As a facilitator and a coach, I work in the emotional spaces “in-between”. Supporting leaders and their teams to work creatively with the tension that exists, between where “we are now and where we want to be“. This is the place of the past, present and future, the should and should nots, the old self and the new self. The spaces “in-between” are sometimes referred to as liminal spaces. The space where creativity emerges, discovery and possibility beckons. These spaces can also be the place of tension, secrets and hiding. Victor White first used the term liminality (meaning threshold) to describe the space between two stages of growth and consciousness. Jean Shinoda Bolen refers to this in-between zone as a life passage, a state in which we are neither who we were before now, nor who we are becoming. She reminds us that we are more vulnerable in these times of liminality but also more psychologically receptive and open to new growth.
In the coaching room I am privy to the struggles many people in leadership roles face to show up authentically at work. Finding the balance between who I want to be as a leader and who others think I should be: my real face and my brave face. This theme extended to my doctoral research where I discovered that in many organisations leaders are putting their energy into a job no one is paying them for. This job involves covering up perceived weaknesses, denying vulnerability, bottling up or silently brooding over the normal yet unpleasant emotions catalysed by organisational life. By doing this, many of us are unwittingly crafting idealised leadership personas. We are buying into the fantasy that “worthy” leaders are those who are not human, but superhuman, emotionally impervious, heroic and unaffected by the machinations of organisational existence. This fantasy is implicit yet powerful and infuses the messages we receive about leadership – what it is, what we insist we need from it, and I propose, how we then act in leadership roles. Further, by buying into the illusion of superhuman leadership we are doing ourselves and our organisations a grave disservice.
Compassionately Courageous Leadership
My research argues that to inquire into the origins and impacts of this myth and bust it, takes compassionate and courageous leadership. What do I envisage when I talk about compassionate and courageous leadership? To start, a relational leader takes their moral responsibility to care about, and for others, seriously. The quality of their relationships is primary. The relational leader sees people not as resources to be used on behalf of the organisation, but as human beings they are in relationship with. All successful relationships are based on mutual responsibility and accountability. Acting as an equaliser, compassionate leadership acknowledges the strengths and struggles we all have as human beings, and acts accordingly with good intention. This means that the compassionate leader willingly steps into vulnerability because they understand that people crave authenticity at work. The compassionate leader is courageous because they show their real face, as well as their brave face. My research argues that the core of compassion is courage. It involves intentionally leaning into uncertainty, being comfortable with uncertainty and be willing to hang out with yourself and others in the truth of organisational experience, no matter how unpalatable it may be.