Space Technology (OST) session as part of a leadership development program I am facilitating with a colleague, Diana Coverdale. I love OST not only as a process, but also as a set of guiding principles and philosophy for how leaders could lead and how organisations could organise.

The OST session involved a group of 40 leaders from across a range of sectors all focusing on developing their leadership capacity so as to be more effective in their respective communities. That same week, each member of the group had completed a one-on-one coaching conversation around their leadership, stage of consciousness development (using Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Leadership Maturity Framework), and the ‘inner place of knowing’ that grounds their unique leadership resonance. It was deep work.

I often utilise OST as an integration process. When a group has been exploring the deeper place and grounding of their individual – and collective – leadership (as this group had), an OST session provides a wonderful forum for exploring the diversity of experiences and for dialoging and ‘making sense’ of these. In using OST in this way, a group finds its final resting place for the ‘inner work’ its members have undertaken without me needing to say anything to try and bring all of the threads together.

For last week’s OST, the group came together around the question, “What courageous questions need exploring for us to become wiser together?” Close to 30 conversations were convened with some focusing on individual development, whilst others focused on the group and its purpose.

I also posed a question based upon a path of inquiry Diana and I are presently exploring – exploring Appreciative Inquiry as a practice for developing greater inner leadership. I posted the following question to the OST marketplace, “How can Appreciative Inquiry be embodied as a practice of Inner Leadership?” and a group came together to explore into it.

What follows is my harvest from that conversation.


A few subjective definitions for considering our question …

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) = a philosophy, set of principles and a methodology that seeks to identify the best of what ‘gives life’ in individuals, groups of people and society.

Embodied = beyond the thoughts and/or acts of ‘doing’ AI as a process or methodology, the embodiment of AI is the living of the philosophy, principles and methodology as a ‘way of life’ or ‘way of being’ in exploring one’s best life.

Practice = the undertaking of ‘an act or set of acts’ for the purpose of improving one’s performance (i.e., ways of being, thinking, feeling and acting) beyond the practice field itself.

Inner Leadership = one’s capacity to ‘shine the light’ on one’s inner experience and to explore its ‘territory’; the courage to step fully into the experience of one’s inner life; the insight (foresight?) to ‘see the way’ through one’s own inner territory; and the self-authorship to proactively create an experience – moment-by-moment – of oneself that is aligned to one’s True Nature.

A wonderful and fruitful conversation was had that posed many questions, offered a range of perspectives, and continued to reinforce for me the importance of saying the mantra:Thoughts become things so choose wisely.

For me, probably the most interesting question posed was, “How can we create a [positive] fairy-tale world?” It was explored within the conversation and ultimately become a topic ‘applied’ to the 5Ds methodology of Appreciative Inquiry. However, I feel pretty sure that I will continue to explore the intricateness of this rather ‘simple’ question over the coming … lifetime.

Many other threads were weaved together by the group as we explored the landscape of Inner Leadership. For example, we explored the importance of having a Reflective Practice in exploring the territory of our inner leadership. We also need a ‘map’ for making sense of this territory. This map needs to provide the filter of ‘realistic optimism’ and not just focus discriminately on the positive. In considering a suitable map the ‘possibilities thinking’ (rather than positive thinking) of Appreciative Inquiry was found to be a suitable medium for ‘spiralling up’ one’s experiences of life and work. Having said this, the group also agreed that it is important to purposefully inquiry into the positive.

We also explored the importance of continuing to inquire into our best future, but also being present to the characteristics/elements of our best life now. Mindfulness mediation was identified as an important complementary practice of Appreciative Inquiry. Mindfulness supports us in shining the light onto inner ‘territory’ and also supports us in remaining present to whatever arises from this place.

A physical space is also required – a sanctuary – for us to reconnect with our inner leadership and to rejuvenate our practice of Appreciative Inquiry. This is especially relevant when our ‘world’ (work and life) is not always affirmative and positive. We also explored how to transfer the positive affect of adopting possibilities thinking to others – with the key ‘mechanism’ being our capacity to ask positive, affirmative and life-giving questions of others (BLOG: What makes a powerful question powerful?). After all, enjoying the fully affirmative life is richer when done with others.

We also identified some language underpinning the practice of Appreciative Inquiry aligned with each phase the 5Ds methodology:

  1. Defining = “How am I living my ‘best life’ now?”
  2. Discovery = Inquire into “What’s working and life-affirming today?” with curiosity and fascination.
  3. Dream = Let yourself ask to yourself, “If my life were my ideal fairy-tale what would I experience?”
  4. Design = Inquire and plan into the question, “How can my experience of my ‘best life’ today be that of the fairy-tale I dream about? What needs to happen now for this ‘dreamy’ future to be my lived reality?”
  5. Destiny = In living my ‘best life’ now, repeat out loud the following saying upon waking each morning (thank you to the person who mentioned the story of her grandmother!):

“I am alive, I am awake, I feel good, and it’s going to be a wonderful day!”

Our conversation drew to a close with a return to some of the benefits of using an appreciative approach to navigating the territory of our inner leadership.

It is by “dipping into the deep well of affirmative affect and bringing it to my relationships with others” that one continues to rejuvenate, nourish and ‘fan the flame’ of our courage, vulnerability and authentic wisdom.