What’s a Thought Leader Gathering?

Thought Leader Gatherings are member-based programs (although first-time guests are welcome) with 1/2 day morning sessions every other month in the San Fransisco Bay Area and in Minneapolis/St Paul. They are produced by Craig and Patricia Neal of Heartland Circle, facilitated with Pele Rouge and FireHawk of Resonance, and supported by a team consisting of myself and a number of others in the Thought Leader Gathering community. There are usually between 40 – 50 people attending.

The membership consists of groups from large organizations and businesses, writers, educators, consultants, and freelance professionals. It is open to “all who are called to serve in these times”, as Meg Wheatly defines “leader”.

What happens at a Thought Leader Gathering? There are always subtle variations in the program, but what follows is an outline of a typical TLG.


The day begins with a continental breakfast at small tables, with a member-led introduction and some kind of one-on-one conversational ice-breaker. After that we move to a large group with Beauty (provided by Pele Rouge) in the middle, and “string the beads”, an ancient practice and TLG tradition where each person has a chance to identify themselves and speak briefly into the circle.

Then we hear from a conversation starter, someone who is doing something inspiring or meaningful in the world today. This isn’t a keynote speech – it’s a short, personal sharing & overview of their work that serves to catalyze conversation amongst the group.

After the conversation starter speaks, everyone in the group is given a moment to imagine themselves sharing a meal with the speaker, a kind of “My Dinner with André” scenario, and consider what they’d like to ask or say to him or her. Then, some of us read our questions out loud while the conversation starter just listens. They’ll have a chance to respond later, but for the moment they just listen, and that gives us all the opportunity to go deeper into not only what they’ve said, but what is triggered in us in response.

Some sub-set of the TLG conveners listen closely to the conversation starter and the questions that are being asked from the group, and from them find two or three key points for us to ponder in two rounds of self-selecting small group sessions.

These “wisdom circles”, as we call them, are in many ways the heart of the TLG. In them, we have the chance to go deeply into what the conversation has provoked in us so far and explore wherever that leads with a small circle of peers. I’ve found that some of my most profound learning comes from what happens in these conversations.

After the wisdom circles we reconvene in the large group for a “Harvesting of the Wisdom” to share what we’ve experienced. Then the conversation starters have a few minutes to respond to our questions. By this time the TLG is nearing its close and there is a collective sense of both relaxation and invigoration in the room. Many experience being “alive” with insights about themselves and their work. It’s at this point that we are invited to write down a commitment that we want to live into in the next 30 days, and put it into a self-addressed envelope which the folks at Heartland will mail out to us in a month’s time.


After a brief round where we close the circle as we began, with a brief stringing of the beads, we complete the morning and those who wish to are welcome to stay for lunch.

In the Bay Area these events are held alternately between San Francisco and the South Bay (and in Minnesota between Minneapolis and St Paul), in beautiful locations with large windows and immediate proximity to nature. Great care is taken to bring beauty (in all her forms) into the center of the experience. Everyone is warmly welcomed throughout the day and it is a safe environment, with respect for confidentiality and personal comfort levels.

The conversation starter is taped and all the large group interaction is scribed (without attributing names or sensitive details) so an audio and written record can be mailed to each participant afterwards. Following the TLG there is a also a survey sent out that invites participants to share what was meaningful for them (or not) about the session, which helps Heartland keep the TLGs responsive and relevant to their membership.

The Thought Leader Gatherings offer a remarkable experience of community and collegiality, leadership development and personal growth, and being a member has been of great benefit for many people, having a positive impact in their workplace and in their lives more broadly.

If you’re interested in becoming a member or learning more, or if you would like to experience the TLG as a guest, contact Patricia Neal at Heartland.