A week ago, The Leadership Circle announced that my role is shifting from CEO to Chief Development Officer. This is a change I have been building toward for many years. I have wanted this, really wanted this, and yet, as it happens my feelings are all over the place. I am in transition. In this article, I want to speak personally about this transition. My hope is to make real the transformative process that is at the heart of our Leadership Circle model of consciousness development. Transition is one of the ways this process happens. As the founder of The Leadership Circle I am not immune to the need for, and the requirement of transformation. Far from it.
The first 15 years of my career were spent as a sole leadership and OD practitioner. In that life, I created the Unified Model of Leadership Development upon which the Leadership Circle Profile is built. I have spent the last 15 years as an entrepreneur, intensively building, bootstrapping, and running The Leadership Circle. In those years I joined with Partners and together we launched Full Circle Group, a global leadership consultancy. Eventually (a year ago) we merged The Leadership Circle with the Full Circle Group and I assumed the CEO leadership of both organizations. Together this partnership has created a global leadership assessment and development company.
I have been a reluctant CEO. My passion lies in the creation of IP, not so much in the day-to-day running of a business. And, while I found that I was good at managing and leading, success came at a cost. I became more and more consumed by the daily press of business—an experience that all senior executives know too well. I no longer had time to create new stuff—stuff I love to create, stuff that could well benefit the organization. My being the CEO was necessary, but I knew my being in this role had a limited shelf-life. And so now, I am in the transition.
Transformation is not for Sissies
A transition can be large or small, and when it is large, transition is a zone of transformation. I want to speak of transition as the precipitating event of transformation. In transition lies the possibility of metamorphosis—a complete change of form and the emergence of a new life. In transformation the old self is shed and a new self emerges. It is the ending of one life for a very new, and as yet unknown, life. And so, I find myself grieving the self and the life I have so carefully crafted while at the same time being thrust into a new version of my self and my life that I do not yet know.
I am too early into this transition process to know what I am in for. It is too early into it to write about it with any wisdom. But, I am going to write anyway because I sense there are leaders, entrepreneurs, and founders who are faced with the challenge of letting go. Maybe it is letting go of something small (but feels big) like the leadership of a key strategic initiative, or perhaps it is letting go of the very thing you have spent your entire career loving and sweating into existence.
Leadership often means doing what is tough, what is emotionally arduous, in service of the vision. Leadership sometimes means giving your self over to the transformative process of transition in service of what wants to emerge next. If we are not conscious of our reactivity (unconsciously allowing our feelings of, loss, grief, fear and doubt run the show), it would be tempting to hang on too long, not to let go to the next generation of leadership, and not to move into the unknown of next phase our own creative process.
This is not my first rodeo. It is not my first time through significant transition. I know enough about transition, from past experience, to know that it can kick your butt emotionally. I knew that going into this one. I consciously stepped into this transition, not knowing what lay ahead, but knowing that it is the right thing to do for the organization, and for my own creative process.
A number of years ago, my Uncle Tom was dying. His brother, my Uncle Dick, went to visit him daily. In one of those visits, on a particularly bad day, Tom said to Dick, “Dick, dying is not for sissies.” Transformation is not for sissies. It is a big deal. It is a death resurrection process if we see it through—if we go full circle (hence, the name of our consulting organization, Full Circle Group).
In our Hallmark Card culture we make very little room for how mixed transition can actually feel, especially if it is a positive development. The transition I am in is a good thing. It is a good thing for the organization and it is a good thing for me. So it should all feel positive, right? Right and wrong. There are positive feelings for sure. I am excited, alive, curious, forward looking, passionate and inspired. But, there is and underbelly to transformative transition that feels just the opposite. Well intentioned people try to talk me out of the less positive feelings. They say things like, “You’re not stepping down or stepping aside, you’re stepping up to the highest and best use of you.” This is true, actually, very true. And, notice how it does not admit that this might also be hard, in fact, very hard. Leading with mastery requires that we navigate the full bandwidth of our mixed emotions. In so doing we can move forward making good choices and creative decisions. If we are to do that, we need to understand significant change in a way that honors passion and despair, excitement and fear, love and grief, gains and losses. The inability to hold all of this “mixed-ness” is a prescription for retreating in to safety and moving away from what needs to be done, what needs to be gone through, and what now wants to be created. More importantly, we run the risk of subverting the metamorphosis of our self. Transformation is the dying of the old self-identity for a new one at the next higher level of development.
Love and Loss
Entrepreneurs love their businesses and are defined by them. This makes letting go more difficult, a bigger deal, and perhaps even transformational. As entrepreneurs, we risk everything, or so it seems, to give birth to an organization that matters. In my case, I have been graced, as George Bernard Shaw says, “To be used by some great purpose.” The Leadership Circle is an expression of my passion. It is my vocation. I was born to do this—to create The Leadership Circle, join with Full Circle Group and bring this body of work to the world. I don’t know if I was the best person to lead the organization, but when you’re bootstrapping an organization, you’re all you’ve got. I lead, because I was all we could afford. It has taken many years, and a thousand other strategic investments, to finally create the cash flow and the organizational readiness for me to hand over the leadership to those who are more capable.
Building this business has been a 24/7 focus for more than a decade. The day-to-day demands were beyond my expectation. Managing and leading a rapidly growing global business in an increasingly complex environment, has been very demanding. Many days, it was a grind. Why would anyone subject him/herself to that year in and year out? For love. I did it for the love of what we were creating together. Entrepreneurs give their heart and soul to the business they found, launch, and grow. This means we get attached to the business in unique ways. The business becomes an extension of our self. This makes the letting go that much more difficult.
A year ago my Partners in Full Circle Group decided to purchase The Leadership Circle and I decided to merge The Leadership Circle and Full Circle Group. That was the first big wave of letting go. I went from being the sole owner and decision maker, to a minority owner. It was the right thing to do for the vision we are holding together, but it was not easy. In the first Partner meeting after the merger, my partners were “creatively integrating” the two organizations. As the conversation progressed, I was getting more and more agitated and reactively engaging the conversation. I was providing all the “good” reasons why the changes being suggested were not a good idea. My Partner, Bill, leaned over at one point and quietly said, “Bob, this is the first chance we have had to get our hands on this organization. Give us a little room to play.” I knew instantly that he was right, so I backed away from the conversation long enough to find my ground, and then reengaged more constructively. At the break, Bill could see that I was still struggling and so he came up to me, put both arms on my shoulders, and with his big open heart said, “How are you doing, brother.” I was instantly completely overcome with emotion. I cried like a baby. The intensity of my emotion was a complete surprise to me. All I could say in the moment was, “So much love.” Brick by brick I had lovingly built The Leadership Circle. It has been my life’s work. And it was now no longer mine. I did not know I would grieve the loss so deeply.
I am most grateful that we, as a Partner Group and Executive Leadership Team, have developed the authenticity, courage and trust to wade into all this with such honesty and vulnerability.
Engaging the Transition
Little did I know that six months later, I would recommend to my partners that we hire very capable women, Betsy Leatherman, to lead the company. Imagine how surprised I was when, just a couple of weeks later, Bill suggested that I not be the CEO going forward. When he suggested this, my first response was hurt and anger. That lasted about 30 seconds until I realized what he was driving at. The highest and best use of me is no longer leading the business. I need (and the organization needs me) to return to my roots—to re-engage the creative process that gave birth to all this—and to step up to leading our thought leadership in the field. This is what I have been building up to for years, but now that it is here, my feelings are strangely mixed. It feels like a death, and it feels pregnant with exciting possibilities.
My point in all sharing all this is simply to say that creation costs, letting go is full of strongly mixed emotions, and transition is not for sissies. Leaders, entrepreneurs, founders, need to develop the emotional and spiritual intelligence to navigate these waters with real mastery. Otherwise, we hang on to long, we resist what is wanting to happen, we get in the way of our own creative process, and we may end up being the impediment to the next wave of creative growth for the organization we so love.
The Zone of Transformation
I know in my head, heart and gut, that these changes are right. In truth am excited for the possibilities that are ahead. In transition, even though we know the steps we are taking are right, it is not likely to feel that way. When we let go and/or step up in a big way, we are entering the zone of transformation. We actually do not know what that transition will ask of us. It may be a fairly smooth movement into whatever is next or it may be that we have unknowingly initiated a transformation. Significant transition is a zone of emotional white water. When we sign up for transition, we place ourselves at the effect of the creative process. Picasso once said that, “Every act of creation is first and act of destruction.” And so, in a transformational transition, who we are, who we have been, and that which has defined our life for so long, goes up for grabs. We do not know who we will become and what lies on the other side. Like the caterpillar that spins its own cocoon, we enter the cocoon and let go of the old form we know and love. We do so not having the luxury of knowing what (or even if a) new form will emerge. We do so with the faith that integration follows disintegration, the phoenix rises from the ashes, and new life grows from the decay of last year’s harvest. In this way we give ourselves over to the genuine process of adult transition and transformation. Dying to what has been is an integral part of the life-long creative process.
In the metamorphosis process, it is the self that is being transformed. The parts of me, of which I may or may not be aware, that are identified with being “The CEO Guy” are getting trashed. I find myself feeling irrelevant to the organization. I feel marginalized. I wonder how I will add value and be seen as valuable. I am used to being the leader, the decision maker, the one everyone turns to for guidance and to get clearance on key issues. I call the shots when needed. All of that has funded a sense of self-importance, meaning, personal worth and value. As this role is removed, to the extent that I have founded my current identity, self worth and security upon being that guy, the moorings of the old self fall away. Metamorphosis is under way. The very structure of my ego-self is melting down and it hurts. It is full of loss, self-doubt, grief, fear, and despair. I feel lost. I wonder if I will ever get found.
While this feels as if something has gone badly wrong, it is actually something quite right. It may feel like dysfunction, but it is actually function. It is transformation happening. If the transformation goes full circle, a new self emerges. This self is newly constructed at the next level or stage of consciousness. Consciousness is a structure and that structure defines the level of performance and the limits of creative capacity. Metamorphosis is a restructuring of the self into higher order structure. It requires the disintegration of the old self in order to give way to the re-integration of the new self at the next higher order of structure. This process must be undergone if we are to become the vehicle for the next wave of creation and innovation that wants to come through our lives.
The ego self, at whatever level of structure (Reactive, Creative, Integral), is an illusion. If we continue far enough along the path of evolution, consciousness itself eventually makes this quite clear. I am not the independent, separate self that I mistake myself to be. In the spiritual traditions, the self eventually surrenders ultimately into Unity. And from the perspective of Unity it is clear that there never was a separate self-identity. This is why all traditions have some form of the statement, “if you want to save your self, lose it.” Earlier stage transitions are often referred to as a Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey, later transitions, the Dark Night of the Soul. The process of transformative evolution is ultimately a process of dis-embedding from an old self (losing yourself) and arising as a higher form of your self, only to find that this self is also a limiting illusion and the process starts again. This happens until there is no self left apart from the One Self. This realization is the purpose of life.
Transformation is not for sissies, but it is the process by which we are remade, over and over, into the kind of leader that can transform our organizations and the world.