Barbara McAfee: Inciting Radical Aliveness Through Song

Photo by Nancy Chakrin

Barbara McAfee teaches people to sing—sometimes as many as 1,500 at a time—from 50 different countries—in English—a round, no less—in about 20 minutes. At least that’s what she did at last year’s International Coach Federation Conference in Montreal. 

And she made it seem easy. 

So when I heard she was here in Vancouver presenting with management consultant and writer Meg Wheatley, I jumped at the chance to interview her.

“Meg talks. I sing,” says McAfee, laughing.

Over the last two years, she and Wheatley have been crisscrossing North America on a Women’s Leadership Revival Tour. When Wheatley first asked Barbara if she’d write the anthem and be the band, Barbara said, “You’d better not be kidding.” 

Meg wasn’t. And it happened.  

Late last month, Wheatley and McAfee were in Vancouver, conducting a two-day managers conference whose theme was the voice of leadership. 

“Singing together is like removing this blinder that tells us we’re all alone,” says McAfee. “Suddenly the connections are lit up between us. It’s a visceral experience of being an individual in a team or community. When you sing, it comes form your deepest centre, your private temple. Spirit goes out on the breath and vibrates in the world. It’s not rational. Singing lights up both sides of the brain. We use our bodies and our emotions.” 

Which points to the power of voice work as a part of Organizational Development. 

It quite literally embodies ideas expressed by writers such as Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) and Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind), as well as the work of the Center for Right Relationship

“It requires three different simultaneous levels of awareness. You fall into beauty. Then it’s ‘whoops what’s my part?’ Then you’re aware of the team, your section. And then there’s the awareness of the whole chorus. How do you orient to all of these things? It’s like listening with your skin.

“Then after a while, I say ‘now let’s make it beautiful,’ and it all changes. They get louder, more vivid, more heart felt. How do they do that?” she asks. “Did we meet and strategize? No. It’s the collective intelligence—that’s it, really.

“I teach a simple round, we get surrendering into the sound. I step back, eyes closed, and then 45 people stop on a dime. Happens all the time.”

McAfee remembers a time when it wasn’t so easy for her to sing. Raised in a musical family, she sang in choirs, but was deathly afraid of singing a solo. Then, at 23, she was invited to sing with a jazz trio.

“Someone in my mouth said ‘yes.’ And terror ensued—every week. It was like walking on hot coals—anticipation and the shame after. I could hear what I wanted to do and couldn’t do it. I was always reaching for that.”

Then came further training at the Roy Harte Centre in the South of France, which opened her up to range and shadow and all the different parts of herself.  Not traditional voice training at all. “We worked with big energy, wild, uncivilized—all the stuff you’re not supposed to be.”

In and around her voice work, there were, of course, day jobs: head-hunter for computer programmers, for instance. That’s where she got interested in what it takes for people to step into something new. When she returned to Minnesota from France, she found herself working in “a left-leaning poster collective.” It was in that job she discovered “a new framework for what art is for—using art for social change and transformation.” Then came organizational development work in the late 80s, “before anyone had degrees in it—very creative, fearless, fun people. They were pioneers,” she says. And soon she began bringing music into their work. “Everything was an experiment. We started bridging the gap between organizations and communities.”

Around this time, she began coaching clients in voice. “I kept hearing leaders trying to lead with voices that were counter to their purposes.” So she started working more and more in the leadership realm, and built her own model over time.

These days, the conversation is not so much about organizational effectiveness as it is about “how we are going to sustain ourselves and frame the pain of these times.” She paraphrases author Lynne Twist, who believes we need to offer hospice to the old systems, all the while acting as midwife to the new.

 “And that’s not easy,” says McAfee. “Both involve a lot of surrender. You don’t control how death happens.” What’s dying is “the idea that that money matters more than people—power matters more than humanity. We just can’t keep it up.

“As individuals we’ve learned a lot, but these dinosaurs take a long time to die. Meanwhile, I see the most amazing, live-giving, re-humanizing work being done in many areas—inside and around these dying dinosaurs. I like to see the seeds of the future that are here now, the sprouting of the new world. I don’t know if we’ll get out of this. We might not. It would break my heart. I think Life likes us. We’ve been a great experiment. It was a risk the Universe took, creating itself in our form. Consciousness has a downside: the illusion of being alone and separate.”

McAfee’s job? Nothing short of  “re-humanizing culture and inciting radical aliveness.”

To learn more about Barbara McAfee and her work, visit her website:

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