Liminal Leadership

April 8, 2018

We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense, and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways, we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the ‘common sense’ of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom. ~ Gregory Bateson

Reason has become unreasonable. Things are changing and the reasonable path of maintaining life as it is today may well be one of short sightedness and destruction.

Whatever leadership used to be, it used to be. Now, it has to be something different. Now, we all have to be more than we were. The kind of leadership that I want to explore may not be identifiable as leadership at all. I am interested in mutual care, understanding, respect, and responsibility to and accountability for the dignity and well-being of ALL people and ecological systems. This kind of Leadership cannot be found in individuals; rather, it is found between them. It cannot be found in organizations, nations, religions, or institutions; rather, it is found between them. Liminal Leaders engage with these relational characteristics.

Inter-systemic change is at hand. More than change and more than system change, the interdependency between systems of economy, health, politics, ecology, and communication is where change lies. This is a murky territory of alive in-betweenness.

The interdependency we are discussing should not be thought of as a part that can be replaced in an engine. It is elusively not in the economy or the education system; it is not in politics or the health system; it is not in the media or even the culture. It is in the way in which these aspects of our world are steeped together in a slow-cooked stew. The ingredients of the socioeconomic stew cannot now be pulled out, but the chemistry can be tended.

We, as citizens, as human beings, cannot point to these institutions as ‘them’ – there is no them. All of these contexts of society (and more) are in a kind of ecology of interdependency, pattern, and relationship. You and me, we are simultaneously in the systems and occupying the position of observer or change-maker. We cannot get out. As our systems begin to fray in this unraveling time, reorganization is necessary. Who will lead the way?

Who are the experts at being in the liminal space? Who are the professionals who know this territory in which each day is touched with health, economy, media, politics, education, and the Earth… who? Of course the answer is, all of us.

To meet the complexity ahead and to make the evolutionary jump to co-existence, we need something different. Our traditional understanding of “leadership” has an ugly side. The image contains hubris and the bloodshed of the colonial conquerors. It is laced with competition, ambition, dominance, arrogance, status, wealth, and privilege.

The notion of leadership pulls the focus to individuals and away from the contextual conditions that made them. It is precisely this contextual relational process that the future depends upon.
So much change-making today is riddled with toxic fumes of the last century’s hero-envy. The rush-for-the-gold and step-over-the-next-guy approach is the thinking that got us into this mess.

The future lies in our capacity to understand and respond to interdependency. The change-making ideas that hold onto the realism of the last century bring the baggage of mechanistic thinking, capitalistic exploitation, and dog-eat-dog aspirations with them.

Collaboration is an idea that is unconsciously attached to the mechanistic world in which many parts are assembled to create function. But in living systems, collaboration is much more than each doing their part. Collaboration is the readiness to show up and do what needs to be done, in improvisation and mutual learning to include the well-being of everyone.

In the liminal realm, our conditions are co-generated, which is an important qualitative shift of interaction that translates roughly into this: Idealists are more  needed than assholes.

Leadership is supposed to be about discovery. It is about doing new things, in new ways. It is about possibility and actualizing human potential. If, and it is a big ‘if,’ humanity learns to live in a new way, we will do so by learning together.

We will not lead on behalf of a company or a nation, not on behalf of a religion or a belief system, not on behalf of a political ideology or agenda. We will hold each other through the storms of economic volatility, ecological turmoil, and political insanity. There will be trauma, pain, and loss through which our solace during this transformation will be nothing less than the creative expression of empathy as compassion. Healing together is learning together is leading together. Together includes the human and non-human world.

It seems that as the illusions of our system crumble, each grouping of ideologies is ossifying in their own particular frequency and becoming less able to hear the others. The sense-making apparatus of our culture is losing its grip.

Most of what matters now won’t matter later. Coming generations will shake their heads at the sacrifices their ancestors made for material wealth. They will not care how much prestige you gathered, how many bitcoins you bought, who considered you famous, or even what widget or vaccination you invented. If humanity makes it to the next level in the evolutionary game, it will be through recognition of our interdependency to each other and to the organisms of our biosphere.

If you consider this moment from the vantage of 30 years from now, there is nothing to hide behind. The excuses of dutifully perpetuating this destruction from one day to the next won’t hold water, literally. Remember the Nazis at Nuremberg who said, “I was just doing my job.”

Advocating for the delicate ecologies of life and humanity is both an active and a contemplative practice. Protection goes meta. Protection of me becomes protection of you, and protection of us includes protection of the ecology in which we both breathe. This interdependency is what gives every living system its vitality. It is the most ubiquitous experience of every living organism. And yet, it is not mentioned in the UN or the Constitution. It does not have a Wikipedia page. It remains, it obtains, and it continues, regardless of not being recognized. The interdepending keeps interdepending just out of our hearing range, just out of our color spectra, just beyond the horizon of our logic.

Three Things to Remember About Responding to Interdependency:

Wicked problems require inter-systemic change-not siloed, ideological solutions.

Taking action before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy (like “fixing” things first).

Perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing our sensitivity to others and Life is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.

Are we ready? We better be, because increasing sensitivity is an opening to also feeling the pain of so much exploitation. That pain is asking a question: Can I bear the empathy, seeing myself in others and others in myself, that real systems change requires?

The multifaceted crises the world faces today are proof enough that the establishment is not built to question itself. The pillars of civilization are pinned under the stone slab of the last several centuries of assumptions. Pillars of politics and money, of education and medicine, of psychology and religion. Structure is hard, and hard to change. The institutions have no water in their edges, no improvisation in their memory. The institutions are bound to their continuance, bound to each other, and bound to crumble.

Anyone who wants to help usher in a new way of living that honors the well-being of all people and the other organisms had better be willing to risk everything to get there. It will take nothing less.

There is nowhere to hide. Embracing complexity requires the integrity of having gone through the dark night, acknowledging our cultural darkness and our own contribution to it, and knowing that while you may not have a plan to face the confusion, you will show up completely. And you will do so as the best “you” that you have ever been.

Are we ready to risk everything? What would you do for someone you did not know, for a forest you’ve never entered, for a future you won’t be here for? Will you prepare for the crises ahead by building a bunker full of everything you might need, or will you prepare by readying yourself to help others in need and for all of us to grow and actualize as human beings? Do you need to wait until there is an emergency to be activated? Or is now okay?

Can you walk in your Human Integrity, in your Integrated Wholeness? And can you help pull the broken glass from the Souls of the idealists who have kept the door open?

I will meet you there. In the liminal space of our shared future.

Liminal space is a transformative space. It occurs when our thoughts, knowledge or ideas are in some way challenged, when our understanding of something is unsettled rendering it fluid. That space of in-between is a state of liminality, a transition in the learning process, the crossing of a threshold. From here we begin to reconfigure our prior understandings, perspectives and conceptual schema. We let go of the conceptual stance we had. Once we reach this post-liminal mode the shift is irreversible and alters our way of being in the world. ~ Michael O’Sullivan

Leading as Love generates liminal space in Service to Life. We are in the liminal space between our stories of the past and consciously co-creating the future of dignity and well-being for all. We are in breakdown to break through. Our old way of life and world is dead and our New Life and World is emerging and unfolding. How are you midwifing its Birth and Leading in Service to Life?

Adapted from: Liminal Leadership
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