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Leading across the threshold

Leading across the threshold
Published: March 28, 2018
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Increasingly, today’s world requires our businesses to become ever more emergent, innovative and adaptive. In turn, our leadership becomes more about empowering, empathising and encouraging interconnections, synergies, sense of purpose and an active network of feedback and learning.

This shift in leadership demands a shift in consciousness. It beckons us to cross the threshold, to shift our being-and-knowing, and to shift our worldview: the way we perceive life, and our sense of place and purpose individually as a leader and organisationally as a living system immersed within the living systems of society and wider ecology of life.

It is no mean feat to embrace such a shift while also dealing with the day-to-day relentless pressures required to keep the wheels on the road in these volatile times.

In a recent leadership study I contributed to with Prof. Peter Hawkins of Henley Business School, we distinguished between different paradigms of change:

“Change as an event” – an acquisition, a restructuring, a strategic or cultural change programme.

“Change as a constant” – if change is a constant outside, it needs to be a constant inside the organisation. Leaders need to constantly renew/re-enliven themselves and their organisations.

“Change is accelerating” - change is not only a constant, it is getting faster and faster, and becoming more inter-relational and multi-dimensional while the challenges we face are becoming more complex, interwoven and ‘wicked’.

One CEO interviewed provided an impactful metaphor: flying a plane, while rebuilding it mid-air, engaging all the passengers on-board, as well as the ground crew and air-traffic control. A number of participants pointed to the real challenge lying not in any specific challenge, but in the way these myriad challenges systemically impact on each other.

The study identified a number of tipping points that contribute to this ‘new norm’ of future-fit leading:

a. From leading my people to orchestrating business eco-systems

b. From heroic to collective and collaborative

c. Leadership needing to be driven by purpose and value creation for all stakeholders

d. From serial and fragmented innovation to working simultaneously in three time frames

e. Embracing multiple individual diversity and also systemic diversity

f. Leader as developer

g. Motivation, millennials, and mobility.

h. “No place to hide” – implications of living in a transparent world.

A key over-arching factor in all these tipping points is the leader’s ability to simultaneously embrace ‘self and systemic’ leadership development. 

The ‘self’ aspect is what is sometimes referred to as ‘vertical’ development (i.e. not technical competency and skills development but personal, emotional and spiritual development enabling the ability to deal with fast-moving complexity, while creating the conditions for teams/organisations to flourish).

The ‘systemic’ aspect is what is sometimes referred to as ‘system’ or ‘eco-system’, the development of ‘eco-system relationality’ for the leader, the organisation and the organisation’s stakeholder ecosystem (including society and the environment).

This ‘self and systemic’ leadership development is what I have been actively exploring through my own action research with leading practitioners and small groups of diverse leaders.

What is emerging through my findings is that this shift in leadership is essentially a shift in consciousness, a shift in perceptual horizon, within ourselves as leaders AND within the consciousness of the organisation-as-living-system.

This shift can be summaries as a shift from separateness to connectedness.

Future-fit leading is first-and-foremost about enabling this shift in consciousness within ourselves to be embodied in times of challenge, so that we maintain our own flow, creativity and connectedness. And yet it is also about our ability to hold space for a threshold of people within the organisation to embody this shift in consciousness while going about daily challenges, discussions and disruptions.

By enhancing our intuitive and sensorial bodymind from an overly rationalistic ‘head-knowing’ and intellectualised ‘grasping’ into a more holistic ‘knowingness’ and ‘beingness’ we become more integrated, more creative, more vibrant, and more able to hold space for others to become more vibrant. 

This deeper ‘bodymindfulness’ is an attunement of what Carl Jung referred to as our four natural ways of knowing - our intuitive, rational, emotional and somatic ways of knowing.

As we integrate our natural ways of knowing within ourselves our quality of being shines through us; we present the Now uncluttered by constrictions and acculturations of past or future and yet open to the learning experiences of the past and the strategic intention calling forth our emerging future. This is the letting-go to let-come which Otto Scharmer and others refer to, or the Power of Now as Eckhart Tolle calls it, whereupon we open up into the void of not-knowing, allowing the veil between our conscious and unconscious to permeate more readily. Here, we co-create the as-yet-unimagined; we spark insight and creativity, and manifest emerging possibilities into potentialities to be prototyped.

By crossing this being-and-knowing threshold, we open up to the flow inherent within the Dance of Life within and all about us. We allow our bodymind to open up as a vessel for the deeper wisdom of the Tao, the mystery, the ‘élan vital’ of life to flow through us, our relations, our teams, organisations and eco-system of stakeholders. Subtly lit synchronistic pathways become more apparent to us. We experience a step-change in our ability to navigate complexity.

So how do we cultivate this ‘new norm’?

Through his extensive research on flow as the optimal human experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that intention and attention are paramount for our ability to gain mastery over our experience of life.

Intention is the wish or desire we hold within our mind’s eye in order to achieve our aim, our purpose. It is what directs the focus of our attention. The intention we hold in our mind’s eye ought to be magnetised by and congruent with our life-purpose (which ought to align with our organisational purpose in some regard) as then it gains extra potency.

Attention is the ability within ourselves to integrate our different ways of knowing while deepening our connection and coherence. In-so-doing we gather our psychic energy in an uninterrupted way.

We diffuse our energy by getting distracted or dis-eased; we gather and cohere it when we deepen our attentiveness.  This deepening attentiveness is a listening-in or tuning-in to what our bodymindfulness is informing us of at any given moment.

Hence, we might see that leadership is grounded in cultivating ourselves and our systems to become more enlivened, and more able to tune-in to the emergence of Life; to sense the perturbations and patterns, to sense the subtle synchronicities and rhythms, the stuck areas that need attention, and the acupressure points in the system.

Through deepening our ‘self and systemic’ awareness, our attention is taken beyond the realms of a direct beam of focused attention into a deeper vibratory and inter-relational awareness that perceives life in a participatory yet direct, intimate, sensate and embodied way.  We become more human, more attuned, more alive, more authentic.

As leaders we need to become artful at how we sense flow in our own experience of life, and also create space for not-knowing, for regenerative renewal, for deep creative insight.

The space between the notes is what gives the music its rhythm and depth.

When we reduce down our spaces, we commodify the music, and cut ourselves off from the very spring we so urgently need to be tapping into amid these tumultuous times.

Holding space enables a deeper, wiser consciousness to shine through from the depths within us, within our teams, within life; it enhances, enriches and rejuvenates our being-and-knowing which can percolate into our relations, team dynamics, meeting conventions and decision-making protocols.

“One of the primary correlates of success is the quality of the ‘container’ that [the] leader generates first in themselves, and then in turn opens and holds for others.”  Dr Nick Udall, leadership specialist.

We can hold containers-of-space through the presence we bring into our conversations, our meetings, and our decision making protocols.

By creating space for small groups to enter into deep inquiry, we allow new insights to emerge through the liminal space between people, amid the generative field – not simply the social field but the implicate field of life. Graceful generative dialogue invites us into a deeper receptivity where we open ourselves up with Open Heart, Open Mind, Open Will (to use Otto Scharmer’s Theory U phrasing) in order to become more in-tune with the emerging future forming here in this pregnant moment.

Here are some ‘social technologies’ that help cultivate containers-of-space, and cost nothing to implement:

  • Deep listening, dialogue and Way of Council, where we speak and listen mindfully while consciously bringing our center of attention into the heart.
  • A few moments of silence at the beginning and end of every meeting.
  • Stakeholder dialogue meetings, where we engage in mindful dialogue with different stakeholders from different organisations and stakeholder groups, with no agenda other than to listen and sense into the field of our eco-system
  • Future search workshops, where we bring diverse participants from across the business and the stakeholder eco-system to come together for a two or three day workshop where we explore our emerging future through embodiment practices, dialogue and systems mapping.
  • Social Presencing Theatre and Constellations, where groups of people from a team, project or initiative, embody the inter-relations, unconscious biases and tensions through bodymindful movements.
  • Creative meetings, where by design we do not have an agenda, but rather an exploratory and creative shared intent to sense and prototype what emerges.

 Hence, the leader’s artfulness in holding these spaces provides the vital midwifery for the living organisation to adequately renew, enliven and evolve amid multi-dimensional change.

We shift the consciousness of the organisation from that of a machine impatiently sweating its assets into a living emergent system flowing, co-creating and inter-relating with a wider ecosystem of economic, social and environmental relations. As Nora Bateson, a leading systems-thinker and President of the Bateson Institute, says when exploring Liminal Leadership:

‘To show up now is to show up with one’s whole self, body, intellect, emotion, finance, career, family – and to show up ready to learn.  The issues in this historic time are complex, and it takes complexity to perceive complexity. Three things to remember about responding to inter-dependency:

  1. Wicked problems require inter-systemic change – not siloed solutions.
  2. Taking action before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy.
  3. Perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing sensitivity is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.’

Soon this ‘new norm’ of multidimensional change no longer becomes something to fear or resist, but something to be whole-heartedly sensed into.  Rather than reacting, we are sensing-and-responding.

In this way, as leaders we are enlivening the organisation-as-living-system to find its natural resonance, while attuning with the emergent dance of life.

Speaker, strategist, adviser Giles Hutchins is Chairman of The Future Fit leadership Academy. His latest book is Future Fit (2016) and he blogs at