Leading Betwixt and Between

By Lisa Slayton, reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

There is a marvelously breathtaking moment when we watch the trapeze artist flying through the air as she releases one swing and looks suspended, seemingly weightless, high above the ground before she reaches to grab onto the next swing or the hands of her partner.

While it fascinates us to watch, we are also experiencing a myriad of reactions. Some cover their eyes, unable to bear the tension for fear she will fall to the net below. Others sit forward in their seats, holding their breathe with anticipation and excitement. Still others laugh or cry out, wanting to join the moment. It evokes emotion in all of us, however fleeting, for in some way we have all experienced such a moment in our lives. It is the space in between.

In my freshman year of college, I took my first anthropology course and fell in love with the study of cultures and how people lived and worked together in communities and societies. I could not know then, some 30+ years ago, that my work would lead me into a unique space where I now work and serve clients and their teams. Victor Turner, one of the brilliant anthropologists I studied in the 1970’s, calls this space the betwixt and between, the liminal space. It is a place of paradox and uncertainty. A place of tensions and creativity. 

Liminality is defined as relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process or occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

Right now, we are collectively living in liminal space. We are at the initial stage of a process and standing at a threshold. It is a remarkably uncomfortable space and as I interact with leaders around the country, I am seeing a wide range of responses.

Here are four I offer for consideration:

  • The Commander- this leader is operating from a command center. He is rallying the troops, making fast decisions and centralizing as much of the organizational operations as possible in order to manage and control the environment and the outcomes.
  • The Strategist- this leader is mapping scenarios of all possible implications for next steps. She has teams of people dedicated to spreadsheet projections and white boards of plans, prepared to move in one direction or another based on some yet to be known bit of input or data.
  • The Historian– this leader is oriented towards what they already know and reference the past often. “Here is what we did in a like situation…” (hint: there IS not a like situation in our current environment). He is committed to the assumption that things will ‘return to normal’ and that norms and behaviors will simply rubber band back to how things have been historically.
  • The Navigator-this leader is listening and learning, entering the place of not knowing, and looking for the signs and signals that will indicate the right next step to take. She is empowering her people to make decisions and choices at their threshold, keeps lines of communication wide open and gathering rich data to support the next course correction and adjustment. She is leading in liminality.

In times of uncertainty, there is a place for all four of these leaders to show up. When things are chaotic, the Commander offers needed central control to bring order and set direction so people can be responsive to the environment. The Strategist can offer options to address complicated problems and defined solutions to presenting challenges. The Historian can reference the past and pull forward solutions that have worked in the past that may offer valuable insight for the present.

But over the long haul, in this long winter season we are entering, it is the Navigator who will likely be the most effective leader. She will recognize the time and place for all four archetypes to bring their best. She does not assume she has to be all four, but rather can access and call forth what is needed from the others in ways that serve the team, the organization and the world.

Leading from between, from the liminal space, is what is needed now. Becoming that leader is a hard, but worthy pursuit.

Theologian and philosopher Richard Rohr describe it this way in his new biannual literary journal Oneing:

Liminal space enables us to see beyond ourselves to the broader and more inclusive world that lies before us. When we embrace liminality, we choose hope over sleepwalking, denial, or despair. The world around us becomes again an enchanted universe.

In these #CoronaTimes, it is hard to imagine the world as an enchanted universe. There is pain and yet healing. There is death and yet life. There is suffering and yet joy. There is despair and yet hope.

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