January, 2011: Letting Go—Allowing In The Transformation Process

First, a Little Background

Janus was the name of the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, and is therefore the linguistic root for the first month of our year, January. Images of Janus show him with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions, one looking behind at the past, and the other facing forward toward at the future.

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Once he was made into a god, Janus was worshipped at the beginning of harvest time, before planting, before marriages, at births, and other types of ‘beginnings’ or transitional moments, such as the beginning of a new year. Even though any day of the year represents a potential beginning or fresh start, for many around the world, January 1 has become a new beginning. In my own family’s tradition, we spent some time on the last day of each year looking back, Janus-style, to reflect on what had happened that year—and what we learned from it. Then, on New Year’s Day, we took time to turn our attention to look ahead, Janus style, and record our intentions for the coming year.

Possibility and Transformation

For most of my professional life, I have been studying possibility. Where does possibility come from? What conditions make it more likely? In ‘The Role of Chaos in Creating Change’, a chapter in Many Facets of Leadership, I suggest that Pain and Possibility are the ‘parents’ of transformation, with Chaos being the ‘birth canal’ through which something completely new comes into being. Creation Stories from virtually every ancient culture contain some variation on the same theme: the world came out of ‘the abyss’, ‘the nothingness’, or ‘the chaos’. Newness comes into being from empty space. ‘More-of-the-same-only-different’ (what is called ‘First Order Change’ in our field) can come from modifying or improving what is already present. But something completely new (called ‘Second Order Change’ or ‘Transformation’) cannot come into existence when something else is occupying the space. 

My hunch is that in our eagerness and even fear about the empty space we have just created by letting go, we often rush to fill it with something to make sure we don’t have to hang out in the ‘abyss’ or nothingness’ or ‘emptiness’. When we act out of anxiety or fear, however, what shows up next is likely to be more-of-the same-only-different (First Order Change), because the underlying paradigm may not have gone yet. Einstein’s famous quote comes to mind: ‘Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them’. 

How many times does an organization ‘create change’ only to have it fail? How many people rush from one relationship or job to another before they have become aware of—and let go of—the basic way of thinking that led to the existing situation. Being too eager to fill the space blocks the space.

Letting Go

So how do we open the door, Janus-style, for possibility, for something new and more appealing (transformation) to occur? By creating an empty space for it to show up. This means letting go of what is currently occupying that space. Some examples: 

 When a program or product is not working anymore, let it go.  Clear out your closet of any clothes you have not worn in the past year.  Start a ‘fast’ on something that has become habitual, e.g. random TV watching, certain foods, etc. 

The thought of letting go of something that has been in your life or business for a while can be daunting, even scary. Yet that is exactly what must be done to set up the condition for a new possibility. 

If you are not at least a little nervous or scared about what you are letting go of, you are either not actually letting it go—you are pretending to let it go, or thinking about letting it go—or you are letting go of something that is not ‘real’ for you anymore, something that has already been let go. No risk/fear, no empty space. No empty space, no transformation, only more-of-the-same-only-different. Let it go. . .

In the next issue (Part II) we will be exploring Allowing In, the second phase of the transformation process.

News from Central/Eastern Europe (CEE)

As you may recall, I am spending most of my time in Poland and CEE (as it is called here), introducing my work of transformation to leaders and their organizations. There is tremendous need here for this kind of thinking, offset by an equal amount of resistance or skepticism for anything that smells like ‘possibility’. The resistance is inherited. After so many generations of life with little or no possibility, many people are reluctant to stick their necks out to propose something too new. 

In many organizations, people at the middle and the bottom wait for someone above them to tell them what to do, thus reducing risk to themselves—and, by the way, reducing the likelihood of innovation or quick response to a changing situation. This is a formula for struggle and frustration, but some here would rather suffer than ‘try to be a hero’. 

In future issues of the Newsletter, I will be addressing what we are doing here to inject some Western leadership and professional development ‘ways’ into this scenario. Things that have been routine—even become ‘old news’—in North America, are not well known in parts of CEE. Fortunately, however, there are companies here with leaders who see the need for creating work cultures of engagement and empowerment, and I have had the good fortune to consult with some of them.

The Shadow of Leadership

Recently the CEO of one such client, Netia Telekom, the up-and-coming #2 telecommunications company in Poland, invited me to address the Polish Chapter of The Young President’s Organization (YPO) in Warsaw. I only had an hour and a half, so I decided to get into something that might be a little ‘out there’ for them, and even a little risky for me. I called it The Shadow of Leadership. (For graduates of the LDI or EDI, you will recognize what comes next. . .) 

First, I invited them to think of some character from history or literature or the movies that they could not stand, maybe even hated. Then, working in pairs, I had them list words to describe that character. The powerful clincher came when I explained that they were now looking at their own Shadow, aspects of themselves they had ‘projected’ out there and onto that character. Once the shock subsided, I helped them turn their Shadow Character into their Teacher, revealing specific leadership behaviors that were less developed in them, and crucial for their increased effectiveness and fulfillment.

For instance, one CEO discovered in his Shadow Character, Stalin, who he saw as ‘power-hungry and cruel’, his own need to be more direct about what he wanted. Another chose a ‘slimy, self-centered TV anchorman’ and realized his own need to occasionally stand in the spotlight and ‘sell’ his ideas and way of operating to his company. Another CEO who had selected a woman legislator well-known for being ‘manipulative and callous’ discovered that she was missing moments when, as leader of her organization, she needed to simply take the decision and not worry so much about whether or not her managers liked it. Insights were happening all around the room. . .

My Future in CEE

Out of that single YPO event, I received requests from three CEOs to work with their leadership teams—and three more are in the works. In March I have been invited back to that same chapter, where I will take the leadership conversation even deeper. 

This obvious readiness and even hunger for what I represent makes it hard to move back to America. Like St. Paul, who heard a voice saying ‘come over to Macedonia and help us’, I feel a strong sense of being ‘called’ to be here, helping these amazing and resilient people move to the next phase of their organizations lives. More later on this, but suffice to say that my new partner, Amy Barnes, and I are cooking up a ‘transformational presence’ in CEE. We are designing a venture that could ‘raise all the boats’ here by introducing—and passing on—our principles of deep development to leaders who are ready to create cultures of engaged and empowered people, more capable of business success, personal fulfillment, and freedom. It’s good work, worth doing. That said, America is starting to ‘call’ me again, too! This creates a lovely problem to solve: How to be in two places at the same time? The current plan is to come back to North America every 2-3 months for a month or so, ‘commuting’ between the worlds, much like my Maasai Warrior and friend, Kakuta Hamisi, who splis his time between Seattle and his beloved community in Kenya. Maybe I will ask him how he does it. . .

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