Conference Report: Leading Wellbeing Research Festival.

Jon Alexander

In the final instalment of my ‘What I did last summer’ conference reports which previously saw me winning an award and dancing on the banks of the river in Warsaw, and attending the UN in New York, I offer some feedback and insight on the Leading Wellbeing Research Festival which took place towards the end of July at Brathay Hall in the UK’s Lake District. The ‘conference’ was one of the most deeply inspirational that I have attended mainly due to the mix of academic presentations and practitioner workshops, plenary sessions and keynotes from an eclectic mix of speakers, all combined with the chance to practice Yoga, Meditation, Tai Chi, Circus skills and a range of other activities not usually found at a research conference.

The 3 day event organised by the University of Cumbria’s Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) and the Brathay Trust was attended by over 200 people from more than 20 countries interested in exploring new approaches to leadership for wellbeing and sustainability. Set in the beautiful landscape of Ambleside in the UK’s Lake District the event combined academic paper sessions, practitioner workshops and a range of reflective and creative activities.

On arrival we were immediately treated to a fantastic lunch and took the opportunity to check out the venue which was a mixture of rooms set in the Georgian Mansion that is Brathay Hall, a large marquee tent and a collection of smaller tents and a yurt. The first keynote speaker was Charles Eisenstein the progressive author and public speaker, and self-described “degrowth activist”. His thoughts on the nature of leadership and success inspired a thoughtful panel discussion and audience debate on the role of culture change in organisations and society in general. The panel was moderated by Jo Confino until recently executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business having left to join the Huffington Post as Executive Editor of their new Impact & Innovation department, which covers Business, Technology, Impact, Science and Green verticals. Jo also gave the dinner speech at the event.

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The panel in deep discussion

There were many other key speakers at the event and many further panel discussions alongside smaller ‘in conversation’ sessions where topics such as ‘personal burnout’, ‘woman’s leadership’ and ‘agriculture and climate change’. One that I found particularly inspirational was on Activist Leadership with Jen Robinson, human rights lawyer and Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Foundation and lawyer to Julian Assange. Here Jen discussed what activist leadership looked like, what tactics activists use and the Bertha Foundations mission to support activism to support change. A short video that provides a taster of some of the speakers is available below and videos of the plenary sessions can be found here.

The event was an academic conference of sorts and as such included over 40 research papers which were presented over a series of dedicated sessions throughout the programme. The topics were as diverse as ‘The wellbeing of plankton’ through to ‘The Psychology of Sustainability through Mutual Credit’, My own paper was titled The Natural Cycle of Leadership: Practicing Self Sustainability for Leadership Development and I will be developing this into a full paper for submission to a special issue of the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ). A full list of papers and abstracts is available here along with some of the extended papers.

Alongside the academic work and ‘buzz sessions’, there was a wide range of reflective activities such as meditation, tai chi and yoga alongside workshops on drumming, story telling, creative writing and even learning leadership lessons through dancing the tango. I particularly enjoyed meditating in the yurt with Zeffi Kefala  which reminded me of the need to make time for daily mediation – a practice that I have let lapse of late. I even managed to take the opportunity to brush up on my circus skills as you can see…

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I have to say that the event was one of the most inspirational that I have ever attended, and far and away the most interesting academic conference. I have attended many academic conferences over the last few years but i think this is the first one that I have given an academic conference paper ­ without PowerPoint or similar , in my shorts.. ­ but more importantly one that includes yoga, tai chi and meditation alongside conference papers. I found this a timely reminder that as academics and business practitioners we tend to decouple our personal, physical and spiritual well-being from our roles as professionals, leaders, educators and as business people. For me one of the keys to sustainability and sustainable leadership is addressing our own wellbeing alongside that of others.

If you are interested in issues related to leadership, wellbeing and sustainability you there is a community of like-minded people who attended the conference on Facebook and LinkedIn. A reunion event is planned for April 2016 as part of a Spring School in Sustainable Leadership.

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