I didn’t shovel snow at all this past year. I live in an area with lots of it, every winter. We have a large driveway, and I watched my wife, Andi, shovel it all.
My leg was broken, and I was just sitting around healing. The day before Thanksgiving, I fell 10 feet from a ladder in the midst of doing something that would have made America’s Funniest Home Videos, if it hadn’t been so painful. I landed standing up with straight legs, and my right heel was driven up into the two bones that make up the lower leg, shattering them each into multiple breaks and pieces. Yeah. Painful.
As these things do, it happened nearly instantly, and opened the door to unexpected change in my life. This is what I’m writing about.
I’m an active guy, athletically and otherwise—always on the move through the dance of life and work. Now in my mid-fifties, I have lived and worked long enough to have experienced setbacks and detours before. Somehow this one was different—perhaps not just in the circumstances (I did break my hip in a mountain bike accident a decade earlier), but in the depth of transformation opened to me in the process.
That day I was raking leaves with my extended family who had all gathered at our house to celebrate the feast. The last task of the day was to trim a branch away from the power line between the pole and the house, and the only way I could see to do that was to lean the aluminum extension ladder against the line itself, and scamper up with a saw. My daughter and father-in-law reluctantly agreed to assist, all the while imploring me not to do something so bone-headed. As a concession to my father-in-law’s background in electrical engineering, I wrapped the top of the ladder in foam insulation so I wouldn’t get electrocuted. (Not totally necessary, right? The power line is covered in rubber, isn’t it?) My ego obviously, and obstinately, prevailed, and up the ladder I went with a small crosscut saw in hand.
What we hadn’t anticipated was that, once the branch was cut, its weight would lift off the power line, and the line would bounce higher in the air. Higher, as it turns out, than the height of the ladder on which I was balanced. The ladder promptly disappeared from under me, and the ground came up.
That part was over in an instant…and the next part began.
Dealing With The Unexpected
Disruption is the bane of the professional manager’s existence. The credo of the professional manager has been order, predictability, and control, the bureaucratic trinity of values that guided many organizational decisions and policies for the last 75 years of business history. The hope had always been that, with enough planning and forethought, we can routinize much of our processes to a machine-like consistency. If disruption occurred, it was a problem to be solved, a problem that should have been avoided. Someone is to blame, and should be held responsible. They must have not seen far enough ahead, or around that next corner.
In the last 30 years, the business environment has grown more complex than ever in our history. The pace of change (a la Alvin Toffler’s “Third Wave”) is old news. Now the critical challenge has become overwhelming complexity. Interlocking global systems of commerce, involving too many variables for any one human brain to track, are interacting in non-linear and seeming chaotic ways. Combined with the continuing breakneck pace of multiple waves of change, it’s making posturing fools of us all.
To the person who longs for predictability, this development is not merely confusing, it’s deeply threatening. It threatens our existing ways of making meaning out of what we see in our world, as the patterns we’ve grown familiar with are up-ended and deconstructed. What we thought was certain, suddenly evolves in unexpected ways, sometimes crumbling altogether. It leaves the predictability-junkie with little to stand on. Our worlds are in flux, and hence, the meaning of our lives takes on an uncertain and fluid quality.
And that can open a well of primal anxiety and fear.
Choice In The Face Of Pain And Disappointment
Laying on the ground in my back yard, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I gently felt my ankle and shin with my fingers. I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say that things were not where they should have been, and I knew it was serious. The paramedics eventually bundled me into the ambulance strapped to a back board with a cervical collar in place. Through gritted teeth, I joked and chatted with them, hoping the morphine would kick in quickly (it didn’t).
The scene at the new state-of-the-art trauma center was fascinating; full of serious, bustling medical personnel asking questions, taking x-rays, inserting needles, poking fingers and following protocols. Gradually, they eliminated the possibilities of spinal damage, internal bleeding, and brain injury, and left me with the none-too-small diagnosis of a “pilon fracture” of the ankle and a shattered lower leg.
All the while, full of bravado and morphine, I figured that, just as I’d come back from previous injuries, this one would be no different. As an avid runner, road biker, and hiker, injuries are expected, and my level of fitness has always been an ally in my recoveries; in fact, a source of pride. Laying on my hospital bed awaiting the arrival of the orthopedic surgeon that night, my ego was providing me with reassurance and comfort. This would be an interruption, yes. A transformative experience, probably not. I had too much going on in my life and work to entertain that possibility.
It turns out that the surgeon on call that evening was the same guy who screwed my hip back together when I had my bike accident years before. A gentle, friendly, and very skilled surgeon, there was a, “What? You again?” look on his face when he came in the room that made us both smile. After a chat, I was wheeled into the operating room, and that’s when his smile disappeared. Leaning over to me as I was being prepped, he said, “Look Dave, you need to understand something. This is not a normal ankle break. This is a serious mess, and we’re going to do the best we can to put it back together, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to run again.” It was as if a dome of silence dropped around us and time stopped. In that quiet, we simply looked at each other and held our breath. Eventually I exhaled and said, “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
I didn’t know it then, but I had made a choice. In the face of what could have been crushing disappointment, I had chosen something else. But it wasn’t me that had made the choice. It was as if someone, or some force, bigger than me had chosen and I was merely a witness to the choosing. I’m aware this sounds mystical, but I can’t find other words.
The point is, there was a choice to be made. My painstakingly constructed ego had just received a body blow, and I was confronted with a choice between two responses to the news: 1) I could deny, and fight against, the emotional pain of loss and disruption or, 2) I could somehow welcome this turn of events into my life, and see where it might lead me. It’s a choice between contraction and expansion, between reactive and creative, between one stage of meaning-making and the next. In that moment, some deeper part of me had chosen the latter. Then, the anesthesia kicked in and the bone guys went to work.
At The Leadership Circle, our work is leadership assessment and development. In our research and experience with clients, most of whom are leaders of significant organizations, we’re always working this edge, this choice between mentally constructing the world in ways that defend against surprise and interruption, and cultivating ways that are open to novelty and innovation—to new possibilities and potential. The complexity and unseen interaction of forces in our business and personal lives are always providing surprising intrusions that don’t fit well into our current framework for making sense of the world. We can ignore them, or we can choose to relax our grip on our expectations of predictability, and let the interruptions do their work.
Ron Heifitz, of the Harvard Business School, describes “adaptive challenges” that call forth a shift in a leader’s structure of mind. The old ways of solving problems don’t work when confronted with an adaptive challenge; one must adapt, learn and evolve in order to rise to the occasion. And if the challenge is big enough, it may call forth a fundamental restructuring of the way a leader sees herself, her role, and her world.
We describe this restructuring process as a series of shifts, stepping from “reactive” to “creative” to “integral,” each one being a more spacious and open framework for making meaning of the world and our place in it. Our leadership consultants and coaches are familiar with the signs of an impending shift, and help our clients navigate the territory with sensitivity and grace. It takes that, because these transitions trigger waves of anxiety and uncertainty. Everything seems like it’s falling apart as we let go of familiar ways of understanding our lives and work, and struggle to incorporate new possibilities and values.
Each successive framework is more expansive, having the capacity to hold more variables, more complexity and more nuance. The simple categories of black and white give way to shades of grey; the self-centered pursuit of safety and security gives way to a desire to create and contribute; and “either-or” gives way to “both-and.” As one grows through these stages, the capacity to hold complexity without needing to over-simplify emerges. Seeming conflicts between competing goods become polarities that can be held simultaneously, without a compulsive need to resolve them. We gradually move from a “playing not to lose” stance to one of selfless service and love.
And Sometimes, We’re Forced To Leap
My experience was a significant catalyst for a step-change in perspective. I didn’t choose to fall off the ladder or land the way I did. But there I was, suddenly in a circumstance that was radically unfamiliar and disorienting. I was having no fun being helpless. Laying in bed for weeks dealing with the throbbing, stabbing pain was tiring—exhausting really. And the work commitments I’d taken on as a new partner in our company were piling up and festering on my to-do list. My old fear of failure, always with me, found its voice and whispered disquieting possibilities into my ear.
After two surgeries in as many weeks, I had become Titanium Man(!). Seventeen screws, a ten-inch plate, and some chewing gum had been artfully installed, recreating my ankle joint. I was bed-ridden in an oxycodone haze for over a month, and had to be fed, helped to roll over, and Lord help me if I had to go to the bathroom. Which I did.
The nascent choice I’d made in the operating room to accept my fate had to be made again and again during the next six months. That’s the way I think it usually works: we resolve to open ourselves up to a growth challenge of some sort, then our fears of letting go surface and push back, and we need to re-choose daily, even hourly, to stay with it.
It’s a discipline, or spiritual practice, to say yes to the reality of what life has brought us. I’m learning how to say yes to the pain, letting it do its work of reshaping my capabilities and my hopes. I may never run again, true. I may have lingering pain whenever I walk, which might get worse as I age. I may even get soft, flabby and out of shape, which would be a type of ego-death for me, as I’ve too long been proud of my lean, fit body—the fit old guy who’s still able to run marathons. And yet, I’m still saying yes.
This discipline of saying yes has also opened a doorway to gratitude and helped me walk through it. My Thankfulness-Meter has gotten much more sensitive, registering the littlest blessings that before were lost in the noise of my busyness and pace. Somehow, I’m taking in more of the goodness around me, starting with my incredibly loving family and friends, expanding to my clients and community, and reaching into the world beyond. I’m learning a compassion for myself and others that can gently bear more of the pain in the world, and that too, is a blessing.
One surprise after another.
We’re In Between The Trapezes
“Fear not. The things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you,
but they are nothing to be afraid of.” (John McMurray, Persons in Relation)
The deep wisdom in this quote can only be seen from the other side of our experience of those things we fear. I have always feared helplessness and failure; that energy has driven much of my performance and achievement throughout my life and career. It’s brought about many good things, but never enough of them to permanently put my fears to rest.
Falling into my fears (quite literally) has begun to take me past them. In this recent journey, I’ve been found by God’s loving presence in ways that have shown me a firm ground on which to stand. I’m learning that no matter what happens in my life and work, I’m safe in Love. I’m finding a way of being present to my clients that allows them to be what they are (not what I want them to be), and welcomes all they bring to the table without feeling threatened myself.
I feel a new freedom, and with it, a new sense of hope. Perhaps this is the experience of a stage transition beginning to happen. A mixture of fear and new possibilities held by a bigger frame of meaning that is unshaken by what used to feel threatening. It’s been described in circus terms: as the letting go of one trapeze, while not yet having hold of the next one. There’s a feeling of terror in the letting go, but of freedom in the flying.
This is my work right now, this practice of opening to a bigger, more spacious consciousness. I think I’m in between trapezes, and I’m trusting God that the other one will show up. As I’m flying, I’m learning the practice of a generous awareness, and it’s subtly reshaping my life.
And this is also our work, as guides for leaders on the way. We must create room in our own lives for the necessary reflection on how we “make up” the world, and pursue the path that opens for us with an optimistic hope rather than a defensive, careful stance. Only as we’re “on the way,” can we join our clients in their journey toward a way of leading that can handle the complexity, difficulties, and possibilities without going reactive.
There’s nothing wrong with predictability, order and control, per se. It’s necessary for the profitable running of business and society. And having said that, it’s becoming a scarce commodity, a rarer and rarer source of comfort. Leaders in all sectors need support to shift away from an anxious pursuit of predictability (with it’s accompanying tight grasp on the reins of control), and learn that there are bigger patterns at work, which can only be seen if we stand back far enough to see the whole picture. Joining leaders on that journey is our gift to the world. Even if we’re walking with a limp.
About The Author
Dave is a seasoned leadership development consultant with over 25 years of experience supporting senior and mid-level leaders as they increase the quality of their engagement where it counts the most for strategic success. Through his years of leader education, consulting and coaching work, Dave has helped his clients lead in ways that create work environments marked by ownership and creative action rather than caution and defensiveness. For the decade before joining Full Circle Group as a partner, Dave had his own consulting practice called LeadingWork, LLC, focusing on full-scale leadership development & transformation. He also has an extensive background guiding wilderness expeditions as a crucible for developing hi-potential leaders.