Mary Poppins as Provocateur and Change Agent


…. Practically Perfect Change Agency, from the World’s Ultimate Alchemist.

Added on 27 August 2014 by Chris Nichols

Mary Poppins silhouette flying over Ashridge

I saw Mary Poppins at the cinema this week – and the more I watched, the more impressed I became.  This was a massively innovative film for its time (Technicolor, animatronics, integrated animation) ….  It was also incredibly far sighted in its core messages from a book of the 1930s and a film of 1964.  It speaks volumes to today’s concerns in so many ways. I think it has genuinely got much to teach leaders and organizational consultants, indeed anyone working to intervene in complex systems to bring about profound change …. Here’s why:

Enchantment and “Re-Wilding” …  Above all, for me, this film is about “re-enchanting” the disenchanted world. Bringing new life to No 17 Cherry Tree Lane, transforming the dead-to-the-world bankers …. About restoring connection to the birds, bringing in new narratives, music, new ways of seeing the world …

Mary Poppins leads the family in a dance beyond the confines of Mr Banks logical and mechanical worldview (“a British bank is run with precision, a British home requires nothing less”) ….  Mr Banks has lost all connection to wildness. Mary Poppins brings the sacred feminine to re-enchant the banker, the bank and the life of the children, returning connection to wonder, to wildness and to life itself. It calls out to me in the same way as Morris Berman’s (1981) Re-Enchanting the World And Frijtof Capra’s The Web of Life (1996) about the limitation of the mechanistic and the fragmented, and the desperate need to breath life into our work and our organisations …. Paradox, politics and power ….   There is delicious paradox in the way Mrs Banks simultaneously acts as suffragette activist and compliant wife. One minute marching around getting the servants singing in support of women’s votes – yes, the servants :-), and the next scurries to put away her suffragette sash (“you know how much ‘the cause’ aggravates Mr Banks” ). She is both empathetic to the children and largely abandons them to nannies and servants while she marches, being “absent” almost as much as Mr Banks himself …And Mrs Banks is no fool, she picks her battles. Mary Poppins uses power differently, setting her own terms for her “contract” (“Hmmmm, I’ll give you a week as a trial”)  whilst always apparently respecting Mr Banks’ positional power she never fails to subvert it (such as when she leads him into taking the children to the bank) … She works within the frame, to shift the frame: just delightful. It’s a lovely study of the many faces of power, and also in respecting and working artfully with paradox, without trying to take every power struggle as a battle to be faced head on.  This reminds me of two sources of influence on my own practice and framing:

  • Meyerson and Scully’s (1995) work on Tempered Radicalism – the kind of radicalism that exists sufficiently “within the frame” of organisations such that it can act from within without causing outright “tissue type” rejection or terminal conflict
  • Joyce Fletcher’s Disappearing Acts (2001) work on women’s leadership roles, in which she observes how many of the most powerful acts of making teams and relationships, acts of enormous power and significance, get disappeared and go unrewarded in orthodox organisational culture

Framing and frame shifting ….  Much of the wonder of Mary Poppins work happens through frame shifting: diving into pavement art, flying up through fireplaces to dance on rooftops and staircases of smoke … These are the windows of shape-shifting through which her access to other worlds become possible.  It is the same in organisations and leadership. We are totally, cognition and imagination, the prisoner of our framing, and our framing language and imagery. The more we notice the framing the more we can use it intelligently. The more we dare to play with the framing, the more possibilities emerge.

This speaks to me of the work of both George Lakoff and Gareth Morgan (2006). Lakoff has written many books on how we form deeply held neuro-cognitive frames that influence how we see, speak, sense make and act – see for example Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004). Morgan’s (2006) Images of Organization showed how pervasive the most commonplace ways of seeing organisations – and of the implication for action that flow from this.

The ability to recognize frames, language, imagery, narratives and their consequences for action, is utterly essential in all organizational work. Much of Bill Torbert’s (2005) contribution is about building the skills to recognize pervasive frames and work creatively with them using, and legitimizing, multiple narratives. I am also hugely influenced by my colleague Geoff Mead (2014), from whom I have learned much about the nature of narrative in organization and leadership work.  When Mary Poppins leaps through the pavement art into a world of talking penguins and free-willed merry-go-round horses, she is doing Torbert’s post-conventional work, in shaking the frame and allowing the emergence of magic.

We need this work much more in organizations to allow us to see the possibility of addressing problems that absolutely cannot be resolved within the existing frame. Focusing on life and what gives life …  Mary Poppins comes in with the east wind. East is the direction in the medicine wheel where native shamans turn to draw on passion, fire and spirit. When Mr Banks passion is dead, the wind from the East sweeps in to breathe new life.  And so much of our organizational world is dead, or at least not working in the service of life.

We need a gust of insight and life energy from the East. When David Whyte (1994) talks about the day we look at the line on the corporate graph and realize that, somehow, the fire has gone out, that is when we are right there with Mr Banks, dead in the heart.  When we work to serve orgnanization efforts that kill nature or harm people, and go home feeling sick in our souls, we are right there with Mr Banks, failing to see the bird woman on the steps of St Pauls, far from our deepest sense of being alive. This is where the work of eco-psychology calls most potently to me, including work in the spirit of Joanna Macy (1998 / 2012), but also Giles Hutchins (2012) and the whole influence of “permaculture” as a design system (Holmgren, 2003 ).

Each in their own way opens the possibility of ways of living, working and designing in ways that serve life rather than harm life. Each offers both insight and practical ways of working that re-connect fragmented and death-serving ways of being and working.  Mary Poppins brings the Banks’ household alive … And as David Whyte writes in his poem Sweet Darkness “Anything or anyone That does not bring you alive Is too small for you” Even in the darkest of places there will be a glimmer of life: Appreciative Inquiry and solutions focused interventions allow us to work with the slenderest hint of positive energy. Let’s make sure we use whatever opening we have to do only work that is big enough to bring us, our organizations alive.

Stillness, Season and Rest …. Mary Poppins in many ways represents the positive aspects of the Medicine Woman archetype (from Olivier Mythodrama, Olivier Mythodrama “What Next”) She is animated, visionary, provocative, makes changes through story … and has all the energy that goes with that. But she has enough Great Mother archetypal energy when she needs it. I think her lullaby to the over-excited children is a masterpiece of paradoxical intervention: Stay awake, don’t rest your head Don’t lie down upon your bed While the moon drifts in the skies Stay awake, don’t close your eyes Though the world is fast asleep Though your pillow’s soft and deep You’re not sleepy as you seem Stay awake, don’t nod and dream
(c) Sherman Brothers / Disney

Here’s the link to YouTube for the clip Mary Poppins Lullaby Simply magnificent as an example of a paradoxical intervention.

No struggle: simply working with a shamanic sense of how to change energy. Leaders and organization practitioners can learn a lot from that. There’s also wisdom in recognizing the need for rest. Not everything can be done on the back of incessant upward energy. To everything, there is a season. This wisdom, that sometimes however great the energy there needs to be space for rest and reflection, has been represented in learning from the most ancient times, in yoga, in spirituality, in health.  There is power in balance and we neglect it at our peril. Humility over Hubris …  Somewhere in the film Bert says to Mary “the children love their father more than they love you”.  May says, “and that’s how it should be”. In the end, the wind changes, her work is done, Mr Banks takes the children to play, and Mary flies away on the shifting wind …. There is a lot of wisdom here about playing the right role, and about letting go & moving on … One of my great teachers Professor Bill Critchley once said that a consultant should play the smallest possible role in any intervention consistent with still getting the job done. I think this is massively important. It is so easy for us, as consultant, teacher or leader to become the central figure in the drama, the essential one in the spotlight. It is tempting and it is rarely right.

In the words of the Rule of St Benedict, humility is “the center piece of the true life”. It is also essential in organizational work if the change in the system is to outlast the intervention. I am not calling for false humility here: more the knowing humility that the role is vital but transient. You might temporarily sit around the fire-pit, but it is not really your fire. There is often a vital role to be played in bringing difference, allowing a shift of frame to occur, revealing a new possibility. It is shamanic Trickster work in the deepest creative sense. As Lewis Hyde writes in Trickster Makes this World (2008): “A trickster is a boundary crosser. Every group has its edge, it’s sense of in and out, and trickster is always there …making sure there is commerce …. Trickster is the creative idiot .. the wise fool .. the speaker of sacred profanities” … “The trickster does not live near the hearth … he passes through when there is a moment of silence… he enlivens with his mischief..” Whilst it is wonderfully to become a central figure, a star in the spotlight, this is not the true work. We are not of the organization, and even as leaders inside the firm are often creating a future in which we will not fully share when our work is done.

Like Mary Poppins, when the work is done we have to let go and move on and leave the work to others. I was utterly blown away by what I saw in this movie, and I will forever respect the woman who created this character. She managed to create a delightful comic figure of warmth and energy who embodied the wisdom of the ages: “practically perfect in every way”, yet slipping out without ceremony, to serve others elsewhere.

Chris Nichols is Co-Director of the Ashridge MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility, a two year part time journey of discovery, challenge, insight, tears and joy, despair and plenty of Wow! Find out more at:

Ashridge MSc – with tons of WOW factor and Much Much More

Chris is also an organisational consultant with 25 years of experience in over 50 countries who works with many of the world’s biggest companies addressing their most pressing challenges in innovative ways. 

Not all of his work is joyful all of the time, but every bit of it is steered by purpose, exploration and expanding our ways of knowing and being.

On Twitter @chrisnicholsT2i