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Leadership in the Time of Liminality: Perspectives for Navigating an Emerging Future

April 23, 2012

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”.  This whitepaper 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 In the current case, the problem—as I saw it—sourced back to an outdated chip (of sorts) in our understanding of how the world worked.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:

    1. that stability was the norm and
    2. 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:

Section 1:
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!


3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 6:51 pm

    Thanks David, this is at the nub of my studies too and as I put the final touches on my thesis I also find myself in this liminal space (and talk about it in those terms) between old paradigms like BWP (i’m calling it Industrial Era) and what is more suited to the actual conditions we are experiencing.
    We have both identified that there are ontological shifts at play and it is in this space where I am situating my contribution to leadership scholarship, because if we don’t ‘get’ this then the possibilities for working with our current conditions remain invisible.
    The reactive changes you speak of are due to us only ‘seeing’ the consequences of these shifts, or put more bluntly this only after we can no longer deny their existence (i.e. wilful blindness to issues such as the environmental or the GFC spring to mind). What we are grappling with are the necessary lenses to ‘see with’ that allow us to see the interrelatendness with the world that is uncertain and always has been and look to more proactive responses.
    Can’t wait to read the rest of your series….

  2. April 26, 2012 11:06 am

    Great post. I heartily agree that the reactive posture that was taken from that article is a big *asterisk* to go with the recommendations. Foresight is a new(ish) field of practice and combined with systems thinking and design (and brought together with leadership) can be among the most powerful combinations of ideas we have available. That is, if we add the foresight to hindsight and act on both in the present.

    The problem is partly that it is so much more messy to write about all of this together in an article. It requires people read, pay attention, and think. I am not at all suggesting that people don’t do this, but we’ve got this ecology of mind that is so geared to the simple ideas and quick fixes. The Fast Company article was proposing the former and (thankfully) not massively on the latter.

    I love the title of your series on liminality. That’s the space where creativity takes root best, ironically because little else is grounded there and so much is in flux. It’s a wonderful concept, yet one that takes a bit of thinking to get your head around its implications. That’s part of the problem; many don’t give this time to the thinking or explaining. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t

    I look forward to the future posts!


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