Suffering, possibility and leadership
In recent weeks I have been finding solace and sanity in contemplating this astonishing nugget from Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala, 2016, p. 52):
As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.
If you’re perplexed and thinking “What the…?” that’s quite understandable; everything about this whole idea that we suffer from resolution is incredibly counter-cultural! In our impatient, striving, polarized society, just tolerating open-ended grey areas – much less opening up our minds to, and relaxing, with them as our “birthright” (which is, itself, a paradox of course) – can sound crazy.
But I believe it’s true that, while humans naturally seek stability, simplicity, certainty and resolution, these instincts cause us great suffering. This is because the stark fact is we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. Therefore, when we rush to decide, declare and complete things, we are making a futile attempt to go against the prevailing conditions and – worse – we close ourselves off from possibility.
On some level we are aware that our (very understandable) fear-based attachment to outcomes tends to foreshorten creative potential. Yet we’d rather sabotage our own futures by constraining ourselves with artificial deadlines than endure the discomfort of not-knowing indefinitely while we hold a space for something to arise that is almost always fresher, wiser, sweeter, more impactful or more beautiful. This is why learning to embrace ambiguity – and the exciting implications of its dynamic process – is an important leadership capacity.
How does a leader “do ambiguity?”
You can nurture a welcoming attitude toward ambiguity with whatever resilience practice works for you. “Doing” ambiguity is, paradoxically, an “undoing.” Any practice that loosens up your thinking and unravels or multiplies your perspectives on the world will help. (Tip: unlike our busy minds with their attachments to a past and future “self,” our bodies know exactly how to handle the ceaseless bardo of ambiguity because they are unable to do anything but exist in the present moment – breathing – letting in and letting go.)
One of my resiliency practices is humor. If you think about it, good jokes are often powered on paradox: after a clear set-up, the best punch lines subvert an expected resolution with a surprise twist. Consider this well-known Buddhist expression about the basic human condition, which is so soberingly sage it cracks me up: “The bad news is you’re falling. The good news is there’s no ground” (bah-dum-BAH!). To me, a serious deep truth is often very funny, which is a view actually backed up by science (i.e., it’s not unrelated to, and is illustrated by, physicist Niels Bohr’s famous observation that “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth”).
Speaking of science, another strategy for welcoming ambiguity is to reframe it using a friendlier term: possibility. Humans live in total flux but, by and large, our default mode is to resist it unless we cultivate a certain quality of awareness, “an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” According to quantum physics, what we call “reality” results from the incomprehensibly complex co-creative act of observation between a field of potential and our consciousness. If I understand this concept correctly, all things are simultaneously possible until the moment they come to pass, which was proven by the gob-smacking “double-slit experiment.” The bottom line (there is no bottom!) is that, when it comes right down to it, everything we intuitively take to be “real” is less physical matter than it is wave-like “potential” until the last instant, when the potential seems to make a choice and appears to become fixed or solid. As if this dream-like description of reality weren’t bizarre enough, another version of the same double-slit experiment demonstrates that the field of potential makes different choices when being observed. (!) In other words, we – and our idea of reality – are continuously co-created in the act of observation.
If this magical co-creation of reality between the observer and the observed sounds more to you like spiritual hoo-hah than science, well you’re not wrong, because it’s both. There are those whose spiritual interpretation of the science is that the field of infinite potential (which is, to over-simplify, what we might think of as the entire seen and unseen cosmos across all space and time) is comprised of consciousness. For these philosophers, limiting consciousness to an organ function doesn’t make sense in a universe that is capable of producing such organs! One proponent, Paul Levy, writes in his provocative treatment of the question, entitled The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality, “Thinking that the source of consciousness is in the brain is like looking in the radio for the announcer.”
Okay, back to practicalities
What does all this have to do with leadership? Arguably, leaders co-create reality by sensing and observing as we go, making the path by walking. Ambiguity is always available, waiting to be leveraged by our awareness: theoretically, infinite possibilities exist until the moment of decision (and making a discrete decision isn’t “resolution” when we are talking about the larger picture over the long haul). The direction in which a leader chooses to look at any given moment determines where plans get implemented in the organization, when vision gets manifested, and how the future is made. Moreover, whether a leader looks through eyes of sadness, eyes of generosity, eyes of fear, or eyes of compassion, will similarly determine the tonal quality – and therefore the range – of what can happen around her. (A useful metaphor for this effect: “Leaders bring the weather,” as Bob Anderson and Bill Adams are fond of saying.)
One specific, pragmatic and urgent application of these concepts for leaders regards race. For white leaders, learning how to “do ambiguity” is essential to becoming full-bodied antiracists. In a recent On Being interview, White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo explains: “Doing our work with the humility necessary to live in ambiguity – white people working on our internalized white supremacy with each other, uncomfortable in the struggle between getting it right and getting it wrong, being vulnerable and making mistakes – is exactly how we become ‘an embodied antiracist culture.’”
For more by Pema Chödrön on “The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human: How to Live Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change,” see this piece in Tricycle. For using humor to deal with the ambiguities of the pandemic, check out this article in Forbes, which specifically addresses challenges faced by women leaders. For more on understanding “antiracism,” the most comprehensive resource I’ve found is Ibram X. Kendi’s definitive treatment, How to Be an Antiracist (One Word, 2019); for quick advice on handling micro-moments, see this New York Times article on “How to Be an Active Bystander When You See Casual Racism.” For a good video explaining the various versions of the double-slit experiment discussed above in accessible terms, I recommend this 9-minute piece by Jim Al-Khalili on YouTube.