by Jim Drescher
Leadership can be understood as the ability to deeply apprehend the economic and social ecology of an organization both internally and in relation to the rest of the world. When one can see this clearly and without bias, one is truly qualified to lead. In other words, a genuine leader senses his or her world and organization clearly - before understanding it conceptually. That leader has had the courage to face, feel and embrace fear, which frees her or him to feel and engage the potential of others and the organization.
The best example we have of integral organizational “management” is the natural world, which, at its heart, is self-organized. A forest (or any natural system) is both the source and recipient of wealth: it spontaneously joins the limitless possibilities of interdependence with the earthy practicality of soil, water and weather as it passes through the seasons. The forest allows us to see a dynamic system that is resilient in responding to daily, seasonal, and other cycles as well as the unexpected behaviour of the natural elements. It accommodates an extraordinary abundance and diversity of life, and exhibits both beauty and stability over time. It only exists in the present moment, and exhibits constant creativity and novelty. It is truly alive.
Interruptive leadership is about how to recognize, illuminate and encourage this kind of natural balance in an organization. True balance cannot be imposed, but like the forest, must be a dynamic process that relies on the natural wisdom of the diverse elements that make it up. This wisdom-potential is exposed and nurtured by a genuine leader, first by allowing the space for sanity to reveal itself, and then by leading as an integral part of the whole. The genuine leader does not force a new system on the organization, because s/he understands it as a living organism, a human ecology."
When individuals, communities, organizations, and even families are not fostering their inherent potential, they need to transform themselves to reclaim their natural brilliance. This process cannot take place without interrupting comfortable patterns, which is often painful and naturally evokes fear. Those who lead such fundamental transformations must face and embrace this fear if they are to empower and benefit those they lead—whether they are a family or a nation.
Interruptive Leadership provides a deep understanding of this transformation, and offers processes, practices, and the support needed to initiate the deep cultural shifts that lead individuals and groups to fulfill their inherent potential.
This process of transformation must begin with the willingness to intentionally interrupt, or allow the interruption of, one’s personal patterns as a leader. Without interrupting the habitual patterns that subtly rule our lives, we cannot shift our personal culture, our way of engaging our world. If our personal culture cannot shift, we are quite literally “stuck” in our ways of seeing and acting in our milieu. Habitual patterns work the same way in an organization.
Genuine leaders who are committed to a beyond-habitual-patterns discipline —including study, personal development practices, and group processes such as deep listening and generative conversation— can help move organizations through the difficult culture shifts that are required to reawaken the organization to its highest purpose.
For most people, and for most organizations, deeply ingrained patterns make it difficult to live and work in an open, attentive, and truly responsive way. Moreover, these patterns make it difficult for people at every strata of an organization to experience authentic presence—in-the-moment confidence in how they are, what they do and how they communicate.
At a personal level, leadership manifests in simple but essential ways, like noticing when one is distracted by wandering thoughts and deciding to return the present moment. Having the courage to return from distraction to “now” may seem microcosmic; nonetheless, it is fundamentally interruptive to our habitual ways of being in the world. The courage to engage interruption is the basis of leading one’s life in wakefulness, but it means leaving the familiar comfort of our habitual world. There are points in our lives, and in the life of organizations, where larger patterns need to be let go, and major interruption of the familiar is required. Indeed, the most skillful interruptive leaders in organizations must also be strong practitioners of interruption in their own lives.
The possibility of Interruptive Leadership
Interruption never feels “safe” in the conventional sense—it is, after all, letting go of what we have grown to depend on. Nonetheless, in a deeper way we can trust that the process of change, even abrupt and disruptive change, sometimes is necessary in order to expand the beneficial work of the organization.
When we are not controlled by fear of the unknown, we discover that change wakes us up to seeing each other freshly and deeply, and to rediscovering the organization of which we are part. We discover that we, and those around us, are fundamentally decent, originally gentle, and naturally wise. Even though these inherent qualities may be well hidden by fear, confusion and habit, the universal human motivation is to nurture and support those around us. People want to be genuine, and lead lives of decency. If this "goodness" were not the fundamental nature of people and society, it would be impossible to aspire to evolve a genuine organization or society. Because it is inherently present, it is possible to touch it in oneself and others, and to base the process of change on its qualities: wisdom, kindness and strength. These qualities are present in people, like water in a well; it is the genuine leader's job to touch them and bring them into the process of change.
What is it that obscures this fundamental altruistic motivation? Fear. Fear of change, fear of losing one's territory and identity, and fear of others leads us to attempt to build personal precincts of comfort and security. This fear-based motivation blinds us to the genuine interdependence and teamwork that allow an organization to manifest fully and genuinely. It should come as no surprise that an organization based on fear, distrust, ambition and the search for safety generates outcomes that make no one truly happy. We don’t get what we want; others don’t get what they want; the social and economic ecology we depend on becomes polluted by insensitivity and greed. There are very few, if any, long-term benefits that flow from materialism and territoriality, either for the haves or for the have-nots. Indeed, despite their wealth and power, those who achieve success through fear-based ambition suffer from not having opened to the depth of the world or their own human potential. It is possible to do better.
Thus, an important first step in being truly human is to interrupt the patterns, both individual and organizational, that focus our attention on “my agenda.” Having done so we begin to see the ecology of our organization without bias.
The Path and Practice of Interruptive Leadership
The first step in the creative interruption of outmoded patterns is to transform our understanding of interruption. Rather than regarding it as a threat, we can see it as a healing medicine that enables the organization to recognize patterns of fixation that obscure its authentic purpose and inherent potential.
Genuine leaders—who can be found anywhere in an organization—will be the first to notice these frozen habitual patterns. These habits usually have a long history and, in concert, create cultures that obscure the real purpose and potential of the organization. These patterns gradually become normal and accepted in the daily work of the organization, but they create disharmony—friction, frustration, and dysfunction. In aggregate, they blind an organization, making it insensitive to the constant natural change that is taking place both within and without. This dullness fosters self-interest that begins to undermine organizational intelligence.
When these veils are recognized and acknowledged, either through the bravery of leaders within, or because of disruptive events from outside, we have an essential opportunity. The organization can revisit its reason for being—its place and function in its world. No longer able or willing to rely on the habits of the past, it must rediscover itself. This may require a fresh articulation of purpose. An organizations' purpose is based on how it is interdependent with its social and economic worlds, in other words, how its resources can effectively respond to real needs in the world. As the organization changes within, and the world changes without, it is constantly necessary to reinvent itself. This is the genuine leader's task, at any level of the culture. Thus disruption is our friend, in that it wakes us up from our comfortable dream just in time to rediscover our purpose.
This process of seeing freshly is the "secret ingredient" at the source of creative interruption. Making a shift toward a more beneficial culture requires genuine collaboration and creativity throughout the organization, rather than being a process that is imposed by a few leaders; nonetheless, a great leader inspires and empowers this courage to change in others. In order to rediscover purpose, the organization must join this fresh vision with a practical change process that will benefit all involved and fully manifest in daily activities. Without vision, there is no path forward; without practicality, there is no way to manifest the vision. Leaders, both with titles and without, collectively have the wisdom, gentleness, and power to join the vision of what is possible with the gritty practical challenges we meet every day.
How does this happen in an inclusive and collaborative way? Genuine change is not quick or easy; it requires a real commitment to building a sustainable culture from the ground up rather than imposing an idea of culture from “headquarters”. All voices must be freely spoken and deeply heard; the sanity in each voice must be recognized and illuminated; insights from seemingly unconnected places must be fit together in creative ways; and what is no longer needed must be let go. When change begins, it is universally suspect; when it has been achieved, it seems natural and obvious.
The process of working through these steps in a strong and nurturing container can be time consuming. This process is not about efficiency. It is not linear. It is about honesty and clarity, fearless generosity, compassionate communication and creative accomplishment. All this arises out of the spaciousness that allows anything to happen, the space that interruption opens. It is a great task, an adventure for the brave, and a journey worth taking.
Interestingly, interruptive change is inexorable; it permeates and infiltrates any relationship or organization. This is a choiceless journey because interruption cannot be avoided. The brave leader, with inseparable sadness and joy, is able to ride change, rather than being ridden by it, and also to inspire the organization to ride change. All of us have the potential to ride the challenges of our lives with open hearts rather than trying to insulate ourselves from the world of interruption. Indeed, interruption, even when it is severely disruptive, is a precious gift that challenges each of us to be genuine and care for our world.
Interruptive Leadership offers a sensitive and powerful method for shifting the culture without destroying the organization. It is informed by the view of ‘nothing missing – nothing wasted’ and the practices of seeing organizational development and leadership dynamics clearly mirrored in natural systems.
All this can be understood and practiced as a part of a ten-fold path. Without a full path of practice, the possibility of significantly changing a culture will be much reduced. In other words, this is a leadership practice (every leader is in training), not a silver bullet.
The ten step sequence (with a few abbreviated notes and questions):
1. Slowing the water. Since speed is often a contributing cause of individual and organizational dysfunction, slowing down opens space for anything to happen. Just as slowing the water in the forest allows more life-giving moisture to sink in to feed the living system, slowing the rush of our thoughts allows us to be present to wisdom revealing itself naturally.
Contemplations: When do I slow down? What does that feel like? Do I bring intentionality to this or does it just happen by accident? Is slowing down correlated in any way with relaxing? With waking up? With being kind, generous and curious?
2. Settling into friendship. Circle practice is a good place to begin - deep listening, mindful speech, and the surfacing of collective intelligence. Things naturally settle when all the voices are heard (including the many voices within oneself). Conversation comes alive when infused with gentle and fearless inquisitiveness.
3. Identifying the shift that wants to happen. This includes more circle practice, individual contemplations and small group conversations.
“How we would like things to be?” “How would we like to relate to each other, our customers, our suppliers and others in the community?” These questions will begin to define the principles of the desired culture. This is sometimes referred to as the “heaven principle”. Its articulation requires gentle and insightful collaboration resulting in a clear definition of the “culture” that wants to emerge.
Then (this is not linear; it is iterative, moving back and forth in conversation) it is necessary to ask the question, “What is the culture here now – really?” This is the nitty-gritty practicality or “earth principle”, what we have to work with, the issues that have to be dealt with in order to move forward.
In order to make the shift toward a culture that benefits the whole, the organization must join vision with practicality for the benefit of everyone involved. Without heaven, the possibilities are limited; without earth, there is no grounding in today’s reality. It is the people (all of them) within the organization that have the wisdom and power to join vision with practicality.
4. Slowing the water. Patience is not jumping to conclusions, but remaining true to the view of fundamental healthiness and worthiness. Be curious, receptive as open water.
5. Exposing the wealth involves seeing and illuminating the naturally occurring richness and sanity in the people and the situation. Practices here are designed to hone our ability to sort genuineness from confused display (our own and others’). This is analogous to uncovering the wealth in the forest by designing/building trails and releasing drala trees and rocks, so that everyone can experience the forest magic. Can we find the brilliance lurking in every expression, even when it is well hidden under confusion?
Contemplations: Can I see through my own and others confusion and recognize truth and sanity? What happens when I see it and illuminate it so that everyone can see it? What happens when only the “leaders” closely hold the insights? Do I have a tendency to highlight and praise things that are not insightful, helpful and sane? If so, what motivates me to do this?
6. Slowing the water. Resting in the richness of enough. Not getting carried away in collecting what is not sane, or not necessary. Slowing down is a prerequisite for letting things be the way they are, letting them express their own richness.
7. Arranging, and being arranged by, the puzzle. Building the capacity to see what, and who, fits where, and how to make it so. In the forest, long and close observation reveals the particular structural and functional niches that need to be protected or restored. Every plant, animal and rock has its place, interdependent with every other thing, each movement affecting everything else directly or indirectly.
8. Slowing the water is relaxing and letting the pieces find themselves in the right place, not being enamored with one’s personal artfulness, but merely holding space for people to find their own best place in the mandala of their organization/family/community.
9. Letting go of what is no longer needed. We could allow the remaining whole to thrive by removing what needs to be removed, rejoicing in what is at every point in time and space. In the forest there is the creativity of pruning-for-health and there is abandonment of trying to improve anything.
10. Slowing the water is resting in the space of nothing more to do, recognizing the truth that, from the beginning, there was nothing missing.