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Leaders in Liminal Space

By: Mary Shippy, PhD

Two years ago at a retreat, I was introduced to a new word – Liminal.  Liminal is defined as a phase or condition that is in-between, often transitional, sometimes seen as a threshold. Liminality is the tension between one space and another – literally the in-between space of neither here nor there.

The leaders I have been in conversation with in recent months are talking about and experiencing liminality as they lead their companies, as they communicate and listen to the tension their people are living in, and as they traverse our world in a space between where it was and yet to transition to what it will be.

In this liminal space we often want to leave business as usual.  We had been in a comfortable space of being and living our daily lives, with certain expectations and assumptions, then suddenly entering a space of surprise, fear, resistance, and grief, filled with ambiguity.  The rules and expectations have changed, are changing, keep changing… and it is unsettling.  One leader described it as feeling like being adrift in the ocean just in sight of the shore –  we come up for air to grab a breath and have hope we are going to make it, and then a wave hits from behind and shoves us back under. When we come back up above the water, we realize we are farther away from shore than before.

For many of us, these threshold moments are more than uncomfortable; they are painful and exhausting. In our present culture, we do not have very much tolerance for liminal space.  In fact, we do an awful lot of dancing with avoidance during times of liminality in our lives. For some it is denial; for some it’s anger; for others it is avoidance; and some try to escape with drugs, food, alcohol, etc. Avoiding threshold moments happens because our basic universal tendency is fear of the unknown and the need to hold onto what is familiar.  

For the last 20 years, the leadership world has been slowly calling us to shift the way we lead, and nudging towards:

  • A more holistic leadership model and framework that embodies awareness and responsibility to the whole of life – away from the idealized heroic leader.
  • Organizational systems with broad capabilities and capacities for inclusion – away from extraordinary individualism.
  • A more open, organic understanding of growth that actively looks at impact through a 360 lens – away from closed systems that are mechanical and inward-focused.
  • An evolving structure of leaders who self-organize, self-correct and self-generate – away from historically determined structures of leadership.
  • Agendas driven by broad stakeholders, collaborative learning, and generative thinking – away from agendas driven by force of personalities and politics.
  • Transformational/disruptive and adaptive capacity to change – away from slow, controlled, incremental change.

I am coming to the belief that if we do not develop the capacity to take ourselves to the edges of our comfort, we will not be able to see beyond ourselves to a broader, more inclusive world. These shifts above will not happen, and we will remain stuck in a loop. Dwelling in unsettling liminal space, whether we are pushed, or we jump, will lead us to draw on resources and possibilities we may not have tapped into otherwise. These disturbing times and spaces not only break us down, but also offer us the chance to live in fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and presence. Liminal space can relativize our perspective. If we choose to embrace liminality, we can choose hope over our habits…like a state of denial or despair. The calling of this type of ambiguity can transform us into the source and substance of growth and wisdom.

We cannot share with others a resource that we lack ourselves.  The critical starting point is you.  Ask yourself: How am I doing (really)? What will help me combat my anxiety? Am I drinking, eating, or turning to other coping strategies? Am I angry, tense or irritable?  Am I sleeping too much? Not enough? What do I need to do to stay connected? Who do I reach out to for support –  to vent to, to talk things through, to feel sane around?

As a leader during this liminal time in our world, when business isn’t “as usual,” how do I lead? How do I help others and myself face our fears, anxieties, frustrations? How do I “let go” into what appears like an abyss of the unknown where we cannot guarantee anything? How do I lean into this ambiguity without falling over? 

I wonder what the story of 2020 will be for us and the companies we lead?  What will this time unfold, shine light on, recalibrate for us as a human race? What is it this time has to teach us as humans doing business in a VUCAS world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous – my peer Nate Allen added S for Speedy)?

Perhaps the following reminders could support you on this leadership journey:

Maximize your mind, heart, and body care – We lead as responders to others by taking care of ourselves. Almost everyone needs connection to others, and the opportunity to give and get support in deep uncertainty is essential. Meditating, keeping a journal, creating boundaries, acknowledging your sadness, exercising, staying close to the people you love, and talking to a friend are all examples of caring for yourself. Another way to manage through chaos is to anchor yourself in routine. Schedule when you want to read or watch news. Get outside and enjoy nature’s restorative gifts. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Caregivers, parents, coaches, therapists – and even you – need help from other trusted sources. Don’t hesitate to seek and ask for what you need. Use professional resources when necessary. You are going to need support.  You will be sad, you will get mad, you will be frustrated, tired, unmotivated.  If you don’t ask for the support you need, the need for it will be revealed in ways that don’t serve you or others well – your “resent-o-meter” will spike, you will hold grudges, be unkind, ungenerous, or rude – most often to the people you care about the most.

Ask others, “How are you?” and do something kind – Taking the emotional temperature of yourself and your team by checking in and listening shows you care.  Everyone is grieving, everyone is experiencing trauma and needs other people to talk to. We need to feel heard.  Lifting your mood could be as simple as encouraging, supporting, and caring about others – acts of kindness, donations, or a run to the store for a neighbor, etc.

Look for what is good and say it out loud – The temptation to withhold praise and support can increase when we are experiencing scarcity. This can also foster competitiveness and even enmity. Now is the time to have courage, to be generous, to express appreciation, to give compliments and call out wins, no matter how small.  If you see something good, speak up. If you admire someone, tell them!

Liminal space is difficult but taking the step as a leader to lean in will create far less resistance and more hope for what is yet to come.

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