Leadership in the Time of Liminality: Perspectives for Navigating an Emerging Future – 1st Part of 6
We now live in liminal times—a highly uncertain period of “betwixt and between” (as Victor Turner called it). This means, on the one hand, that familiar practices and expectations have lost their reliability while, on the other, the next new thing has yet to arrive.
Others are certainly noticing this. For example, last January, Fast Company’s Robert Safian published this piece introducing us to Generation Flux; this is a group the title refers to as “The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business”. These Generation Flux-ers, Safian reports, are dynamic, solution-oriented movers and shakers who are completely comfortable shifting from one career or industry to another in the blink of an eye. In short, they’ve people who have learned to adapt and thrive in times of continuous disruption.
I read this and thought “Great!! Someone else sees it too!” I felt the same a few days later when I saw a special report entitled “Future Work Skills 2020”. In this whitepaper The Apollo Research Institute advises we’d better get busy now honing our toolbelt of boundary-spanning skills—competencies such as transdisciplinary thinking, sensemaking amidst ambiguity, and cross-cultural collaboration.
So, all this confirmed my hopeful impression that a growing number of leadership thinkers and practitioners were letting go of the pervasive doom and gloom narratives describing our times. Instead, this new breed was talking about what we can do to leverage turmoil and disruption as a tool for empowerment.
Great news! So…why did I feel like something—something big–was still missing?
The problem, as I saw it, was that all these exciting strategies were essentially reactive measures—steps that did empower us—somewhat. The problem was that they still kept us in a reactive stance, firmly wedged behind the 8-ball, waiting for the next disruptive shift to arrive.
I thought there had to be a better way. As I pondered all this I realized that any solution would have to question the underlying worldviews or paradigms. In the current case, the problem—as I saw it—sourced back to an outdated chip (of sorts) in our understanding of how the world worked. More specifically, the problem was how our out-moded understanding influenced our models of leadership.
A new vision, a different vision, was needed because most models up to this point were based on 2 basic assumptions about how the world worked:
- that stability was the norm and
- since conditions are increasingly unstable, something fundamental about the world had become flawed or broken.
I’m going to tie these assumptions together and call them the Broken World Paradigm (BWP, for short). The problem with this BWP was that it took as gospel certain views of reality that had long ago been called into deep question by many thinkers, including quantum physicists and complexity scientists. Unfortunately, there is no time or space right now to get into all that or to even detail the alternative views (but if you want to know more you can start here or here).
So the important now question became “What would a leadership model look like if it didn’t buy into the BWP? What if there was a way to lead that acknowledged all this disruption and upheaval, but saw it as a holding the potential for really good things, perhaps some kind of emergence?”
Indeed, what would leadership become if it assumed that all this upheaval was part of the solution, rather than proof of an underlying problem? What I came up was a project I’m calling Leadership In The Time of Liminality: Perspectives for Navigating an Emerging Future. Over this and 5 subsequent postings I’m going to share the key components of the preliminary model I came up with in order to introduce the thinking and, hopefully, gain some valuable feedback from all of you.
Full Disclosure: A lot of my efforts on this project were driven by something other a desire to save the world; in truth this all started as the final project in a recent doctoral seminar, Leadership and Performance. (More on the Performance part later. Suffice it to say, there’s a good chance it is not what you think—so, please put away your tap shoes!)
Through this and the next 5 postings, I’m going to share a brief synopsis of each of the project’s 5 sections. Each of the 5 components builds upon those before it to develop a understanding of leadership as a process of stewardship that helps groups and individuals create new creative meaning and proactive awareness during periods of liminality (a.k.a., periods of high disruption and ambiguity). This, in turn, will help to encourage the emergence of new, more complex paradigms for making sense of the world. (As my doctoral advisor informed me, it appears I may have been called to paint on a rather large canvas.)
So, to move our thinking along and offer all of you just a taste, I’ll end with summary of the first section. The next posting will unpack and discuss this in more detail but, just for now, this will provide the flavor of where we’ll be headed:
Introduction – New Paradigms via Recognition of Long-Standing Impediments.
As organizations and social enterprises continue to experience the disruption of liminality–a chaotic passage where once-reliable practices, relations, and identities no longer seem to offer sound, predictable outcomes–those in positions of leadership have an opportunity to forge new paradigms for collaborative innovation. The development of such paradigms starts with the recognition of how traditional leadership performances actually impede the emergence of more reflective cultures of innovation.
See you soon!
Conflict, Process, and the Self in Organizations and Large Social Systems — Some Tentative Thoughts.
Recently, I had to write a paper for a political theory seminar. I was really uncomfortable with this prospect. I don’t have a lot of background or experience with area of study, but I needed a final class for the coursework phase of my PhD and I thought it could offer me insight into the processes taking place in very large organizations and other social systems.
Even though I’m struggling with some of the material, the class has been a real eye opener. In the recent paper, I tried to build a link between how large systems–in this case political systems–view conflict or group antagonism with the unspoken assumptions those systems have about human beings. Specifically, as a non-political theorist, I tried to compare the view of human beings Marx and Engels used when writing The Communist Manifesto, with the view held by more contemporary political thinkers–particularly those who relate to the power of dialogue to spark emergence.
While much of this may seem abstract and largely irrelevant to organizational thinking, I do believe there is a great deal here that can help us to approach conflict in a way that promotes creativity and innovation. Without going into the paper’s whole thesis, here is the key point I came up with:
Systems that try to ensure efficiency and harmony by removing all potential sources of conflict and disruption (as Marx and Engels attempted to do through abolishing private ownership of capital) actually undermine growth by not giving members the opportunity to engage in dialogue that can help to spark new paradigms that transcend the antagonistic thinking.
I know this is a lot of broad strokes. The paper does a better job of laying it all out. But the key to making this approach work is being able to back off from the traditional ideas that view human beings as fixed social and psychological beings. Instead we need to shift our talk and our thinking in a way that sees us as always in process–always emerging to something more inclusive and encompassing. This is what I’ve tried to express in the paper–and want to be able to those in positions of leadership.
So here is the challenge: since, as I believe, a new more dynamic understanding of human nature is critical if organizations and large social systems are going to confront the “wicked problems” and “super wicked problems” we face every day. How do we shift to a more “emergent-friendly” mindset when all the stressors cause us to yearn for a heroic leader who will just use some good old-fashioned “command and control” to shut the problem down and get us on to the next thing?
One last thing: So the paper. Overall, the instructor liked it a lot and thought I made a strong case. She did point out some shortfalls in my grasp of marxism and political theory–but that is to be expected. If anyone is interested, I posted a copy here–but I do so with a caveat: as I said, I’m not a seasoned political theorist so there are a few glitches. That said, I think it still makes a good case.
Now, I would certainly not place my work on a global scale, yet along with tremendous gratitude for the opportunity, I do see a small bit of irony. On the one hand, disruptive change is afoot in almost any direction you look, however my own work–by which I mean the development of the theory and research I am using to inform my doctoral dissertation–is unfolding in a creative direction at breakneck speed. In one sense, I hope this turn opens up opportunities for more conversations along with the chance to develop the theory and processes further as to support organizations and other social groupings to align with these disruptive times rather than fight against them.
I’ll be sharing more about this in the weeks and months to come. At the moment, I’m in the thick of end-of-term papers (some of which I will probably post later on as well). For now I wanted to post a link to the presentation I recently had the privilege of sharing at the recent convening of the International Leadership Association in London. THAT was a liminal experience to be sure–in all the right ways! This gives a good summary of where my work was up until about a month ago. (As I said, things are unfolding quickly–more has developed since.)
I also want to share the photo below. These are the super-smart folks who made up the panel I presented with. I am deeply indebted to all the folks–especially Heather Davis (center) for pulling me into the fold and coordinating the whole adventure. The story of how we all came together is itself an uncanny example of the power of emergence during complex times. Right now the four of us–the four panelists on the left–are planning a joint paper on that process in order to explore complexity dynamics in pedagogical settings.
Lastly, a link to Heather’s presentation.
Since working and pursuing a Ph.D.–both fulltime–are so consuming, my opportunities for blog posting are extremely limited. However, I recently submitted a conference proposal that reflects my research thinking that excited me a great deal. I wanted to share it, in the hopes that it would spark interest and conversation.
The title of the proposal is “Commons Competencies: Rethinking Hard and Soft Skills for a Disruptive Era.” I recently submitted it to the upcoming the 21st Annual Kravis-de Roulet Leadership Conference at Claremont McKenna College in California. The conference theme is Understanding and Assessing “Soft” Leader Skills.
Since my research is focused on the developmental processes of post-industrial and sustainability leadership dynamics, I thought it would be a good opportunity to refine my thinking. The basic premise explored by the proposal is that while it is true that “soft skills” promote a more humanistic flavor of leadership practice than that found during the industrial era, this notion still undermines creativity and innovation by subtly reinforcing the same kind oppressive mindset found in traditional, hierarchical approaches.
I instead propose a new framework based on a synthesis late stage developmental models (such as that proposed by Robert Kegan or William Torbert) with the social orientation of an intellectual “commons” (as recently advanced by Pisano and Shih in Harvard Business Review). This combination allows me to cultivate the idea of advancing collective skill orientation—through the idea of “commons competencies”—over an approach privileging individual skill sets.
I thought this was intriguing idea, but it stills needs a great deal of further development. Also, I knew that this conference regularly attracted many established leadership scholars and other assorted heavy hitters, so I wasn’t going to be terrifically disappointed if I wasn’t accepted; however, earlier today I did receive an invitation to take part in the conference’s Poster Presentation. That’s great—although given it’s on the other side of the country I am not sure that I will attend.
In the meantime for anyone who might care to explore these ideas further my original proposal and resource list can be downloaded in .pdf format here.
As always, comments—particularly those that will help to strengthen my basic premise—are very appreciated.
Well, once again, it’s been a while but at least this time I have a much better excuse…I’ve been toiling away since January 2 with 4 (!!) doctoral seminars at Union Institute. It’s been a great semester with lots of new ideas swirling about. Lots of stuff to post but no time to do it.
So for now I want to post some poems I wrote for a recent paper on the use of poetry within organizational settings. It may seem like a very strange idea but after doing some digging through the literature I found some strong theory to back up the idea. Here’s a short excerpt from my introduction:
In considering the use of poetry in organizational settings one of its greatest advantages is its potential to open us up to a more mindful attentiveness to the ebb and flow of our interior lives. This awareness can in turn foster a greater sensitivity to the organization as an organic whole. Pioneering organizational thinker Meg Wheatley (1999) in her extensive writings on the benefits of whole system awareness has pointed out that “[t]here are many processes for developing awareness of a whole system…Any process works that encourages nonlinear thinking and intuition, and uses alternative forms of expression….The critical task is to evoke our sense, not just our gray matter”(p. 143). A practical example of such sense awareness is nicely illustrated by Shaw (2002) who writes on the benefits of emotionally-engaged dialogue in organizational settings. Recalling one such dialogue she participated in Shaw reflects that
In this kind of conversation the quality of risk and anticipation alerts my sense. I can recall the taste of coffee, the quality of light as the [Managing Director] gazes out the window at one point, the way the thick carpet absorbs sound and smells of some chemical cleaning fragrance. (p. 14)
Here we see, in rather simple terms, how one example of emotional engagement can open help someone become more attuned to nuance and subtle cues in the immediate surroundings that might otherwise be overlooked. My own contention is that the use of poetry as a tool for reflection and contemplation has this same ability.
To this end, the four stages and their representative poems are intended as metaphorical anchors for personal reflection. As such they are far less detailed than the empirical realities referenced by Kegan (1994) and Torbert et al. (2005). In one sense, this distinction should prove readily obvious since, with few exceptions, the poems are intended to not speak directly or make direct reference to the empirical realities of organizational life. This choice was based on a greater interest in capturing unspoken emotional truths that would otherwise elude more rational forms of comment or scrutiny. This choice was also encouraged by the work of one of the few scholars who has critically examined the use of poetry in organizational settings Louise Grisoni (2006, 2007). In an article co-written with Philip Kirk, Grisoni and Kirk (2006) note how “poetry has the power to reveal the unsayable and hidden aspects of organizational life” (p. 520). The two also go on to point out how poetry can in fact spark opportunities for change based on a greater awareness of the affective dimensions of an event or situation. I would go even further and argue that it is only through such an awareness that organizations will be able to marshal the insight, inspiration, and creativity needed to invigorate our organizations so that they might have the opportunity to leverage their current struggles as a springboard to a more emotionally complex and inclusive paradigm of sustainability and effectiveness.
What follows is the first of the three poems. I’ll post the other two in the next few days. The fourth poem, while featured in the paper, still doesn’t feel quite right. I’ll post it eventually but it needs to still simmer for now.
As always, your thoughts and feedback are encouraged…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Sparrows The sparrows far from nests have stopped rehearsing. With fierce, unchecked contempt, they are mired in a deep, brutal row Over a disagreement about counter-melody that quickly flew into
Hateful accusations over abandoned potential and the “folly” of migration.
The eldest, suddenly fed up with cries of “delusion” Pushes forward and—looking away until silence—begins to speak: “I am sorry if choices I may have made have led us to this,” he said, “But every one of us here needs to remember…” pausing with regret, “We never felt such things before taking speech from the blackbirds.” The wind now blew through them all as each and every one looked to the ground.
The flock now aloft, but each one somehow alone, Move with heavy purpose under the press of the cold, November sky. Silence thick as a bruise, clouds all recognition of song along with
Memories of what had been thrown aside for nothing but a brief taste of magic. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Why leaders should not be the source of our courage. (And why they should not be frightened of Umair Haque. I’m not.)
I am not frightened of Umair Haque–and that’s a good thing.
You see, he writes about the economy and, given my own focus on leadership and the human dynamics that influence our institutions, I am often dismayed to find that most people who write about our collective economic condition can find no way to offer hope. So they frighten me.
Well, wait. Frighten may be a bit strong. Besides, I don’t mean frighten in a hiding-behind-the-couch type way, but they frighten me in a broader, systemic sense. (Besides, I haven’t hidden behind the couch since my mid-30s.)
But seriously, economists and those who write and report on the economy are in many cases the people we turn to in order to build our own vision or narrative of our collective economic condition. And more often than not most other writers are either deeply mired in technical rhetoric or hopelessly pessimistic.
So often, these ladies and fellows don’t offer the kind of insight and perspective that would help leaders envision any kind of constructive response.
Yet it is true that leadership is often about midwifing focus and inspiration in the face of otherwise intimidating challenges. But these things need to find nourishment in the possibility of a better outcome. And for many, that’s the soil in which grows courage.
But when I speak about courage and leadership I don’t mean that idealized image touted by so many who speak about leadership.
Those folks are speaking of trait-based leadership where the leader is envisioned as a heroic figure, magically endowed with traits that place him or her far above the rest of use with our failings and foibles.
So the trait-based folks will claim that a leader not only needs to have courage–she/he also needs to be the source of our courage as well. I think that’s an outdated message and it carries far more risk than reward.
These times are complex and leaders can no longer fill in for those parts of ourselves we believe we don’t have. So if we insist on them being our courage, we very quickly look only to them and stop looking for it within ourselves. For this reason, leaders must be the channel of the courage that lies within each of us. It might be disowned or misunderstood–but its there and a healthy culture where authentic leadership is practiced can help us to find it.
So what’s this have to do with Umair Haque and the other economic commentators? In short, our economic life world represents the underlying structure upon which all our institutions and social ambitions rest. Without a hopeful image of such–whether we can consciously acknowledge it or not–our efforts toward a better future will be bound and clouded by a pervasive sense of doom. Our courage will then feel very far removed.
And this is what I start to feel when I listen to most of those who speak about our systems of commerce and exchange. So I tune out. I start to feel, like many of them, somewhat nervous and even a bit cynical.
Nervous and cynical that unless some audacious messenger is bold enough to look clearly at the condition of our deep infrastructures and, in an intelligent and inspired way, extract a vision of hope, all of us–particularly those in positions of leadership–will fail to grasp critical opportunities to transform our courage into a collective beacon for unprecedented opportunity.
Haque–the Director of the Havas Media Lab and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review–is that wise-cracking, audacious messenger. He has an unparalleled ability to envision our economic landscape in a way that offers equal measures of caution (and some may even say disillusionment) insight, and unrelenting optimism.
But his optimism is not for our economy–or the institutions that largely embody it. His optimism is for the human spirit and our indomitable drive for meaning and connection. That, he often says, is what will save us. I agree.
The piece Haque recently published at Harvard Business Review (and which I recently Amplified) features Haque’s characteristic optimism along his recurring indictment of our present myopia when it comes to the economy and social media.
Social media, Haque argues, needs to put on its big boy pants and begin to move beyond the era of “friending” and badges and instead acknowledge its emergent ability as a channel of social transformation. As someone committed to the call of leadership, that’s a vision I can get behind!
So Haque offers a vision of a possible future that, while far from assured, helps leaders to move beyond the smug veil of cynicism–or worse, the shallow assurance of ungrounded, inauthentic idealism.
This is a call that can move us toward a more inspiring vision of possibility; one deeply rooted in a more inspiring ideal of who we can become and all we can create when we realize that the courage we thought belonged to only the leader was within us all along.
(Definitely worth the trek over to http://blogs.hbr.org/haque for the full read.)
A very thought-provoking, succinct piece from Andrew Maynard on the @IEET blog about on an upcoming talk he’s giving about the brittle balance we face in the years ahead as technology becomes more and more powerful. Maynard’s point that we have to make a conscious decision to avoid the temptation to see ourselves as small gods seems so true and more than a bit chilling.
And so I then ask myself: Maynard’s post is for certain an interesting piece by a thoughtful, tuned-in writer but is there some deeper reason I feel drawn to throw in my 2 cents?
It takes a moment or two but I then see that–yes indeed–the temptation of which Maynard speaks cannot be averted by only good intentions or the strength of our will. The constructive relationship with technological risk can only come to be if we begin now to develop systems and cultures based upon the consistent practice of generative dialogue.
Our larger, more nobler selves can only arise through an emergent process of authentic engagement. All voices need the opportunity to contribute to the broader discussion forming who we are to become. But that discussion will not happen just through our good intentions, it must be woven into the core of the systems and practices that underscore our values and institutions.
So let’s get talkin’ !
the central question here is whether we are up to handling the future. Are we sufficiently aware of our limitations that we are able to build a better future through partnerships and humility? Or are we merely “small gods” – people with a smidgen of power who mistakenly think they rule the world?
tech innovation is only one factor influencing the future. But it is a pretty important one – there aren’t many global issues that either haven’t been enabled or exacerbated by technology innovation
what if we are small gods – knowing just enough to be dangerous as we flex our technological muscles?
how do we ensure the technologies we embrace do more good than harm? As we go from here into an uncertain future, how do we avoid the temptation to act like small gods and learn to harness the power of technology for good?
How we navigate this uncertain future depends on one small, four letter word – “risk.”
How we deal with risk makes all the difference. Business as usual – and we run the danger of becoming small gods. Thinking – and acting – differently about risk, and we have the chance to build a better world.
As we move on from here into a technologically complex future, which will it be?