Challenge of Leadership in the 21st Century: What’s Needed Now?

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. The previous blog post explored the question of what guidelines or, in their words, rules, would I share with leaders today. Another of their questions was: Why does the area of leadership fascinate you? Why indeed?

Leadership and leadership development has had my attention for as long as I can remember. It currently has my attention because the way I was trained, or more accurately indoctrinated, into leadership (as is the case with many of the leaders I meet and work with, even younger leaders) is much different than the leadership skills needed to navigate the complexity of today’s world.

I came into leadership positions at a young age; at a time when leaders were believed to have the answers, were expected to solve problems and fix situations that popped up. This was a time when letters were written on stationary and mailed, when fax machines (which are now almost obsolete) were just new and the idea that everyone would have a computer (much less mobile devices that process as much and more than computers) was a farfetched notion. A very different world, a very different worldview.

The world has grown far more complex, social media has a strong influence and our environments and situations are demanding greater collaboration and collaborative decision making because no one person has the solution.  We need to unlearn and relearn our habitual leadership skills and strategies to be responsive and still make decisions and take actions that move initiatives forward.  We can only unlearn what is habitual by becoming aware of what is right in front of us that we cannot see, because so much of our worldview – as much as 80% – is unconscious.  This is why Jerry Nagel and I are in the exploration of the transformative power of worldview awareness.

This is a balancing act, working with dynamic tensions of collaboration and collaborative leadership – also something we are learning our way into.  Many leaders are uncertain about how to navigate this 21st Century world with skill and ease, how to draw out the collective intelligence or wisdom needed to find our way forward. In partnership with amazing colleagues, I have been using patterns and practices that help leaders make sense of the world, invite our own ‘not knowing’ while engaging the wisdom and collective intelligence of people most impacted by or having the most influence over the particular issues or challenges at hand.

These are the solutions that have staying power.  This is what this new series of programs at Saint Mary’s – but also offerings in other venues in other cities – offers: insights into navigating the 21st Century, particularly as leaders of any age feel a responsibility for the significant challenges of our times.

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Why Don’t Those Occupiers Just Go Home?

The Occupy Movement seems to have hit a perplexing moment – yet another one, that is.  Officials in many cities across North America are trying to figure out how to make the occupiers go home.  Fall is settling in to many places and what many assumed was a passing fad hasn’t yet faded away with the cooler temperatures or fiercer weather.  If they didn’t have any demands like typical protestors and no proposed solutions to the problems that others could then shoot down, then why haven’t they just packed up and gone home?

So now, many officials are trying to figure out how to get them to disburse while opinions of the movement and the occupiers vary dramatically within the media and within communities in each of the cities.  Some people think they are an eyesore filled with people, mostly young, who don’t have jobs and are only looking for a handout.  People who have this perception seem to just want them to go home and find a job like everyone else.  Public officials are certainly playing off of the perceived dangers pointing to drugs, alcohol and even some deaths in some cities as reasons to disband the occupiers.

Other people see them as vibrant communities that people flow in and out of, people with and without jobs, people on traditional career trajectories and those on alternative career trajectories, who are standing up for democracy and “voting” by their very presence in public spaces.  My own bias or world view is that there is something more going on here, something deeper, something fundamental to understanding the shifting shape of the world.

Occupiers have been gathering long enough that minimum structures and process have emerged.  These tent villages include library and food tents as central points of focus.   They have been working with consensus decision making and ways of being heard in large crowds where any kind of speaker system has been denied.  The movements have stayed largely peaceful even in the face of being provoked at times.  They are communities that are taking care of each other in some beautiful and perfectly imperfect ways.

They are example of translocal communities that are learning from and with each other and supporting each other.  They exist in individual cities and they are part of a field of attraction that makes them more than any single city.  That the movement spread so quickly and virally from one place to the next points to its magnetic attraction and the sense that there is something more going on here.

Maybe the occupiers haven’t presented demands or proposed solutions because they know we don’t know what the solutions to our problems are and they won’t be solved by a few people locked away in a room brainstorming or strategizing our future.  The greatest likelihood of deep, systemic solutions appearing is the collective curiosity and discovery of what is possible through intentional dialog the likes of which we may have not seen before – like the 1000 table, 10,000 person cafe conversations that took place in Tel Aviv earlier this year – the first of its kind but surely not the last.

Our culture is such that any one person or group presenting solutions feeds into our predominant public and social structure of debate – giving people something to latch onto to elucidate all the reasons those solutions won’t work and dividing us into camps of right and wrong, good and bad, smart and stupid.  What happens when we invite ourselves to see past the dichotomies to hold the paradoxes and allow all possibilities to exist in the same moment?  The very idea is perplexing in a world that has become beautifully complex and yet where some still want to boil it all down into nifty little compartments of thought and action.  We don’t live in that world anymore.  We haven’t for some time.

Our systems – financial, health care, education, transportation, environment, to name a few – are in deep trouble.  For the most part, they no longer support themselves.  They are out of integrity.  Most of them would be financially bankrupt if we let them be.  Officials can try to make the occupiers go home – in fact, as I’m writing this I got a test message saying police in Halifax are forcibly trying to remove the Halifax Occupiers from Victoria Park right now, in the pouring rain.  But taking them out of public spaces does not change the condition of these systems or the condition of the globe in this moment.  It might allow some to pretend that we can go back to business as usual, but we have long since passed that point.

So, if we opt out of the ways we have always done things, where does that take us?  To the field out beyond right and wrong (to badly paraphrase Rumi)?  If enough of us were able to let go of everything we think we know and allow ourselves to surrender into the edges of our learning and experience, maybe collectively we will begin to imagine what’s next and lean into creating the conditions for that emergence – emergence meaning we all left with something no one brought.

The deliciousness of possibility has me salivating with eternal hope.  The inquiries I am in around stewarding what wants to emerge along with the deeper underlying patterns inherent in the work I am called to do make me deeply curious about the Occupy movement, the staying power of it and how it will influence the shifting shape of the world and the regeneration of its people.