Let There Be Light: Leadership in Service of Transformation
By Maura Parda
In the blink of an eye, the world as we knew it has been turned upside down. Suddenly and dramatically, the pandemic changed nearly all aspects of our lives in ways we could never have imagined. And, while 2020 will forever be remembered for its dark pall of profound loss, chaos, and uncertainty, my dream is that 2021 will be remembered as a year of light – a regenerative time of healing and hope – within our homes, within our communities, organizations, within our society, and across our world.
Of course, for this to happen, we must engage in the challenging work of transformation.
I believe many of us sense a call to some form of transformative change yet feel ill-prepared for the bumpy and unfamiliar path it evokes. To some, transformation sounds difficult and scary. It is full of paradox as it asks us to turn our attention to what is emerging, rather than focusing our time and energy on trying to get things to “return to normal.” But one of the many things 2020 revealed to us is that it is not enough for us to simply be new and improved versions of who we once were; rather, a necessity of becoming who we are capable of being. Ironically, the year that so many of us would simply like to forget will be remembered as the one that ushered many of us – albeit reluctantly – onto the path of transformation.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over the past ten years coaching leaders undergoing organizational transformation is this simple truth: When moving through periods of change and uncertainty, the ability to name and claim our experience holds great power. Naming what truly is – as unpleasant or frightening as it may be – becomes the key to unlocking a doorway to new possibilities. These times call for leaders capable and courageous enough to cultivate dialogue, discernment, and resilience to engage others and sustain the transformational process required to realize the outcomes we seek.
Using a framework that sits at the integration of change theory, neuroscience, and contemplative practice, I offer three distinctions to assist you in naming and claiming your transformational journey that awaits.
- Dialogue versus Discussion: In a world where we are bombarded with noise and opinions, it is easy to fall into the trap of conversations serving solely as exchanges of information or as opportunities to affirm what we already believe. This human “binary bias” makes this form of conversation a default for many, especially during stressful or divisive times. Transformation, on the other hand, requires a much deeper form of conversation – dialogue – where we are fully present with a willingness to listen deeply to one another without judgment. This form of listening allows participants to uncover the meaning beyond the words with the purpose of finding new places of connection and possibility. When working with groups or teams seeking to engage in dialogue, I often share these words from the poem “Lost” written by David Wagoner:
You are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here….
You must ask permission to know it and be known.
You must let it find you.”
While dialogue is not appropriate for every conversation, it is a requirement and first step of tapping into creativity that allows us to envision new outcomes. Dialogue also serves to remind leaders that transformation is not a solo act; it requires engagement and participation of the community. Thus, one of the most important acts of leadership is to carve out appropriate time and space for engaging in true dialogue and then to embody the courage, curiosity, and vulnerability of being in its place of unknowing.
- Discernment versus Directing: Most leaders are quite comfortable in directing the efforts of others, yet less versed in helping others discern new outcomes. Transformation is not about “willing” something into being. Rather, it is a process through which we open ourselves in a way that allows the new (thinking, action, relationship, structure) to show itself. Using Theory U language, it’s a process of emergence. As leaders, we can’t force it, direct it, or manage it, but we can trust the wisdom of the process. “The road is made by walking” is a phrase used to remind leaders that while there isn’t a step-by-step roadmap, there are known stages of the process. In the journey of creating new outcomes, one will cycle through the stages as defined by William Bridges nearly 25 years ago – Endings that lead to Transitions that lead to New Beginnings. I also find the language used by the Center for Action and Contemplation very helpful in its description of transformation as a movement from order through disorder, and ultimately, reorder. A key role as leaders when moving through these stages is to assure others that messiness – despite the discomfort of it – is an inherent and integral part of the process.
I am honored to be serving as an executive coach in a global program called Discerning Leaders (discerningleadership.org) in which I have learned that discernment is not simply about making important decisions. It is, fundamentally, an attitude and way of being. A habit of cultivating our attention and responding with discretion and wisdom while seeking the greater and common good. Its power lies in its ability to empower people with varying beliefs and experiences to move forward in confidence with trust in the present moment and in what is unfolding. When done well, there is no limit to what a collaboration of discerning minds and hearts can bring forth!
- The Power of Resilience: The capacity for dialogue and discernment is greatly enhanced when operating from a state of resilience. That said, I must confess I struggle with how this word has been used of late. “Be resilient!” I hear proclaimed so often. While I believe the intentions are genuine, it runs the risk of diminishing its true essence and power. Much more than simply “bouncing back” or “powering through” loss and adversity, the transformative power of resilience lies in its ability to become a source of renewable energy through practices that reduce our inherent resistance to change. Words written by Marcus Buckingham in a recent Harvard Business Review article resonate deeply with me: “We discover our resilience only when we are forced to meet unavoidable suffering full in the face.” If we are willing to cultivate resilience, it will empower us with a capacity to shift from a state of reactivity to a state of creativity and resourcefulness. It will keep us from getting stuck in fear, despair, and darkness by enabling us to settle ourselves long enough to sense what’s possible.
So how do we cultivate resilience? First and foremost, by acknowledging that it is not something we simply “have” by choice. It develops through a commitment to regular and sustainable practice. It’s important to note that there is no singular approach to deepening resilience. Just because a certain practice works for one person doesn’t guarantee it will have the same effect on all. As individuals, we develop our unique “recipe” of practices aligned with our preferences, needs, situation, and values.
I encourage you to envision a “resilience reservoir” and pay attention to its level daily so that you have a reserve to draw upon when needed most. It’s useful to think of this reservoir as having four types of “streams” that fill it, with many activities (i.e. – walk in nature) supporting multiple streams.
- Body – practices that protect our immune system and keep our nervous system out of constant fight/flight/freeze state
- Emotions – practices that provide us the ability to name and process difficult emotions
- Mind – practices that provide us visibility into our habitual thought patterns (mindset/narratives/beliefs) to determine if they are aligned with the outcomes we seek
- Spirit – practices that bring us a sense of renewal and deepen our connection to that which is life-giving. I call these practices the “Miracle-Gro” of transformation for their ability to support growth and fertilize new beginnings.
As practitioners of the Leadership Circle, we are very familiar with the question, “What are the outcomes you are looking to create?” I cannot recall a time in recent history where the outcomes of our leadership have mattered more. So, let us be courageous and compassionate in creating space for dialogue, discernment, and resilience in the service of a more equitable and sustainable future. I offer you the words of Pope Francis in his newest book Let us Dream as you consider your particular call to action.
“We need a movement of people who know we need each other, who have a sense of responsibility to others, and to the world. We need to proclaim that being kind, having faith, and working for the common good are…goals that need courage and vigor.”
As our journey unfolds, may we support one another in finding the courage and vigor to name and claim what is ours to do at this unprecedented moment? I believe wholeheartedly that if we each do our part, together we will generate more than enough light to overpower the darkness of these challenging times. We will bring forth new sustainable ways of working together that illuminate the path to unity, justice, and equity for all.
Maura is a certified and ICF-credentialed Executive Coach. She holds her MBA and over 25 years business and leadership experience. Her work centers on transformational change within organizations, with a specific interest on building regenerative leadership capacity in the organizations she serves. You can learn more at www.512leadership.com