He is a big man, at a guess he is not far off retirement and not used to finding himself in this position. His face has gone bright red, setting a contrast with both his shock of grey hair and pink shirt. We are standing together in the middle of the room and the rest of his team, peer group and manager are watching our conversation. We keep pushing gently into the conversation, he is saying some things about the old business that have needed saying for a while but it is very difficult to stay with the thread of the discussion. There are a number of attempts from his teammates to relieve the discomfort he clearly feels, suggestions for alternative ways of seeing the situation, requests to change the topic, proclamations that enough has been heard, and early attempts at forming a conclusion.

It is easy to understand why this rescuing behaviour is happening, our subject is red, hot, agitated, somehow saying yes and saying no at the same time to the conversation we are in. I keep checking with him that he is OK to carry on and despite the encouragement from his colleagues to stop, and after a brief moment of hesitation he always says he wants to keep going. I thank him and we hold it together. After a little while, at the point of greatest discomfort, without making anything easier or better, we cross a threshold and the room breathes a sigh of relief, we are into new territory now and the conversation in the whole room has a more creative feel to it.

There are many of our leaders in organisations who are keen to do this work but they need some help to welcome and amplify the point at which they are at their most uncomfortable. This is a key part of our efforts in building a channel to the future. We look to make the situation worse, we exaggerate and amplify the cause of disturbance and then look for the feedback that accompanies a response. And of course this provokes anxiety in our clients, the situation and most of all ourselves!

As leaders and facilitators we could do with examining our own habits...

  • Where might the business need to hold a point of discomfort for much longer than it is currently doing?
  • What are your mechanisms for avoidance, rescuing, tidying up, making better?
  • How might you extend the moments of discomfort and agitation?
  • How do you feel personally about making things worse? What are the triggers and difficulties it presents you with from your historic habits and ways of being?
  • What is the worst you have been?
  • What happened in you? What happened around you?

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of or courage required to do this work. Over the years I have come to see a connection between the need to allow things to get worse and the leadership required to progress through what appear to be irresolvable contradictions or paradoxes.

And of course - there is no guarantee of success, in fact by the time we get around to really addressing some of these issues, they are often on the road to failure anyway, but there is an integrity I appreciate in myself and my clients that we would do the right thing, whatever the cost.

They are tired, in a different kind of way to the tiredness of the hero. It is a weary, in the bones tiredness. It is not about the miles they have travelled, or the weight they have lifted, the creases in their smiles suggest something else, in order to lead they have had to risk their emotions, their psychological well being, it is a tiredness that comes more from being vulnerable than it does being strong.

I look at them with great pride, they are our heroes but not in the way of the old myths. The classical stories of business and life where an individual goes out into the wilderness to find a foe much stronger than themselves, uses their strength and ingenuity to overcome the odds and returns to a hero’s welcome. Someone bright, shiny and above all superior to the common man; someone we can put our faith in and who will carry the expectation of keeping us safe and well; a man (usually) that we can become dependent on.

These new heroes suggest a new myth, one that is as much about their flaws as it is about their perfection. They succeed because of their willingness to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite the disappointments they repeatedly experience in their leaders, in their organisations, in their peers and often in themselves.

This group of seven sits and contemplates its future. They have failed to keep their organisation from being acquired, they have failed to protect the livelihoods of the thousands that follow them and they have failed to make a case for any more time from their parent group.

And yet they are those I feel most dedicated to. Those that can touch defeat and allow it to play a part in the reality of organisational life. These leaders understand that the new myth is one of almost constant mess, dirt, confusion, and iteration; yet somehow they are still described and experienced as elegant - moving with grace. And their teams would put their lives in their hands if ever it were required.

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Comment by Pete Burden on October 6, 2015 at 19:00
Lovely post Khurshed. Thanks.

I love the sense you give of the need to muddle through the mess.

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