By Beatrice Ungard
There is much I could share about my husband Bryan: his charm, kindness, great generosity, subtle humor, thoughtfulness, and the way he deeply listened. We only had six years together—way too short to truly know someone’s life, yet I feel I have known him forever (I know he shared the same feeling toward me). It is impossible for me to highlight all the aspects of Bryan’s life—as the father, brother, uncle, friend, or colleague that he was. I hope his children, family, friends, and colleagues will understand if I do not include here all the details of his life. The life events that I want to emphasize are those that I believe shaped the man Bryan was when I met him and those that influenced the last stage of his evolution.
Bryan was not perfect. Yet, throughout his life, he sought to (re)connect to something that he intuitively knew was beyond himself as a human being—a deeper source, which in his later years he would not hesitate to call ‘spirit.’ Looking back at his life journey, I see three interwoven themes central to his personal and spiritual growth: a need to re-source himself by communing with nature; a commitment to learning and development; and a thirst for understanding and manifesting love. These three themes influenced the most important moments of his life and supported his personal transformation. I believe it is less from his worldly accomplishments but from his personal and spiritual growth that one can truly appreciate how unique Bryan was and, if I may venture to say, the soul and spirit he still is.
I begin the story of Bryan’s life with our first encounter, filling in the before and after our meeting as best I can.
A New Beginning
Bryan and I met at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco in February 2015. We both experienced our encounter as ‘a miracle’ and the connection between us was immediate. After a deep conversation over dinner with one of his friends our eyes met and it felt like our souls recognized each other’s. Bryan and I had been on a similar learning journey: we had read the same books, had similar philosophical interests, were both focused on organizational development, and were each engaged in our own spiritual journeys. Over the next six years, Bryan and I shared a unique relationship grounded in deep love and mutual respect; we became partners in our personal lives and in work, jointly exploring a similar spiritual path.
A few months before Bryan and I met, I attended a retreat with the Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma (meaning Mother). Amma has been traveling the world for more than 30 years lovingly hugging people (or ‘giving darshan’ as it is called in the Indian tradition). While Amma practices Hinduism, her “true religion” is love and service. I quickly became a strong devotee and invited Bryan to meet Amma during her visit in Los Angeles in June 2015. Bryan was deeply moved and inspired by her embodiment of unconditional love—especially since he had often felt unworthy of being loved (one of his shadow sides). We both became active members of the local Satsang after I moved to Los Angeles. After Bryan and I decided to get married in February 2016, we asked Amma if she would marry us and by Her infinite grace and compassion she performed our wedding ceremony in San Jose, CA in November 2016.
Becoming a “nature boy”
Bryan was born on March 10, 1960 in Burbank, California, the third of four children. His family relocated to Canada when he was only four years old. (He later enjoyed visiting his elderly mother and grown siblings and their families in Rosseau, a popular nature destination in Ontario.) Shortly after, the family moved again to Ohio where they built a home nested in the woods. The proximity to nature influenced Bryan’s approach to life and shaped the man he would become.
From a very young age, he spent hours outdoors, playing with his dogs, often camping out, making his own bow and arrows, and watching the birds (an interest he inherited from his mother). Bryan loved studying the stars with his telescope, a passion he developed while reading the captions of the pictures of an astronomy book—only the captions because, as he later shared: “I was much too young to read the book, much less to understand it!” This childhood deep connection to nature and animals earned Bryan the family nick name “nature boy.” From these early days to the end of his life, Bryan continued to find inspiration and solace in the natural world.
As a father, Bryan took his children Sebastian Wolfgang and Isadora Mae on summer vacations to national parks across the country. The desert landscapes of New Mexico and Joshua Tree in California were his preferred places to be and recharge. Bryan’s ashes, along with his beloved dogs (two afghan hounds), rest together under the stars in Joshua Tree.
Finding the courage to live
Despite his fascination for astronomy Bryan did not much enjoy studying physics and instead graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Hiram College in Ohio. Seeking financial independence very early on, he worked in the college’s computer center during the school year while he juggled multiple jobs at a fish store, a piano tuning business, and a construction company in the summers.
During the summer before his sophomore year in college, Bryan had a terrible accident riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle and lost his left leg. Recalling the dramatic event, Bryan wrote in a private letter:
“…not only has my leg never held me back in any meaningful way, it is often absent in how I think about and tell the story of my life…How can something as big as losing a leg when you are 19 years old not factor as a major part of a life story? I don’t think it is denial, or even avoidance…It is possible that losing my leg freed me. Freed me of a fear of death. Freed me to work on having the courage to live, rather than the courage to die. Freed me to pay attention to something different. I had the direct experience of how easy and peaceful dying is which, without me knowing it, shifted me to work on living. That has been my path from the sacred to the mundane…I’m just now, all these years later, realizing what a gift it has all been…”
Is there a place for the human spirit in Corporate America?
After graduating from college, Bryan moved to southeast Michigan where many American automotive companies, influenced by Japanese competition, were exploring computer integrated manufacturing (CIM). There, he began his career consulting for the CIM market.
In 1988, Bryan co-founded Silenus Group, a software development and systems integration company that provided services to manufacturing organizations large and small, including IBM, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, La-Z-Boy, and Caterpillar. Bryan was involved in all aspects of the corporation from the start, eventually serving as its CEO and CFO. He and his management team grew the Silenus group from three to over forty employees with annual revenues of $3 to $5 million and consistent profitability.
These early career years enabled Bryan to hone both business and personal skills. Since he had no prior formal training in running a business Bryan decided to earn an MBA at the University of Michigan and graduated in 2004. Building on his high level of personal and professional standards and, most importantly, his deep care for people, Bryan was able to create an environment of loyalty, trust, and respect for his employees. He later recalled being very proud of hearing employees share that Silenus was the best place they had ever worked.
The narrow focus on competitive business approaches Bryan learned about in business school and Corporate America’s dehumanizing business practices witnessed from consulting, eroded Bryan’s trust in business. Adding to this, 15 years after launching Silenus Group, the dot-com bubble burst forced the company to downscale from fifty to ten people. Bryan began realizing that despite all its potential, technology was quite limited in solving companies’ real challenges and that what really made a difference in business was what he then called “the company’s character.” After market difficulties and growing tensions with his partners, Bryan decided to sell the business, but not before making sure that all remaining employees had found new employment.
These challenging times launched Bryan on a life quest to figure out what makes companies great.
Exploring a new path
In 2003, without a company to run and not quite sure what to do next, Bryan sought a fresh start. He and his first wife Suzette decided to move the family (Sebastian was three and Isadora was one) to Santa Fe, New Mexico—a place where they always had wanted to live. Bryan immediately fell in love with the desert of New Mexico and thought he would remain there forever.
Over the next four years, while consulting on the side, Bryan investigated new possibilities and ways of thinking. He read hundreds of books (literary), talked to many people, and explored new ideas from thought leaders such as Ken Wilber, Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski, and Fred Kofman, as well as many other philosophers and spiritual thinkers. These people pointed to something that felt deeply authentic—principles of symbiosis and interconnectedness that felt inspiring and promising to Bryan. During this time of deep inquiry, Bryan also enrolled in the ManKind Project, a powerful experiential self-development and support group for men. This program was a healing and transformative step for Bryan.
One universal thinker Bryan read in New Mexico was the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) who developed a spiritually grounded theory of human nature and of its conscious evolution. Steiner argued that we are an integral part of the evolving natural world from which we arise and that we must rediscover our deep connection to nature in order to stop our exploitive behaviors. Steiner is also the founder of the Waldorf school educational system, which emphasizes experiential learning as opposed to memorizing isolated facts so that students fully assimilate new knowledge and develop integrated thinking skills. Steiner’s philosophy greatly influenced Bryan’s thinking, in particular his approach to educating his children. Bryan adored his children and was very dedicated to them. When they were not on a trail or on a trip to visit national parks, Bryan enjoyed talking about gaming with Sebastian and spent numerous hours driving Isadora to and from her gymnastic classes, taking pictures and filming all her competitions. Both children attended Waldorf schools. Bryan deeply respected their unique individuality. In his personal notes, I found a poem from the Lebanese-American writer and poet Kahlil Gibran, which clearly expresses Bryan’s approach. Here is an excerpt:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
~Kahlil Gibran (Full poem on YouTube)
In 2005, Bryan attended Ken Wilber’s second Integral Leadership Business conference in Boulder, Colorado. There, he connected with Kazimierz Gozdz, an organizational development consultant working for The Decurion Corporation in Los Angeles, CA. Kaz challenged Bryan’s belief that business was corrupt. Instead, he suggested that organizations were undeveloped and that when operating in whole and healthy ways they could be healing places for people and make enormous contributions to the world. This got Bryan’s attention! Kaz also mentioned that Decurion had an open position for a Chief Information Officer and that Bryan should apply for it. Not wanting to leave Santa Fe and move to Los Angeles, Bryan almost lost the opportunity. However, influenced by his wife, he went through an intensive interview process ending with Bryan being offered the position. Bryan’s only reason for joining Decurion was to explore how a business could support human wholeness and flourishing while still being highly profitable.
Pursuing developmental work at Decurion
During his first year at Decurion, Bryan experienced the transformative work happening within the organization as a shock. He listened, observed, and learned a lot during that time. Under Kaz’s mentorship, Bryan slowly began to deepen his understanding of what it takes to build a culture committed to growing people’s potential. As Kaz had suggested, Bryan began to experience first-hand that there was no real tradeoff between people flourishing and business performance in a developmental organization. In Bryan’s words:
“I started to dream of being part of a place where these things were true, where meaning, purpose and development created transformative change for both the business and the people. A place where I wasn’t just being used to get results and where I was contributing to something bigger that made a difference for everyone. I sensed—I knew—that it was possible.”
Working at Decurion provided Bryan with a platform to continue his own development and deepen his own understanding of what it takes to build places for people to flourish. Along with other leaders at Decurion, Bryan completed Learning as Leadership’s one year program based in Sausalito, California. This four-part program gave Bryan a systemic and supportive opportunity to explore his shadow side, unearthing important (and humbling) realizations of his personal relationship with power. Bryan also went on a Nature Quest led by John Milton, a pioneer in the field of ecology and environment. The experience of spending three days alone on an isolated beach with only the bare minimum (which in Bryan’s case meant no food but only fresh water, no books, or any writing material) allowed Bryan a communion with the natural world that had a lasting powerful effect on him. Asked by Christopher Forman, CEO of Decurion, whether he would do it again he replied: “Yes, and this time I’d do a month instead of a week.”
As part of its transformative effort Decurion opened an Aikido dojo on its company’s premises. Bryan joined the dojo and practiced diligently for over 15 years. He was fascinated by the philosophy behind the martial art, which is based on principles of centering, connecting, blending, and redirecting energy. Bryan understood that Aikido could be a powerful instrument for personal transformation and that what was practiced on the mat was meant for outside of the dojo as well, in all life’s settings. Bryan went further than anyone else in the company earning a 2nd-Dan black belt.
After serving as Decurion’s interim COO, Bryan transitioned to his last professional role in 2015 as Decurion’s Chief Purpose Officer. During the 15 years Bryan worked at Decurion, he supported the organization’s transformation into what Harvard professor Robert Kegan and co-author Lisa Lahey eventually dubbed a “Deliberately Developmental Organization” (DDO) in their 2016 book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Featuring Decurion and two other companies, the book introduces innovative approaches to people development, crystalizing the practices of DDOs and highlighting the value they deliver.
Bryan also co-authored with Decurion’s CEO Christopher Forman The Practice of Self-Management—“a handbook that offers tested lessons, meditations, and daily-life practices to anyone who seeks to become a more centered, present, and authentic individual, both at work and in life in general.” Bryan taught the Practice of Self-Management course inside of Decurion as well as to external groups and organizations.
Evolving toward a more whole and life-giving approach
After meeting at Wisdom 2.0, Bryan’s personal and career paths joined mine. I had studied living systems theory and written my doctorate dissertation on the application of living systems principles to organizations’ adaptive capacity in complex and dynamic environments. I was working as an organizational development consultant, exploring a living systems and regenerative approach to organizational management based on the work of The Regenesis Group in Santa Fe, NM, a leader in regenerative development. (An interesting synchronicity, Bryan had also connected with the group during his time in Santa Fe.) Bryan and I began jointly exploring how to create a more life-giving and regenerative society. To deepen our understanding of what it means to support the development of regenerative organizations, we joined Carol Sanford’s Change Agents Community. Bryan found in the regenerative approach a way to evolve his thinking on developmental work. He realized that organizations, like any other living beings, have a unique essence and potential and have a role to play in making a value-adding contribution to the systems in which they are embedded—be it their customers and employees, the communities where they work, or society as a whole. This new understanding drove Bryan to dedicate his work to helping other practitioners and organizations embrace an interconnected living paradigm.
In 2016, Bryan created the Deliberately Developmental Practitioners Network (DDP-Network)—a network of practitioners committed to their personal and professional development. While non-denominational, the DDP Network operated from a paradigm grounded in the interconnectedness of life. Through his public talks (many available on this website) Bryan attracted practitioners seeking a more whole and life-giving approach to personal and organizational development. Members of the Network met monthly learning new frameworks and practicing together. In the months after Bryan’s passing the Network explored possible next steps. It was lovingly closed by its members in February 2022.
The last two years of his life were difficult for Bryan. Due to the pandemic, Decurion had to make difficult decisions and layoff many employees in ways that Bryan did not always agree with. In the early Spring of 2021, Bryan was in the process of transitioning from his role as Chief Purpose Officer to leading the new Decurion Institute for Wholeness and Development—an Institute co-created with Decurion’s CEO Christopher Forman to pursue their vision for wholeness and development in a way that transforms leaders, communities, and organizations so that life flourishes. This newborn institute was closed as a result of Bryan’s death.
Bryan’s health began to deteriorate in the summer of 2020. He underwent heart surgery in October 2020 and was diagnosed a few months later with a rare disease that attacked his heart. Sebastian, who was temporarily living with us in Los Angeles at the time, and I witnessed Bryan’s struggle with his illness. Bryan rarely complained, and despite his great fatigue and many challenging side effects, he continued to work. The night before his death, he facilitated a two-hour session with a company in Australia. He would not have wanted it to be otherwise. He passed away in the morning of May 17, 2021 from heart failure, only two days after starting treatment to combat the disease.
At Bryan’s service, his former colleague Kriste Dragon, who Bryan supported as a board member of Citizens of the World Charter Schools, spoke these words about Bryan’s essence and purpose:
“I experienced Bryan in person as sometimes quiet, often reserved and always thoughtful. But as I carry his influence forward, which I intend to do, I will think of Bryan as RADICAL. Radical in his conviction and radical in the integrity with which he chose to live his life.”
~ Kriste Dragon, CEO at Pahara Institute and former co-founder and CEO at Citizens of the World Charter Schools
Kriste’s describing Bryan as a radical beautifully encapsulates Bryan’s way of engaging in the world. I hope Bryan’s story will inspire us to pursue our own development and to contribute in our own unique ways to life-giving purposes.