BIPOC Agile Stories: Ewan O’Leary Connects Social Justice Experiences in South Africa and United States

Speaker 1:                    (singing).

Ewan O’Leary:               Great.

Dr. Dave:                      Okay, so, we’re recording, I’m going to do my intro right now, okay?

Ewan O’Leary:               Sure, perfect.

Dr. Dave:                      Hello, and welcome to the KnolShare with Dr. Dave Podcast, I am Dr. Dave Cornelius, your host. You know, I first met Ewan at a coaching retreat in Seattle, Washington. We were in the same cohort, seeking to discover a hypothesis for a future solution in the coaching space. We had a few contentious moments, but settled our differences over a few beers and I introduced him to my family, my wife and my son, who were traveling with me at the conference, so, let’s begin to learn about Ewan’s journey during this period of social justice conflicts.

                                    So, Ewan, it’s so good to see you, one of the things, let’s introduce who you are, let the world know who Ewan O’Leary is. I hope I didn’t screw your name up too badly.

Ewan O’Leary:               Yeah, no, you’re perfect, you’re perfect. So, here’s the thing, right, I have my father to thank for the fact that my name is Ewan Gareth O’Leary, and if you kind of look at the capital letters there it forms ego.

Dr. Dave:                      I just saw that, that’s crazy.

Ewan O’Leary:               So, I guess I’m sort of carrying a few things around, maybe a chip on my shoulder or two, or 17, I don’t know. But I grew up in South Africa, I left South Africa in 2000 and moved to the United States, and I feel a tremendous sense of privilege at being able to do that. You know, South Africa is a country with its own amazingly and painfully beautiful history, in so many different ways and for so many different people. For some folks, the beauty isn’t there, it’s just mostly pain. I try to sort of find a silver lining in every cloud, but I find that, obviously, with the privilege that I bring into any situation.

                                    So, I’ve been coaching as an agile coach, technically since, and I say technically, since 2008, that was the first time I spun up a scrum team to solve some problems in an organization. But I’ve been in software development since I was eight and I persuaded my dad to trade his HP 12c in for a Commodore 64.

Dr. Dave:                      Yeah.

Ewan O’Leary:               Which was a great platform, a lot of fun, and it sort of gave me the sense of confidence that I could solve any problem, I could deal with any situation in technology. Of course, I’m not in technology now, I’m in coaching, and I’ve been in coaching for, I don’t know, 12 or 13 years. Right now, I’m working with a large pharma organization helping with late stage drug trials, doesn’t sound like technology at all, but one of the things that I’ve read along the way is this idea that management is the technology of human accomplishment.

                                    And agile management, agile leadership, and in fact, agile process, agile values, principles, just lump that all together for the moment, we can argue about the nuances later, I’m sure we will. If you bring all those things together, you have human accomplishment, and that’s led me to my reason for doing what I do, which is to liberate human potential. I coach to liberate human potential. And I leave pauses like I just left for you, there’s a little mine field.

Dr. Dave:                      I love it.

Ewan O’Leary:               Let’s go for it, man.

Dr. Dave:                      I love it. So, let’s talk about the social justice conflicts in the US and around the world, you know? How is that affecting you, you know, in here? How does that make you feel my brother?

Ewan O’Leary:               I, first off, thank you for acknowledging me as your brother, that is an enormous, enormous… I feel so much respect for that. We have some problems which may seem intractable right now, and I know that people, like me, who look like me, have contributed enormously to these challenges, and I know that my work is to sit down and shut up and maybe listen, a lot. And maybe just step back from taking action other than to create space, to hold space, to catalyze space for those who are closer to the experience of what’s going on, to step forward and make the changes necessary with my full and absolute support.

                                    So, I’m seeing in the agile space, in the space I’m working in, opportunities like, for example, in my work, I’m running these dojos, places to practice in a safe space where young and it seems to be mostly young women of color are hearing from someone who looks like another person who might have articulated things like, “Well, you just stay in that corner, keep a smile on your face, do your research, don’t actually raise your ideas, but just do your research, go and do…” All these sort of, because it’s a very STEM space I’m in right now, and, of course, a STEM space has its own challenges with masculinity and so on.

                                    But, yeah, the space I’m in is really where I can sort of go, no, you’re not going to sit in the corner and go, do your research, no, that’s not how we’re going to work, we’re going to create self-organizing teams and I am going to give you the skills, as much as I can, I’m going to share with you the skills, you already have them by the way or help you uncover, here’s a better phrasing, I will help you uncover the skills that are inherent within you, such that you are able to take the next step and assume greater agency for the outcomes that are important to you.

                                    Not to me, that are important to you in the way you move forward. And what I find is this is an enormous privilege, it’s the best coaching work I’ve ever done, and for the people I’m around, and I’m working with, I can only sort of humbly appreciate the fact that they were leaning into this proposal I’d made, and that’s it.

Dr. Dave:                      So, when some of these social justice conflicts show up in teams that you’re coaching, if they have, how do you feel when you have to help those teams find a path to reconcile the differences? Which is really hard, right?

Ewan O’Leary:               Yeah, totally. I mean, I’ll use our example, recognize human beings first. Okay, we’re human beings. Fundamentally, here we are, yeah, we’re experiencing different responses, different reactions to situations, and if we can find our humanity in it, and

Ewan O’Leary:               And sometimes our humanity is on the far side of anger and the far side of hurt and the far side of the experience of being the other in situations. And it requires a great deal of patience and empathy. And basically, I’m coaching around teams, around creating space for patients and empathy, such that I don’t actually have to directly engage in having conversations with people other than saying, Yes, I recognize your pain. I recognize maybe something triggered you, and we need to take it, well, and I need to fucking listen. Sorry, excuse my French, but I need to listen. I mean, Dave, this is like some really real, real stuff for me. Okay?

                                    Growing up in South Africa, raised as a child under apartheid, living a life of white male privilege and recognizing the impact that this has on the world, this is an incredibly important conversation for me to be having, mostly because it’s helping me clarify how I can be better in allying or being an ally or being available. Let me reframe it, being available to be an ally. Your discretion, your choice, right? Okay, you invited me into this conversation. So here is me trying and recognizing that I will fail but also being open to recognize that and to listen.

Dr. Dave:                      Staying in the frame, what is the one emotion that you would like to see show up in the agile team members, in your agile team members? So even in the agile community?

Ewan O’Leary:               Hmm, here it is. It’s one emotion, but it’s several words; joy in connection. Joy in connection. Yep. Joy in connection. Anyway, that’s one thing.

Dr. Dave:                      Okay. Okay. But with that emotion, how do you see that helping to build high performing teams?

Ewan O’Leary:               Right. Okay. Very, very simple. Working in a space right now where I’m working with very academically experienced clinicians, doctors, MDs, and so on, and folks who are scientists, they’re researchers and so on, when I see a team where everyone is like, “I am so excited to connect with you, Dave, because I care about you. I have empathy for you. I have respect for you as a human being.” Maybe there’s sort of a gate into the organization because I’m obviously, well, not obviously, but I work in an organization that’s exceptionally powerful in the space, in terms of bringing in people who have very, very strong academic and clinical pedigrees. But when we’re able to connect as human beings and actually recognize and respect each other, there’s almost this cathartic healing aspect that begins to show up when people connect with joy.

                                    And it’s like we are… My friend, Francois, from Pixis, anyway, Francois talks about this idea and Francois and Bonnie Roy, Bonnie Roy talks about this too, this idea of an organization being a place for people to actually heal their trauma. I’m doing a lot of work with Thomas Hubel right now on collective trauma, because I believe that unless we are able to find that ability within our teams to connect and understand how things are for us, how the world occurs to us and be in each other’s court, it becomes almost impossible to have a conversation beyond just a superficial level. It’s like, “Hey, that’s great. Oh, fantastic. Yeah, great. How’s your family,” et cetera, et cetera. No, that’s often not a real conversation.

                                    But if we’re able to get into the real problems of the world collectively, what I’ve noticed in my teams is a surprising thing shows up and that is, first, we’re highly effective at working together. And then second, there’s this joy and connection that shows up. And to me, that’s the most powerful, the most powerful thing that I’ve observed, even more than teams being in flow, teams basically having the best, most optimal agile process, any of these different things, joy in connection, so people want to show up the next day and the day after that and the day after that and day after that, because they actually, I don’t know. This is probably sounding real hippy. They love each other.

Dr. Dave:                      There’s nothing wrong with love, man. Love is good.

Ewan O’Leary:               I know, dude. I know. It’s like, Oh no, we all love each… Oh, okay. All right. The hippie can go away. I can put my dreadlocks away.

Dr. Dave:                      Hey man, to me, love is about being patient and being kind. That’s what love really means. Right? That’s what love means. But I love the fact that you chose the word joy and not happiness, because joy is an internal thing, and happiness is external so it’s driven from external factors. Yeah.

Ewan O’Leary:               Oh, it can be. Yeah, it certainly can be. It certainly can be. Yeah. Yeah, indeed.

Dr. Dave:                      Talk to me about what practices will stand, whether you pursue to improve social justice, justice for Black Indigenous and People of Color, BIPOC lives.

Ewan O’Leary:               Yeah. Oh, my gosh. I listen. I listen, and where I’m asked to ally, I ally. And where I’m asked to advocate, I advocate. And where I’m asked to use my privilege, I will use my privilege. I will not rest.

                                    Getting very emotional. My youngest sister is two and a half years old. She’s a woman of color. She’s Ethiopian or Ethiopian, South African. Louise O’Leary. And I imagine a world in which she is able to have her culture, her identity embraced

Ewan O’Leary:               … without sort of like, everyone is the same, because we’re not all the same, but we are different, but let’s embrace the difference, and let’s celebrate. Let’s celebrate the difference. I worked at a company called EDS Africa in about 1993, 1994. It was the first real job I had, like serious paycheck, serious responsibilities, et cetera, et cetera. And I remember the head of HR who was an African-American man. One of the very, very, very, honestly, very first African-American men I met. I was living in South Africa at the time. And we’d just emerged from apartheid and this was all sort of new.

                                    It said, “In our diversity there is strength.” That’s where we find our strength. And this was a company, I mean, let’s forget and of the other stuff that sort of went along with chickens in the chicken coop and so on, but it was just this sort of magnificent experience where I believe that … And I could see and experience how this is what’s … this is what I completely and utterly believe in. And there isn’t another way for me. And I will sit down and shut up enough that I can be in support of the movement that’s going on in the world right now, to the point where …

                                    My mom, who was a freedom fighter for 10, 12 years and disappeared from my life in South Africa prior to the fall of apartheid, she went underground, right? This is it. I will support and embrace what her perspective. She has set the level by which I will judge myself. Others may judge me and what have you, but I will judge myself by the level of my mother has set. And that was, she was in South Africa in a biracial relationship, which was illegal. She was in South Africa in a situation where she was actively seeking to undermine the apartheid regime in all manner. She was quite intellectual. So a lot of it was writing, but some other … there was a lot of direct action as well.

                                    So I am now, honesty. I am looking for opportunities where people who are in need, maybe the BIPOC community, is able to … maybe I can create this space where folks can reach out to me and go like, “Hey, what can you do?” And then I’ll step up. But in the meantime, I’m not trying to sort of be a colonizer of social change. I was like, “Hey, we need to change this.” Yes, that may be true. And I also want to recognize that others may have a better understanding and a better awareness of what needs to change and how it needs to change. And I want to listen to that conversation and be in support of that conversation. Does that make sense? Or am I confusing?

Dr. Dave:                      It makes completely … it makes sense, you know, because there’s just leading into … if there was one action that you could take at the moment to make things easier for BIPOC lives, what would be the one thing?

Ewan O’Leary:               Oh my gosh, I don’t know.

Dr. Dave:                      Okay.

Ewan O’Leary:               Actually, I do. Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, connect, listen. More conversations, more conversations. I apologize for the young children who are … they are really having a good time there. But ask questions. I would offer that sometimes listening is better than asking questions. You know, there’s a situation that happens when someone like me kind of shows up and asks, “Hey, Dave, what do you think that the situation is?” And there’s sort of like, the privilege of, hey, you’re representing everyone from an out-group, okay?

                                    And that’s an abuse of privilege to me. And that’s not how I want to show up. I want to show up when the opportunity for me to amplify a question that maybe already exists in the environment is there, and I can amplify that and sort of step forward with it and go like, “Here’s the person we should be talking to.”

                                    AOC, for example, like Green New Deal. I don’t want to have a conversation about Green New Deal. I would like to refer all inquiries to this amazing young woman who is spearheading this space. Not because I want to abdicate my responsibility, but because I want to amplify my responsibilities. I do not want to abdicate it. I want to amplify it. And in so doing, I know that I am the pause, I am the energy behind something of greater impact than just me sort of taking something that’s superficial, a problem that’s superficial, and then sort of saying, “Oh, let me go solve that problem for you.”

                                    Well, I grew up in Africa and let me tell you the number of problems that I saw solved by sort of a colonial mindset, was very small. The number of problems I saw created by a colonial mindset, and I think this is perhaps part of what I’m sort of getting to, and thank you for helping me get there, is like, I would like to have a mindset of de-colonization. That’s how I could show up differently. Fully recognizing, Dave, that you may sort of look at this and go, “How am I going to edit this thing?”

Dr. Dave:                      Just to let you know, there’s no editing.

Ewan O’Leary:               Oh my gosh, that’s so awesome.

Dr. Dave:                      There’s no editing.

Ewan O’Leary:               That is so awesome. Just put this out there because people will go like, “Damn, this is a white dude really struggling with his life.”

Dr. Dave:                      Hey-

Ewan O’Leary:               And I’m okay. I’m here, man. I’m here, I’m here. I’m fucking here.

Dr. Dave:                      I’m glad that you’re here. I’m glad that we have arrived at this space.

Ewan O’Leary:               Thank you. Yes, oh my gosh.

Dr. Dave:                      I want to recognize one of our own that have fallen or-

Ewan O’Leary:               Yeah.

Dr. Dave:                      … in our community, Tamsen. I met with her several times, with her graphic recording and then in different sessions. Tell me more about the event that you just experienced today.

Ewan O’Leary:               So Tamsin invited me to her own funeral. If that’s any recognition on who Tamsin was and how she lived in the world. She was a fierce human being, a fierce heart, a fierce heart. She was from the UK. And she started out life as a ballet dancer and ended up an Agile coach, with a lot of humor in between. In fact, her whole approach to life centered around humor. And I didn’t get that and I still don’t get that. I’m still a cranky and curmudgeonly old …

Ewan O’Leary:               Sometimes I consider myself as, I have this sort of bad attitude to everything. Like get-off-my-lawn kind of an attitude. And Tamsen called me on it. She called me on it once, to my face. And I didn’t know what the hell to do with this, right? No idea, no idea. And we fought, we literally fought. I was like, “Tamsen Mitchell? Hell no!” For the six years that we knew each other until, I met her in 2014, 2015 thereabouts, but five or six years that we’ve known each other, and until I realized that she and my mother were suffering from the same thing, which is colon cancer. She passed away from colon cancer on October 28th. My mother passed away from colon cancer on August 27th. In the time between my mother passed away and Tamsen passed away, she reached out to me no less than four times.

                                    A little bit before, when she found out my mother was suffering from colon cancer, she had invited me to her CaringBridge website. And, of course, there are a lot of our community there, because Tamsen has made an indelible impact in terms of her graphic recording, her sassy hats, just her general attitude to the world and the powerful questions she provokes about how we all show up. It was the honor of my life to be invited to someone’s funeral by someone who was not dead yet. It was also an exercise of her humor. You can talk to Zach and Victor, folks down in your neck of the woods in southern California. Victor Bonacci, sorry, Zach Bonaker and what’s Victor’s last name?

Dr. Dave:                      [Bonacci].

Ewan O’Leary:               Bonacci! Yeah, Bonaca, Bonacci, almost the same thing, only one’s Italian and one isn’t. I think I might be the first person who just drew that conclusion. They may not appreciate it. Sorry, Zach. Sorry, Victor.

Dr. Dave:                      Hey, they’re good friends, so it’s good.

Ewan O’Leary:               They’re good friends, yeah. But the impact she had in my life, it was like, “Damn! Sometimes it hurts to be around you, but also I am so provoked to think about my own impact on the world when I do. So I’m going to carry on.” And Tamsen, I have enormous love and enormous respect for you. We fought many times. We argued. We didn’t like each other, initially. And we settled on a space of just deep appreciation. Thank you.

Dr. Dave:                      Thank you. That is a great note to bring our interview to a close. I’m going to do the lead out.

                                    Hang in there. So thank you for listening to the Knolshare with Dr. Dave Podcast. I hope this learning experience would also prompt you to seek more and discover how you can contribute to positive experiences for BIPOC lives. It doesn’t take much. All you have to do is to tap into your own humanity. So let me tell you where you could find this great presentation with Ewan. You will find Agile for Humanity’s Social Justice and Impact Series on the Knolshare with Dr. Dave Podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify. You’ll find it also on the following website, it’s on the website, the,, and also Agile for Humanity. Also, look forward to sharing black indigenous and people of color stories on the Agile Alliance website, under the webcast section.

The music is by my niece, Kiana Brown Hendrickson.

Copyright 2020, KnolShare and Dr. Dave Cornelius.

So until next time, be well, stay safe and connect soon.

                                    Ewan, love it. Thank you so much. Don’t go anywhere. I’m just stopping recording, okay?

Ewan O’Leary:               Thank you.

Recording:                    (Singing).