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85 Articles

Hitting the Brakes

Mark Upton
Apr 2 2019

A short reflection on experiences with people in sport organisations where the opening engagements have touched on aspects of complex systems/theory/thinking…

Enthusiasm is initially high for the sexy aspects operating at the layer of “approaches“ depicted below. Tools (Sensemaker) and to a lesser extent frameworks (Constraints, Cynefin, Bioecological) often generate curiosity, energy and optimism.

A deeper dive exploring the layer of “beliefs” can be a different story however…

…as it becomes evident to people that alternative ways of organising are possible – but will almost certainly require perturbing and relearning of power/hierarchical structures and (limits of) control. That’s when things can grind to a halt…sometimes amidst visceral reactions to the prospect of shifting power dynamics and uncertainty. Political game-playing also seems to kick in at this point!

On a positive note, this phase can be extremely valuable as it asks the question of us all in regards to our collective commitment to proceeding with the real job of work. Where we have proceeded, the sexy tools seem to fade into the background or are implemented with a very different intent – for learning & generative listening; not “customer insight”, “monitoring”, “impact evaluation”, “performance management” or “accountability”.

The Leader who Listened

Mark Upton
Mar 1 2019

“They are after strong leadership…someone to come in with a clear plan”

A snippet from a recent conversation where we discussed a national sports body looking to fill a senior position in the organisation. It drew me back to a moment in time a couple of years ago where my conversational partner burst out in exasperation “she just doesn’t listen!” in regards to a “strong leader” occupying a similar senior position with a national sports body (in a different country).

Yet why would they listen? There is no need to listen when the expectation (held by them and/or others) is they already have all the answers and just need to direct people to execute their allocated duties against The Plan.

Where does this desire for the archetypical “heroic leader” come from? And what context(s), if any, is it suited to? The senior position to be filled in the example above faces a number of long-standing challenges in the sport that could be deemed intractable/wicked/stuck problems. Arguably listening, rather than enforcing predetermined plans and directions, could be amongst the most useful approaches employed in these contexts. But what kind of listening?

Beth Tener has written a great post on listening, referencing Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Reading Beth’s post brought me back to previous explorations of Scharmer’s collaborative endeavours, in particular the highly aspirational Societal Transformation Lab.

Listening is at the source of all great leadership. A key source of leadership failure is lack of listening.”

– Otto Scharmer

4 ways of listening are defined (read Beth’s post for more detail):

  • downloading
  • factual
  • empathic
  • generative

Aspects of what Beth goes on to describe of generative listening in group settings very much resonates with our efforts at myfastestmile to facilitate similar with people in sport…

“…encourage empathic and generative listening, providing the space for many people to share their ideas and stories and encouraging participants to listen for patterns and new connections. In cross-pollinating small group conversations around an open question, new connections are generated and new ideas pop up more frequently.”

The above quote captures a significant shift in how ideas and stories are used that we are exploring with sports organisations. Rather than a central body gathering “insight” and making decisions from on high, people “on the ground” who have stories to share are also involved in the subsequent deliberation, sensemaking and strategic decisions. Further, on-going and open invitations to “join the conversation” largely replace traditional consultations and surveys.

It’s often messy and uncertain work, requiring of formal leaders not just a different way of “doing”, but perhaps more so a different way of “being”. A frequent pondering is whether the demanding nature of working in this way will limit adoption…given heroic leadership is the easier and more orthodox option.

Therefore, how might we find ways to encourage more people to examine the history and assumptions underlying this leadership orthodoxy? And could that open up the possibility of an even more significant shift, from focusing on leadership to fellowship?

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #14

Mark Upton
Nov 30, 2018

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13

Much of this series, from the very first post, has been exploring the dynamics that shape and shift sport in various directions. More specifically, the dynamics that shape and shift the intentions and actions of PEOPLE in sport. Whilst I hope some of the posts have provided readers a stimulus for reflection and critical conversation, they were also an attempt at personal coherence and to inform myfastestmile’s purpose and principles. The multiple layers and dimensions depicted in the visual at the top of this post point to the evolution in our thinking since the visual below used in the first post…

The timing feels right to wind the series up by sharing our collective coherence through an invitation to work in fellowship with people who have high aspirations for sport…

“how does your life in sport add value to you, your opponent, your sport and your community?” – Al Smith

For those who choose to accept this invitation and ‘step in’, our aim is to mobilise a community of activists who aspire to see sport act as a beacon for the richness and depth of humanity, who recognise that realising such lofty aims requires a committed engagement to the long, hard yards of developing and sustaining deeply purposeful human relations and who crave a meaningful connection to fellow travellers on their learning journey.

For us, this endeavour starts with a willingness to truly sit with the question above and consider its implications for our life in sport. For those who join us we aim to curate opportunities to get under the skin of the tensions that it surfaces by exploring the theoretical basis for the emergence of healthy human ecologies in relation to our hard won experience of the realities of life in sport.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care -with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” — David Foster Wallace

In travelling this journey we will confront the underlying dynamics that influence the shifting sporting landscape for better and for worse (from adding to extracting value from self and others). We will examine and scrutinise our emerging coherence regarding the conditions for value creation:

  • a willingness to sit with a diversity of aims, approaches and outcomes
  • the fortitude to take a principled approach and enable all to act with strategic intent
  • the personal courage to look into the shadow as well as the light to inform a forward path

…whilst exercising probity and care in attending to the conditions for value extraction:

  • individual achievement/status exclusively determining personal worth and belonging
  • severe narrowing of focus such that “winning stuff”, be that league, medal, participant or profit tables, becomes the purpose (often at an implicit level whilst higher/broader purpose still adorns posters, documents and public discourse)
  • significant imbalances of power and attempts to control others
  • unexamined assumptions and outcomes emerging from common organisational paradigms and practices

In surfacing these dynamics we intend to stimulate both deliberation (embracing tensions and divergent perspectives) and exploratory action that enables people to discover rich forms of life in sport.

So what, exactly, are we inviting people to partake in?

In line with the aspirations conveyed in this post, and guided by our working principles, we intend to convene a space where fellow travellers who are ready and willing to ‘step in’ can engage with us in shaping a forward path. So, keep an eye out next week as we share more information and formally invite expressions of interest to help found and co-create a Life in Sport Fellowship.

If you have any immediate thoughts to share with us please do get in touch.


Mark, Jono & Al
co-creators @ myfastestmile

Living in Fellowship

Mark Upton
Nov 11, 2018

One of the core beliefs that guide our efforts at myfastestmile is acting ‘hobo style’. However, after multiple house-sitting stints and twice ‘invading’ extended family since arriving back in South Australia from the UK nearly a year ago, my family and I may have gone too far in living this on a personal level! Yet I’m hopeful the packing of boxes, moving of furniture and minor squabbles with my lovely partner Kellie (😁) over the last couple of days are now behind us as we settle in to our own home.

Where we have settled is just a 50 metre walk from the oval pictured above, where cricket, aussie rules and athletics take place. Also on the street is a lawn bowls club, and another few minutes walk west brings forth the beach and a surf life saving club. It is a community infused with sporting activity and one we are familiar with, having spent a number of years living there before our adventure in the UK.

Despite the familiarity of place and sport I’ve become acutely aware I’m not the same person who used to inhabit this area. My perspective on life, sport and society has broadened significantly in the last few years. In no small part this is due to the many rich conversations and experiences with my co-creators at myfastestmile and our formal engagements with partners.

Through a self-imposed provocation we’ve recently engaged in significant dialogue regarding the purpose, principles, practices and future direction of myfastestmile.

We’d like to connect with more people, face to face and remotely, to discuss and co-create ways to help people be more human through sport – living and working in fellowship. We believe fellowship has been deeply meaningful and valuable for us and we hope our partners feel the same.


I want to expand a little further on our thinking regarding fellowship, as it is another of our core beliefs yet easy to casually agree on without a critical examination of the implications for the status quo.

For us, heroic individual leaders and rigid hierarchy are not the way forward for helping more people find meaning, purpose and humanity through sport. We DO NOT need to identify “talented” and “strong” individual leaders. We DO NOT need to continue creating compliant and docile “followers” through a flawed organisational paradigm that endorses top-down control and metric-led performance management. We DO need to learn how to learn together and surf the waves of uncertainty. We DO need to balance and share power by exploring the dynamic interaction of leadership and followship.

An excerpt from Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson

“ The very word ‘leadership’ has become cringe worthy. It reeks of colonialism and lopsided history-book listings of individuals successful in taking, making, and claiming. Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders.

I would like a moment to call bullshit. This thinking about leadership is not useful. There is no such thing as an isolated individual – we are all interdependent. Period. Our evolution is only in our mutual contribution and learning. Mutual. Leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency.

Leadership does not reside in a person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community. So leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual. The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then, most importantly, stand back. Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it’s a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”

Step in, step out – this feels like the essence of fellowship for us.

Time for me to step out. Who would like to step in?

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #13


Rejecting ‘Sport as Economy’

Mark Upton
Oct 23, 2018

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12

Above is a snapshot of a ‘map’ I created earlier in the year, and have been tinkering with since, to help make sense of the highly problematic ‘Sport as Economy’ phenomena evident today. I’m getting close to writing up a coherent narrative to accompany this…something far more substantial than is appropriate for this ‘fragments’ series.

However, in the spirit of a fragment, I read two statements recently that have stirred enough emotion to at least throw a couple of thoughts out there for now.

Both reflect Sport as Economy issues – one pertaining to the language of ‘’marketing”, “advertising” and “pitching” physical activity to children, the other a sports technology provider’s intention to exploit Artificial Intelligence to “‘make us billions of dollars hand over fist”.

One of the central quotes on the map is the following from umair haque

“The paradigm is the problem. A solely one-dimensional economic approach to human organization”

Shifting our organisational endeavours in sport to a more human approach will require the relearning of ‘value’…

I’m filled with hope by interacting with and supporting a small number of people in sport who are leading the way in this regard.

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #12


Letting go…

Mark Upton
Aug 2, 2018

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11

It’s been a while since posting the last fragment in this series, and perhaps appropriate (inevitable?) that my first post since returning to Australia is stimulated by events in the sports landscape Down Under.

Yesterday the freshly branded Sport Australia unveiled The National Sport Plan ‘Sport 2030’. There was a connection to be made with a quote from a video on systems change and innovation that I had come across only 24 hours earlier…

“To think that we get to make a plan and direct the organisation toward a pre-specified outcome is just an illusion… a failure to recognise the complexity of the systems we are dealing with”

Good intentions, yet the nature of reality creates significant tensions.

Whilst reading The Plan I was also drawn back to the prescience of Keith Lyons on the 2nd day of 2018

“We can let go of ‘world leading’ statements and just do our very best to engender a love of play, games and sport”

Having the courage to let go – of Grand Plans, Heroic Leadership and Status Seeking – may just enable us to better engage and interact with each other and a complex sporting landscape.