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Can We Please Stay in This Space a Bit Longer?

Before returning to normal, we need new language, new leadership—and more time

Photo by Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash

Restrictions are being lifted in several countries, schools and shops are re-opening, and some workers are returning to the workplace.

While this whiff of normalcy is reassuring and comforting for some, it stands in stark contrast to the economic reality. A record 20.5 million Americans lost their job as a result of the crisis in April, and the short and long-term economic consequences are dire for many, especially those who have already been vulnerable.

But even for those of us privileged enough to still have work, the return to normal is disturbing. Many of us don’t want to simply restore; we want to start anew. We don’t want to recover; we want to continue uncovering some deeper truths.

A most extraordinary period to have been alive

One of these truths is that the crisis was exhilarating and vibrant because it made us feel alive.

It has served as the great pause, the great reveal, the great magnifying glass—nothing that stopped now can ever truly begin again, nothing we see now can ever be unseen, nothing that happened will ever be forgotten.

After the pandemic put death front and center into our societies, we are realizing that the return to our workplaces, our old habits, our old lives, is not a return to life—it is a return to death, to the mind-and soul-numbing protocol, process, and language of business performance.

Have we really had enough time yet to mourn our ego-deaths, the loss of control, the fallacy of invincibility? Have we held this liminal space, the in-between between the old and the new, between the false certainty of the past and the uncertainty of the future, long enough?

From whispers to shouts to essential questions

In an online session this past week with transformation consultancy SYPartners, CEO Jessica Orkin and creative director Thomas Winkelmann guided participants through a meditative journey to “awaken to essential questions,” inviting them to linger in that liminal space where those questions often emerge.

The session began with Orkin and Winkelmann asking the participants to write down what they perceive as “whispers” and “shouts”: tentative feelings, thoughts, or ideas that are in our minds and that we could amplify into more direct statements.

Based on this exercise, Orkin and Winkelmann then asked participants to translate their whisper and shouts into “essential questions” and the result was astounding: “Will people still be kind to each other after the crisis?” “How can we sustain this sense of humanity and deep connection?” “Is love scalable”?

The two also shared snippets of recent conversations they had had with CEOs and boards of Fortune 100 companies, and the new tone was striking: “Can we be a good company and still be public?” “Who would we be if we stopped crushing the competition?” “Could our operating model be seasonal, like nature?”

“Continue listening, write and voice your whispers, and resist—for now—the human impulse to turn uncertainties into certainties,” Orkin said.

Only poets will make sense of this time

The crisis has spawned a desire not just for more expansive liminal spaces,but also for new words to fill them. In business, more than anywhere else, human language, for the most part, has been abused to fit into little cubicles of meaning that reduce us to consistent, performing selves whose humanity is boiled down to “developing empathy for customers” (but not really for ourselves).

This new language will not come from playbooks, textbooks, or memos, or business books that typically meet militarist stereotypes: the “war for talent,” “crushing the competition,” “targeting,” and so on.

This new language may only come from poets, as Chris Fitzpatrick suggests in The Irish Times: "We will need more than a vaccine and a rebooted economy to heal us,”

Sensitive leaders hold the space

This brings us to new leadership—a type of leadership that goes beyond knowledge and information, and toward sensing and somatic and affective empathy. As Michael Ventura, the CEO of design firm Sub Rosa and the author of the book Applied Empathy reminds us, empathy begins with presence, with self-awareness and a keen listening to our own emotions.

This is the kind of leadership embodied by leaders such as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. She has hosted frequent informal Facebook Live chats during the pandemic. During one of her press briefings, when a reporter forgot his question upon being called on, Ardern jokingly told him that she was concerned he wasn’t getting enough sleep.

It’s not just a communication style, it’s an entire new faculty of seeing the world that’s at display here. Google's Ciela Hartanov calls it “sensitive leadership”: “Leaders with acute perceptual skills are the ones who are better equipped to manage through unexpected shifts,” she says. Navi Radjou and Prasad Kaipa speak of a shift from smart to wise leaders who can lead with both head and heart, and rely heavily on their intuition. This sensitive, on-heroic leader is not a master of decision-making and certainty; rather, she has a firm grasp of the elusive. “If it’s not elusive, it’s not authentic,” Cook said.

The only way to cope with the elusive is to hold it.

Organizational psychologist Gianpiero Petriglieri writes in the Harvard Business Review that “holding” beats vision as an essential element of leadership:

“When I ask managers to reflect a bit more on the leaders whose visions they find most compelling and enduring, they usually realize that none of those leaders started from a vision or stopped there. Instead the leader started with a sincere concern for a group of people, and as they held those people and their concerns, a vision emerged. They then held people through the change it took to realize that vision, together. Their vision may be how we remember leaders because it can hold us captive. But it is their hold that truly sets us free.”

Bringing others alive

Staying in the liminal space for a bit longer, sensing instead of sense-making, and holding instead of decision-making—these are the new qualities for those of us humbled by COVID-19.

As we return to our workplaces, we shall heed the advice of poet David Whyte: “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” This pinpoints the new mandate for leaders and businesses:

To bring others alive.

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