In conversation with Bart Weetjens

22nd February by Lee Robertson

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We had the special privilege of speaking to social change maker Bart Weetjens. Here he discusses his personal journey from product design graduate to acclaimed social entrepreneur and gives us a little more insight into the Personal Growth and Wellbeing - A Certificate in Personal Growth for Coaches programme.

You are a Zen priest, a product designer, an internationally celebrated social entrepreneur, and a personal growth coach. Can you tell us how these various hats match on the same head?

You may have heard about Magawa, the HeroRAT that was awarded a PDSA Gold Medal, the highest distinction an animal can receive in the world. Magawa saved many people’s lives by detecting more than 100 landmines in Cambodia. Magawa passed away gracefully last month, after a happy retirement. Training HeroRATs to save human lives by detecting disaster and disease was my brainchild. This humanitarian initiative received a lot of recognition worldwide.

But I am not an animal trainer. I actually started as a product designer with a focus on appropriate technologies and a vision of empowering vulnerable communities in the Global South. This vision was nurtured by the practice of Zen, which I started when I was studying.

I was ordained a Zen monk in 2001 in the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous in Belgium.

Ultimately, being a Zen monk, a social entrepreneur and a wellbeing coach all fit together as the result of one and the same holistic vision: serving the oneness of life, and harmoniously reconnecting people with the land and a sustainable future.

Who or what introduced you to the wonderful world of coaching?

It was Mic Billet, professor of sociology and psychology in Antwerp University who started coaching me. He supported me to develop my dream and pursue my vision. It wasn’t easy for me to find my purpose in society when I graduated in Product Design. After working a year in the industry, I quit my job. I couldn’t find myself in the growth economy, depleting the planet’s natural resources by means of extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. I revolted, but the path forward was not at all clear. My coaching sessions with Mic helped me to clarify my purpose. I always had a strong connection with the earth and while I moved away from industry, Mic challenged me to investigate real world solutions, true to my vision of reconnecting people with the earth and a sustainable future.

That is how Mic’s coaching helped me to determine my noble purpose as a real-world product designer addressing the landmine problem in a highly innovative manner.

Ten years later, after an initial stage of research at Antwerp University I moved with the HeroRATs project to Africa. My team grew quickly, and most of the staff were villagers with a basic level of education. My intention was to empower these vulnerable communities with an appropriate detection technology based on renewable natural resources.

At this stage of the project, a lot of what I had learned from Mic’s coaching approach became my modus operandi with my employees, in terms of engaging them on a joint learning journey and supporting them to find the courage to their dreams, empowering them to find their own personal solutions by themselves.

You describe your purpose as being to serve humanity. What values or leadership qualities are most important to you?

Courage, confidence, and curiosity.

Very often we are unsusceptible to change. We prefer keeping the status quo of an unsatisfactory situation because of a fear to lose what is already there. It requires courage to open up to new possibilities and embrace an abundance mindset instead of a scarcity mindset. I think that it is the most important one - to have the courage to renew and go beyond the status quo to continue pursuing a better version of ourselves.

Confidence in the sense of deeply trusting the self when the road is a bumpy, rocky one with lots of uncertainties that may scare us. If we decide to stay grounded in the present moment, we can embody our awareness and find the confidence to continue walking one step at a time towards realising our vision.

Curiosity is an important character strength to find the way and continuously open up to new possibilities. Remaining with a curious mind is important to find sense and meaning in life.

What is your assessment of the key trends and challenges facing business leaders and organisations right now and what should they be doing to address them?

The key challenge I see is the quest for purpose. The established systems are creating more inequality at a continuously faster pace of change. This is leaving people feeling isolated and disenfranchised, with a sense of injustice in social systems, environmental systems, and climate change.

I see the quest for purpose and meaning as the most important issue businesses and organisational leaders need to address. For me, the way to go about that is to start from a place of inner wellbeing because we have seen it over and over again: inner wellbeing inspires welldoing. If you want to create sustainable change in society, it has to come from a place of inner wellbeing.

You have been heavily involved with the Wellbeing Project which ‘focuses on catalysing a culture of inner wellbeing for all changemakers’. Why is that so important?

The research we’ve done with The Wellbeing Project showed that the majority of social change leaders had never made time for personal work. Most of them lived a life of service while ignoring not only their personal needs, but also their family needs, and in some cases, they even ignored their organisational needs.

Most of them over-identified with their work. And quite often, there were unhealthy narratives of sacrifice around these leaders. While the wide public was applauding the heroism, the innovation, and the societal impact, on a personal level these leaders didn’t learn healthy ways to work with trauma or let alone: to open up to their personal vulnerability.

The Wellbeing Project’s research showed that when executive leaders honour their vulnerability and personal needs, they become more effective, both in their personal and work environments. Generally, they become more balanced, happier and healthier. They integrate this sensibility and approach in their relationship to their work, allowing for sufficient family and recovery time. In their work environment, they learn to share leadership in more horizontal ways throughout their organisations and build more trust in their colleagues.

As a result, there is more engagement among their employees, happier staff and less staff-turnover, all contributing to the sustainability of their impact.

So, for me, as a Zen monk and personal growth coach, a pursuit of inner wellbeing is leading to the most important skills needed in this complex time of urgent and rapid change that we need to go through as a society.

Having designed the Personal Growth and Wellbeing Programme for Coaches which we are proud to launch this February, what are the benefits it offers coaches and their clients?

This is really about an experiential learning journey for coaches to pursue their own wellbeing. Very often, coaches are addressing the needs of their coachees, but risk showing up stressed while not sufficiently taking care of themselves.

Most of our communication is non-verbal so when we speak with others, it is not what we say that is the most important, but how we show up in any given situation. Especially for coaches who are there to compassionately support their coachees on their path to fulfilment. We can only reach that fulfilment if we pursue it ourselves as a coach. That is why it is so important to be present. We can define presence in many different ways, but for me it is a continued practice of embodied awareness.

Why do you believe it is important for coaches to make time to work on themselves?

The coaches who are aligned with their purpose and values, and who pursue their own wellbeing automatically become a magnet and inspiration to their coachees. This has to do with healthy boundaries. When we focus on our real needs, we live much truer to our own lives.

Rumi said:

“Yesterday I was clever,

so I wanted to change the world.

Today I am wise,

so I am changing myself.”

What techniques do you use in managing your own self-care and personal growth?

I use a wide variety of techniques. Obviously, I am a Zen practitioner so dwelling in the stillness of meditation is for me at the basis of harmony and wellbeing. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what meditation is and what it is not. Often people think that the practice of meditation is something unreachable for them. Zen is an extremely simple, yet endless path, and the entry points to this practice are unlimited. In the programme we will explore some of the awareness practices of this tradition together, but also practices from other traditions and modalities. An inspirational stillness practice is only one of the pillars of self-care; sufficient sleep, movement, balanced food, and meaningful connections and activities are equally important in the pursuit of wellbeing. For me, the key to unlock a personal growth path is presence, as the continuation of embodied awareness, continuously bringing our minds back to the living reality of the “here and now”.

During the programme participants will learn my 5H Realignment Model, a very practical way to immediately regain natural balance and grounding again, when off course.

How have you seen the need for coaching change as we have gone through the coronavirus pandemic?

The levels of isolation, anxiety, depression, and burnout have never been higher. Many people have lost established structures in their lives, things like interaction with friends and family, like commuting to a work environment, like social interaction with colleagues, or a chat around a cup of tea, and so on. We are social creatures. Social bonding is hugely important to our wellbeing. Feeling isolated is detrimental to our health.

What I have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic is a much bigger need for personal coaching. Many people have lost the foundations of their wellbeing. The constantly threatening news and the lack of perspective created enhanced levels of chronic stress. Others lost a sense of belonging, and their self-esteem was impacted. The consequences of the pandemic formed a collective challenge that each and every one had to learn to deal with on a personal level. It was a challenge that political leaders couldn’t address appropriately because of lacking sufficient scientific insight in its very nature. Learning to deal with such a situation also goes back to the leadership qualities I mentioned earlier: courage, confidence and curiosity. These are needed to find renewal and to fulfil the ultimate human potential to live a life true to ourselves. The space where we embrace those qualities is the space where we automatically thrive.

What would you like your legacy to be?

In a way I already have a legacy with the HeroRATS who have saved so many lives and enabled more than a million people to return to their villages and lead a life free from fear. This impact is a very tangible legacy indeed. But for me personally, a legacy is not so much about the ‘what’ of the impact, it is rather about the ‘how’ we engage to make impact.

Social change is about how we engage with ourselves and each other. And that is not only the measured impact we can create, which of course is important. I have seen many people living a life of service with the best of intentions, in all kinds of humanitarian and social innovation initiatives, yet over-identifying with their roles, and often running into burnout because of unhealthy boundaries around their personal needs.

Ultimately, what I would hope my legacy to be, is an inspiration of how we can harmoniously reconnect with ourselves, with others, with the earth and a sustainable future.

Our deepest thanks to Bart for sharing his inspiring life story.