I did an advanced business leadership course in the early Noughties- It was six days long and on the Monday morning sixty of us assembled and eagerly sat down in the giant circle of chairs that had been set out for us. The workshop leaders came and also sat down in the circle, and we all sat there eagerly waiting for the workshop to start. But it never did.

There was a fast structure (long plenaries interspersed with shorter daily small group sessions) but there was no content and the plenaries had no facilitators or teachers or trainers, though the small sessions were all facilitated by an experienced psychologist. So for a week we sat in that circle, and people leapt up and “took charge” while others boo’ed them off stage, and others still tried various more and less effective ways of influencing or leading the group with mixed results. Most people cried, some were elated, a few were amazed- and resentments, grievances, alliances and factions grew and broke down across the immersive days. There was a great deal of shouting, laughter and crying - and no doubt also some eureka moments though I can’t remember what they were exactly.

I left thinking it was the best workshop I had ever done, only to struggle to translate that into anything tangible for my Boss who had sponsored the course. The more I spoke, the more he looked confused. A couple of weeks later I remembered nothing and could articulate even less about the experience - and thought it was the worse course ever. Now almost two decades on I still struggle to articulate what we learned – but overall I realise the experience was probably one of the most powerful and formative- think Lord of the Flies in a business setting. And that’s Lord of the Flies in its fullest technicolored and unabridged version. The course was a crucible of folk into which we could pour our ideas and try them out- and get direct and instant feedback.

I have since done many more courses- but none quite as raw and authentic as that one and the glimpse it gave me into human nature and how humans operate in groups. I have since worked with teams and groups in all sorts of settings – and I suspect that course single-handedly launched me onto a trajectory of curiosity about leadership in teams and groups, and two decades of coaching and conflict resolution work.

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The book of Est documents the original movement that was the first to provide open workshops that covered a similar landscape to the course I attended several decades later. EST stands for Erhard Seminars Training and provided a 60 hour long open training called "The Est Standard Training" that in a (very simplified!) nutshell aimed to provide a transformative reframing experience by encouraging participants to take personal responsibility both for their lived experience and for showing up and going forward as their authentic selves rather than in an assumed or expected “role”.

Werner Erhard was the creator of the EST training and acknowledges the influence that Zen Buddhism had on his thinking and ability to hold space. The book was published by author George Cockcroft under the nom de plume Luke Rhinehardt in 1976. The Est trainings ran until 1984 when they morphed into a gentler and less confrontational workshop form (called the Forum) that also lost much of the “edge” and power that characterized the original EST trainings. The book attempts to replicate the power and transformational experience of those face-to-face early trainings but in book form.

Est is probably as relevant to people today as it ever was- the findings are timeless - and while the book can never replace the immersive experience of the in-person training the book takes the reader on a journey though ideas and emotions expressed through dialogue between composites of participants. 

That business leadership workshop I did back in the early noughties was no doubt heavily influenced by the EST movement except perhaps that EST more explicitly drew on and referenced spirituality, but those references were entirely absent from the workshop I did. 

The key points from the Book of Est seem to be:

• P21- The only things people believe in are the things they don’t know

• p22- Taking responsibility for communication: ie. making sure the other person understands what you are communicating, and that you “get” what they are communicating to you

• p35- To “Let it be” to stay in touch with feelings but make no effort to change it.

• p35- Recreating an experience to completion makes it disappear.

• p60- Anxiety- it is specific to time and place- if you feel you are experiencing it always then it is a concept (I don’t like spiders)

• p65- Take what you get and experience it- complete the experience- be in touch with the experience don’t try to understand it.

• p76 We usually try to deal with problems by solving them or ignoring them- in both cases this results in the overlaying of another problem on the first…

• 78 Men but also women are often stuck in the belief of what women should be…

• P113 What we experience does not exist unless we experience it.

•p200 “There is not anything but spirituality. So when you try to identify something that is more spiritual than something else, it is a lie. That’s all there is, there isn’t anything but spirituality… anytime we experience, it is a spiritual experience because experience is spiritual.” (Werner)


References

The book of EST, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, c1976, New York.

https://www.henley.ac.uk/news/2017/what-makes-the-advanced-personal-leadership-programme-so-different

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