A conversation with Anne Caspari about transformational leadership
As a transformational leadership coach and ecologist Anne Caspari integrates lessons from the world’s best functioning organisation, nature, to restore balance to the modern workplace.
Have you ever looked a a bee or an ant and had the feeling that there’s no such thing as a single bee, or a single ant? Anne Caspari has. “They’re a collective,” she says. “No one part works independently of the other.”
An ecologist and environmental planner by training, Anne uses her education in the patterns of nature to coach leaders into making the deep personal changes needed in order for organisations to adapt, grow and make an impact. In the caffeine fuelled, anxiety-filled, status-obsessed jungle that is the modern workplace it’s Anne’s agenda to integrate lessons from the world’s best functioning organisation, the natural world, to restore equilibrium and balance. In 2015 she co-founded EZC Partners, a coaching consultancy practise who work with a number of social impact enterprises and governmental organisations, including the European Environment Agency and the United Nations, coaching CEOs on key leadership skills to help their organisations function more efficiently.
Anne grew up in south west Germany in a nature loving household. Her father grew so many rare orchids in the living room that she remembers it as a ‘jungle behind glass’ and family holidays were spent hiking and identifying plants in the Dolomites or the Allgäu mountains in Bavaria. As a child she preferred animals to school friends, and credits them for teaching her how to intuitively sense what goes on beneath the level of verbal communication. A lifelong rider, she says that horses helped her to learn what she calls ‘precision consciousness’ by forcing her to be aware of the unconscious emotions and unresolved conflicts that she was bringing to the ride. “They are such teachers that they will mirror you back single thoughts, or single internal movements,” she says, speaking from her home in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin. After two decades of city hopping from Rome, to Brussels and then Basel Anne seems at peace in the relatively rural setting, botanical drawings decorate the walls and oddities collected from the outdoors are displayed on cabinets and shelves.
Choosing a career in conservation was a natural choice for Anne who from a young age had felt a deep affinity with and understanding of the delicate web of life, “there were things I knew about nature that I didn’t know how to express when I was young,” she says. “I could see that it was a whole network and if you built something in one place you wouldn’t only just destroy something there but interrupt a whole pattern.”
After university she took an unconventional path for a scientist and followed her heart to Rome to learn Italian, spending nine years in the city working first as a freelancer on environmental projects and eventually lecturing on integral ecology and business ethics at the European School of Economics. Living in the relaxed culture of southern Europe offered a kind of freedom which would not have been possible in the bureaucratic culture of Germany, “structures are looser in Italy,” she says, “there is a real sense of creativity of survival.”
From a young age Anne felt a deep affinity with and understanding of the delicate web of life.
While in Rome she won a prize for a water course rehabilitation project on the outskirts of the city. For the project she worked with an architect in a neighbourhood where 20th century urban planners had replaced natural riverbeds with concrete waterways. Over time, these unnatural interventions had become filthy and polluted. By taking out the artificial waterways, removing obstacles and adding clean water the natural rhythm of the river was restored, “you don’t even need to do anything, just remove the obstacles, let the little creeks and rivers meander again and the natural ecosystem will do the work,” she says.
In Italy Anne started to find herself increasingly drawn towards working with people. She began to notice how even the best laid plans could be inadvertently sabotaged by people who had not reckoned with the ways in which their deeply held beliefs, assumptions and patterns of behaviour were affecting their work. These behaviours could not only be limiting on a personal level, but it created negative cycles on an organisational level which overtime would become serious obstacles to progress. In search of solutions, Anne began diving into integral and structural theory as methods for understanding human organisation. Her early work with nature systems became a blueprint for analysing organisational structures, since she understood that at their core they are a web of interconnecting relationships between individuals, rather than a machine that can be programmed and planned. “People are so used to beating every problem with project management,” she says, “but organisations are about people, and people don’t always behave according to plan.”
Today in her work in organisations Anne coaches CEOs and leaders on such qualities as integrity and following intuition. True leadership, she says, goes beyond the mechanisms of expertise and book knowledge. “Some leaders will get to a certain position where they cannot deal with life’s complexity, or their job’s complexity, using technical knowledge alone.” If leaders are guided to examine the deeply held assumptions, beliefs, and habits that unconsciously govern their behaviour then they can cultivate the qualities that make great leadership, such as quality of presence. Like the Roman waterways, once these obstacles are removed, then healthy systems with space for innovation and growth will spring forth.
From hunter gatherers to modern day social impact companies working against climate change, the ability to effectively organise has been an essential human survival skill for millennia. With such great stakes at hand, Anne recognises that there are limitations to one-on-one coaching. “There’s obviously a scaling problem, approaching one consciousness at a time has limits,” she says. “But when you work with leaders of big corporations that have thousands of employees, these small shifts can have big implications.” For every individual, cultivating a sense of internal guidance is an essential skill for whatever the future brings. “Listen to yourself and your sense of purpose,” Anne says. “Once you can do that it doesn’t really matter what life puts in your way.”