As leaders and organisers we want to be doing the wise thing at the right time.
In order to do that, we need to grow our capacity and capability:
To think in terms of multiple timelines. We need to be able to be in the moment right now, to think about next week and next month, as well as thinking ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years ahead.
To look this messy, broken, beautiful world in the eye. By the way, this includes your messy, broken, beautiful organisation! There’s something profound and necessary about not turning away from complexity, from non-binary spectrums, from uncertainty, paradox and mess. Sometimes we want things neat and they’re just NOT. In fact, if you can be somewhat at peace with the chaotic truth of the world, you can still do stuff, you can still take wise and timely action, instead of freezing or getting overwhelmed.
To spot systemic patterns and flows of history. The ability to go ‘This is (partially) an example of this...’, or ‘This is a bit like this and this…’ or ‘Something like this has happened before…’ means you can discover links that allow deeper change to happen.
To embrace your own humanity and the humanity of others. The ability to include more and more people’s perspectives, in deeper and deeper ways, is a hallmark of someone who can find plans and solutions that are sustainable and supported, robust and inclusive.
To be aware of your awareness. Thinkers like MIT’s Otto Scharmer have a hunch: the element that determines the effectiveness of a system intervention is the quality of awareness of the intervenor. What you’re aware of and how warm, how open, how gently focused, how wide, how still you are when thinking, listening, speaking, doing, is key key key to how deep your influence can be.
We need to aim towards these capabilities because the challenges we face as individuals, groups, organisations, humans and as a planet require them. Siloed thinking that operates from simple causality is what got us into this mess.
We are already on the cusp of irreversible environmental disaster and although some of the actions required are clear, how to make them happen, particularly at scale, demands all the subtlety of thinking outlined above if we have any chance of keeping a planet that is capable of sustaining human life.
Social justice for everyone
We live in a world that harbours a huge one-way imbalance of power. People of Colour, queer people, trans and non-binary people, women, disabled people, poor people (and people who live at the intersections of more than one of the above identities) are constantly harmed just for existing in the world.
If we are to create a world that is supportive for ALL people, then leaders and organisers have to do in-depth, often tumultuous, transformational work. We have to learn to nurture the parts of us that have been programmed to feel less-than and melt the parts of us that have been programmed to feel better-than.
We also need to dismantle the oppressive systems around us that are rooted in racism, slavery, genocide and colonialism, and grow new ones that are collective and radically inclusive, so there is true equity in who makes decisions and who holds power and resources. This goes so far beyond laughably simplistic ‘diversity’ thinking.
We also have to face the fact that our ways of living are already forcing millions of people to live in horrific conditions. Reconsidering the way we live as individuals, organisations and countries is vital if we are to look after all of humanity, not just a wealthy, lucky few.
The world is only becoming more complex and volatile. Organisations that cling to outdated models of hierarchy and siloed outcomes will only fall behind, if they survive at all. Nimble, self-organising, responsive organisations with inclusion, sustainability and equity at their heart are the ones that will survive and thrive. We need leaders who can plant the seeds and nurture the spaces for these organisations to grow, and that is a complex, challenging path-that-isn’t-yet-a-path.
Humans, particularly western humans, don’t know how to meet in groups. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless identified the Big Five ways that we tend to meet - presentation, open discussion, managed discussion, brainstorm and status update - as holding inequality at their core. We need to find ways to meet which include as many voices as possible, which use participatory ways of making decisions, which deal productively with the natural conflict and deadlock that happen even in healthy groups. Neither bombastic, black-and-white thinkers nor I’ll-find-the-answer-for-you lead-from-the-front leaders are going to do a tenth as well as people who genuinely know we each hold only a piece of the truth.
Most of how we interact with other people is through one-on-one conversations. Knowing how to actually listen, how to not shy away from awkward conversations and stay present (even in the midst of conflict and strong emotions) are tough skills to develop and maintain. They need flexible thought, responsibility and boundaries that move beyond rigid certainty. They also require a knowledge of power differences and an awareness of intention and impact as societal inequalities play out even in our close relationships.
You’re good at getting stuff done in the world, you’re smart, you know how to influence, you hit your numbers, but when you look up at the world, you see how much is still broken. You care sometimes so much that it’s hard to switch off. You see that you can’t do it all, but don’t see much alternative. You struggle with the seeming intractability of the people around you, of the frustrating rollercoaster of translating your vision into real reality.
These pressures, these tensions don’t have to stall you. They can transform you, if we hold them in the right way. Mainly we evolve when life forces us to. Knowing how to be healthily at the edge of our current capacity is how we grow in functional (as opposed to dysfunctional!) ways. There’s wisdom to be found when we’re in over our heads...
Only by working on all of these things can you become the leader you long to be and, frankly, a leader the world needs.