May 1, 2022
[T]here is great solace in remembering that what we call human nature, with all of its terrors and transcendences and violent contradictions, is a humble subset of nature itself: In nature, where stars are always being born and die and give us life, creation and destruction are always syncopating; in nature, the seasons are always changing; in nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.
It’s counter-cultural in Western leadership contexts to admit we do not know things. We are taught that a good leader has answers – and the right ones! To serve this twisted bias – which, not coincidentally, overlaps with the characteristics of white supremacist culture – we unconsciously conspire to perpetuate the illusion that we can and do know unknowable things. Aided by our neurobiology, we do this to comfort ourselves, to separate and privilege intellect over bodies and intuition, to not appear stupid or lost, to prevent being exposed to emotional or physical harm, and to be perceived as forwarding the very materialist (as opposed to life-centric) ideals that if uninterrupted will, ironically, be the end of us.
Not-knowing is more truthful in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The socially-constructed story that any of us is in control of anything meaningful is comi-tragic: it actually further alienates us from who we really are. While it’s human nature to blind ourselves to the astonishing beauty, wonder and humor in VUCA conditions due to our hard-wired reflexes to seek stability, simplicity, certainty and resolution, these tendencies cause us great suffering. We could, instead, surrender to the grand complexity of nature’s flow, working in cooperation with messiness, questions, energetic exchanges, generative tensions and transitions. My experience is that most leaders are instinctively looking to tap into this change energy, but it’s scary. In nature itself, radical change often happens in dark and chaotic bardos (supernovae, Earth’s core, an elephant’s womb, robins’ eggs, the black swallowtail’s chrysalis, sunflower seeds). Mysteriously, life emerges in these liminal threshold states and, arguably, so does inspired leadership. If this edgy not-knowing way of approaching life or leadership terrifies you, that’s a totally understandable and adaptive response. To fear the unknown, when the stakes are high and nothing is assured, makes perfect sense! Yet, certainty should terrify you more. (Who is more certain, Putin or Zelensky? and certain of what? for the sake of what?)
Surprise, disruption and opportunity: a leadership example
There are also pleasures in not-knowing. There are also pleasures in not-knowing. While unanticipated events are inherently neutral, haven’t each of us at some point experienced profound delight in being surprised? This has useful leadership implications. For example, I once had a conversation with a young coaching client whose inquiry was, “How does a leader plan and execute a vision, when there are always disruptions and unforeseen circumstances, and lots of people are depending on you?” Because I knew he was an executive who has taken other people on trips abroad to places he had never been before, I asked him, “How do you plan and execute a visit to a foreign country?” We ended up enjoying a powerful exploration of self-management strategies and the importance of nurturing adaptability, compassion, resourcefulness and a habit of recognizing and seizing opportunities in the unexpected. What he realized is that he has a knack for navigating both the journey and the destination on a literal or metaphorical adventure, and that this can be broken down into a sort of packing list of best practices which is transferable to leadership.
threshold (n.) Old English þrescold, þærscwold, þerxold, etc., “door-sill, point of entering”
Individually and collectively, humans are perpetually on the brink or cusp or threshold of unfolding newness, whether or not we welcome the forms in which it comes. A couple days ago I (virtually) attended the first-ever Inner Development Goals (IDGs) Summit in Stockholm, Sweden. It was convened to advance an international effort to persuade the United Nations to adopt Inner Development Goals, a blueprint of the capabilities, qualities and skills needed to achieve the U.N.’s (“outer”) Sustainable Development Goals. The culminating presentations were about pragmatic action steps and featured co-founder of the Presencing Institute at MIT, Otto Scharmer. Scharmer explained his Institute’s work on awareness-based systems change, emphasizing that “the deeper territory of leadership” is fostering the “eco-system awareness” patterns of “open mind, open heart and open will,” noting that what we are seeing in the most troubled parts of the world right now are “ego-system awareness” patterns of ignorance, hate and fear.
Scharmer observes that in every moment there is the threshold choice to turn away and close down, or to turn towards and open up. I love how the late poet John O’Donohue describes this dynamic: “[T]he given world that we think is there, and the solid ground we are on, is so tentative. And I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing” [my emphasis]. The daily practice of choosing who to be or how to cross every threshold is why I believe the journey to becoming a transformational leader is an inherently spiritual one. All the great wisdom traditions invite us to keep our minds, hearts and wills open, regardless of the circumstances.
Additional resources, inspired by the Inner Development Goals
The Inner Development Goals initiative is crowd-sourcing a “field-kit” that may be available as soon as September 2022. In the meantime, I heartily endorse all the tactics I heard at the Summit: engage in meditation/mindfulness/contemplative/spiritual practices (individually and in groups), somatic work, creativity exercises, attention to nature, human connection and relationship-building, listening (especially to those whose voices are marginalized, e.g., ecosystems, youth, “invisible” communities, whoever/whatever stakeholder is not in the room, etc.), other dialogue models and support structures – and I would add coaching – in order to cultivate: present-moment awareness, humility, courage, realistic optimism, empathy, reflective action, commitment, playfulness, persistence – and I would specify – love-in-action. In the meantime, when in doubt, just start something and feel your way with curiosity and a willingness to run “safe-to-fail” experiments. Practice Scharmer’s “open will” (letting go and letting come) and learn-as-you-go, sensing into the emerging future by walking the path. “[In] nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.”