A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story to tell—a story behind the story I should say—of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was a single thread of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.
Why is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles? Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’
The shadow of VUCA
Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.
Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity. The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development.
Whilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan calls ‘self-transforming mind,’ I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them.
Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called ‘a state of individuation,’ is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.
When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul—when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’—the consequences are devastating. The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence. It’s a matter of sanity.
A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms—that is to say, authentically.
Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’.
Leadership and Addiction
Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.
The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.
A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity—in its myriad forms—at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.
The seduction of intensity is, in my view, the real danger in the context of VUCA. The issue is that it takes depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It is tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many, it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilization that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.
Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviors are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviors ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.
The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure, among other things, is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul.
Finding Sanctuary for the Soul
Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically it is a place deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary is essential to life; to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t. It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for refreshment and renewal, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us.
A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organizationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed or ignored. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so.
Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favored by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.
If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work—James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’—and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary.
Through this work we might, if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honor that story and let it speak.
Nick Ross, BA, FRSA, has been a leadership trainer and personal development coach for over 20 years and he is a facilitator in preparation for the Center for Courage & Renewal. Coming from a professional background in addictions therapy his work today includes delivery of extensive leadership development programs and executive coaching to global companies and senior leaders. Nick is the Director of a different drum, whose work he summarises as ‘helping others to take the next step’. As a writer, poet and lover of the outdoors Nick brings his love of the arts and nature to his work with executives and senior teams to address and reflect on the place of soul in leadership and the role of sanctuary in supporting healthy human development. You can learn more about Nick and read a longer version of this article here.