When Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, wrote that “…the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” she touched upon a particularly salient point in the enduring tension between humanity and science, and, perhaps even more pertinent, between humanity and technology.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the recent TED2018, where over 100 speakers — activists, scientists, adventurers, change-makers and more — came to Vancouver to present on different aspects of the incredible technological advances of recent years in honor of this year’s TED theme: “The Age of Amazement.”
As the facilitator of a workshop on the power of reciprocity of networks, my role at TED was almost 180 degrees from this hi-tech focus. Using nothing more than large pieces of paper and some good smelling markers, I focused not on how technology can help people, but on how people can help people.
The modality we utilized was called “Asset Mapping,” a facilitated framework that reveals the extraordinary resources (e.g. networks, expertise, ideas) of any given group and the myriad ways that participants can offer to support each other in their individual work. Asset Mapping fosters a spirit of empathy and generosity by allowing people to share their ideas, wisdom, experiences, and creative capital.
In a session that lasted 90 minutes, participants were asked to write down their adaptive challenge in a square in the middle of a large piece of paper, and then spent time circulating around the room and writing their suggestions to the questions posed by the other participants. The participants then divided into small groups to discuss the different questions and answers, and at the end of the session each participant took away at least one operable action item to implement in response to their posed question.
We live, as the saying goes, in interesting times; on the cusp of a future that we first saw as children, prefigured in TV shows such as The Jetsons, Hanna-Barbera’s space age cartoon counterpart to The Flintstones.
While the world of the Flintstones was an imagined, comical version of the far distant past, with machines powered by birds and dinosaurs, the Jetsons lived in an equally imagined comical version of the future, with robots, instant food, video phones, and flying cars. Amazingly, as TED2018 illustrated, almost all of these “far-fetched” inventions exist or are on the verge of realization. Unfortunately the creators of The Jetsons were equally sagacious in their depiction of one of the consequences of this futuristic technology – an increasing sense of isolation. Whereas the Flintstones lived in community, together with their friends the Rubbles and various other characters, the Jetsons were far more isolated, with no close friends and few sustaining human interactions outside of their nuclear family.
Robert Putnam explored this sense of isolation in his work Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Putnam drew on evidence from some 500,000 interviews conducted over the last 25 years to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations, are less likely to know our neighbors, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. The title is a reference to the fact that while bowling has become increasingly popular, bowling leagues are in decline because most Americans prefer to “bowl alone.” Putnam sees technology as a major contributing factor to this phenomenon.
Technology enables us to accomplish incredible, miraculous things. It enables the deaf to hear and the blind to see. It enables synthetic limbs to integrate with the human nervous system so that people who are paralyzed can walk again. It connects people who are thousands of miles apart and provides solutions to intractable problems.
Yet we cannot and must not overlook the human component. At the end of the day nothing can replace the power of human capital – of building networks. Strong networks are predicated on people sharing resources – human, programmatic, intellectual, and fiscal. This was beautifully articulated by Gareth Ross, head of Digital and Customer Experience at Mass Mutual, the sponsor of the session. He noted, “people join organizations because of people; they take risks because of people; and they buy and invest because of people. Regardless of technology, people will always need people. Regardless of technology, human beings are key in making big decisions, thinking creatively, and providing unique insights.”
A recent article from CBS, “Generation X — not millennials — is changing the nature of work,” quotes a study showing that while Gen X-ers (those born between 1965 and 1981) are as tech-savvy and social media oriented as Millennials, they are also uniquely adept at maximizing human capital. “Gen X leaders’ strength for working with and through others is enabling them to shape the future of work and generate faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers’ and their organization’s issues.” https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/11/generation-x–not-millennials–is-changing-the-nature-of-work.html
What this emphasizes to me is the ongoing importance, even in the face of incredible technological advances, to focus on our human capital. To continue to build community and networks that motivate, sustain, and help us to enhance our intellectual, creative, and social resources.
The proof lies in the existence of TED itself. Although TED talks can and are easily watched anywhere, at any time, on any computer, thousands of people showed up in Vancouver to attend the conference in person. They did so because when all is said and done nothing replaces the excitement and the energy of community, of experiencing something together.
Have you ever known a leader, team, or organization to struggle with questions like these?
- Do we draw a hard line in the sand or worry about being diplomatic?
- Do we want managers to take time to focus on employees or work faster to achieve more output?
- Do we do what’s best for the bottom line or what’s best for the environment?
- Do we give in to our partner’s need for collaboration or do we maintain our competitive spirit?
- Do we drive to meet our team’s goals or support another team to do what’s best for the whole?
These questions, and ones like them, are paradoxical – they require us to balance two seemingly opposite states at one time. They can create tension and strife in groups that do not know how to navigate them effectively and they can be leveraged for higher performance and effectiveness – if we know how.
The concept of dealing with paradox in organizations and leadership has received increased focus in both the popular and academic press during the past two decades. The growing complexity of organizations, and the interconnectedness of the global marketplace, has magnified the frequency with which organizations and leaders are faced with seemingly unsolvable situations that contain two or more opposing solutions like the ones above.
The need to effectively address these paradoxical tensions has led many scholars and practitioners to say that knowing how to handle paradox is among the top skills needed by modern leaders (Collins; Cook-Greuter; Van de Ven & Poole). As a result, there is no shortage of literature that laments the difficulty of dealing with these paradoxical situations, also known as polarities, dualities, dilemmas, wicked problems, etc. (Holt & Seki; Johnson; Smith & Lewis), or that discusses the growing importance for leaders and organizations to deal with them effectively (Lewis; Petrie; Solkol).
But, unfortunately, few, if any, authors tell leaders how to develop that skill. While many talk about paradox and polarities, few demonstrate what to do with paradox or how to successfully manage it. Therein lies the need for, and purpose of, the Executive Certificate in Polarities and Paradox. It is a deep dive for leaders, coaches, and consultants into how to navigate paradox in their lives and the spaces in which they work – and to help others do the same.
One way to do this is to assist others as they develop a “both/and” mindset to supplement our natural tendency to think “either/or.” When situational paradoxes like the questions listed above are approached only from an “either/or” perspective, their inherent tensions can turn dysfunctional or even destructive (e.g., draw a hard line in the sand OR be diplomatic; focus on being collaborative OR competitive, etc.). However, when leaders and systems are able to think and act from a “both/and” perspective, there is increased effectiveness and change efforts move forward with increased speed, less resistance, and more sustainability over time.
A “both/and” approach is necessary in these situations because the poles are not opposites, although some people see them that way. The two poles are actually interdependent—they need each other and their benefits over time. While focusing on either pole can produce good things in the short term, choosing one pole as a “solution” to the neglect of the other pole causes the benefits to turn negative. It’s easy to imagine that dynamic at play when you consider polarities such as the examples below.
Some common polarities in organizations:
Internal Focus::External Focus
Focus on Task::Focus on Relationships
Employee Needs::Organization Needs
Local Focus::Global Focus
Some common polarities for leaders:
Develop Bonds::Maintain Distance
Reward the Team::Reward Individuals
Unlike problems, which are typically puzzles involving independent solutions (e.g., Do we hire Vendor A or Vendor B?), polarities require solutions that are a more complex blend of both poles. Knowing how to navigate paradox by maximizing the upside benefits of both poles while minimizing the downside limitations is a competitive advantage for individuals, teams, and organizations. Unfortunately, doing so is not as easy as we would like – and some researchers say it is virtually impossible for many adults (Kegan; Cook-Greuter) until they are given different ways to make sense of the situations.
The good news is that there are ways to help individuals and organizations develop a “both/and” mindset. One of the most effective ways is by using a polarity map, created by Barry Johnson. A map is an easy way for individuals and teams to capture the paradoxical tension in a way that allows them to make sense of it and take action to navigate it more effectively. When this happens, instead of the paradoxical tension turning destructive, results actually improve, communication in the group is strengthened, morale increases, and relationships deepen.
The Executive Certificate in Polarities and Paradox at Georgetown University helps leaders, coaches, and consultants deepen their own capacity to navigate paradoxical situations and provides practical applications for helping organizations and clients develop a both/and mindset.
This post is adapted from Kate Ebner’s graduation address to ITL program graduates.
In her beautiful poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Tell me, what is it that you plan to do next?
This week, we celebrate our graduates in the Institute for Transformational Leadership (ITL). At ITL, our mission is to develop and sustain worldwide communities of transformational leaders, facilitators, consultants and coaches who are dedicated to awakening and supporting the leadership required for a more sustainable, harmonious and compassionate future. Our mission is ever green. This week, America has watched families seeking asylum being separated at our border, children, including infants, taken from parents and placed in detention centers. We look around us and see daily evidence that our planet is suffering due to climate change caused by human activity, that there is great unrest around the world as countries struggle to determine the balance between compassionate policies and protecting their economies and ways of life. We see great work that needs to be done in order to for us to learn how to communicate, relate and respect one another, respecting the full range of human experience in a way that includes people of every race, gender and sexuality. We see that our generation of leaders is grappling with 21st century complexity – from new ways of working enabled by technology to changing expectations about the very nature of work in the global workplace. Leadership today looks and must be different than ever before. Our context calls for us to recognize and step up in a new era.
And so, our mission to engage in the work of awakening and supporting the leadership needed for a more sustainable, harmonious and compassionate future is right here, right now for us to do. And, through our programs and learning events at ITL, we are doing it.
Sometimes, when I talk like this, people say, “But, Kate, it is not all bad.” And that is absolutely true. In fact, life – our lives – always present the dynamic polarities that give us hope and help us to envision a future that we want and can believe in even as we grapple with inevitable challenges. Here at ITL, our work is an investment in a positive future, a buddy jump if you will to create that positive future. That harmonious, compassionate and sustainable future. We see evidence every day of the goodness of humanity, our willingness to be stewards of the future.
This brings me back to you. You have taken time and put in much effort to complete your certificates. Congratulations!! Leadership Coaching. Transformational Leadership. Facilitation. Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Management. Organization Consulting and Change Leadership. Health and Wellness Coaching. You are the vanguard of the future. Through your experiences here, you have created the kind of communities within your cohorts that model the transformational values that we teach in our classrooms. You have learned to “set yourself aside” in order to open up to the possibilities of life, of work and of what you can do in this world. We celebrate your achievement joyfully!
Choosing to go back to school, to learn more at this stage of your life is a courageous act. We know that you have made sacrifices to achieve this certification, that you have put in many hours and that, most likely, along the way, you’ve asked yourself, “Is this right for me?” Despite those moments and challenges, you stuck with it. You practiced. You shared. You probably journaled! You worked on it. Congratulations on your outstanding achievement. In making this choice, you have opened a door and walked across the threshold into new experiences that can change your life and open up the field of possibilities for you. Now, it is up to you to decide how you will travel forward, how you will continue to embrace the discomfort and excitement of working at your learning edge, your own frontier. This frontier is the place where leaders live. As edgy as it is, it is familiar territory to you.
I’d like to close by reading Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, in its entirety to you. Before I do that, I want you to know how proud and excited we are to welcome you into our community of compassionate leaders. You are part of a proud tradition and now belong to a community of ~2000 graduates of ITL’s programs. Together, we are awakening the world to be stewards of the future.
Here is The Summer Day:
By Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Please, stay connected with us. Thank you and congratulations!
This post shared from guest faculty members Kristin Haffert and Jessica Grounds. See more from Kristin and Jessica here.
We began to be exposed to the issue of gender imbalance when we were in college. For Kristin, it was during her studies at Rutgers University where she learned that clinical trials for heart disease at the National Institutes of Health, only included men, even though heart disease is the leading killer of women. And for Jessica, it was her junior year in college when she worked on her first political campaign in California for a woman running for the state assembly. She quickly understood the power of political office, but also the fact that few women represented the public in elected bodies throughout the country. In each instance we wondered, how is this lack of representation by women impacting the outcomes?
We were inspired to this work for different reasons and now after decades of experience working globally to advance women’s leadership and develop approaches to incorporate gender differences into business models, policy-making, and leadership strategy, we find that we are still stuck.
Women to continue to make up only 20% of U.S. Congress, 5% of Fortune 500 CEO’s, and just 38% of tenured professor positions. We see the low representation of women in leadership as a near universal problem globally. So why is this and what can we do?
Two years ago, we created Mine the Gap in a business climate where we continue to see that organizations do not understand the strategic advantage of bringing women into leadership roles with men. When men and women understand and respect each other more deeply in their professions, productivity flourishes and retention improves. When an organization works to build a gender inclusive environment, the organization is more innovative, nimble, and profitable. More women leaders, working with men, open up new markets, perspectives, and approaches. But most industries have a long way to go to put these strategies into practice. There is a competitive advantage to advancing a culture where gender differences are seen as a benefit, not a liability.
As last year’s Scientific American cover page explains, This is Not a Women’s Issue. This is an issue that is disrupting the workplace today. We are limiting the potential of our workforce. We are underutilizing our talent and we are losing ground. The potential is there if we are aware and strategic.
We are teaching a course at the Institute for Transformational Leadership, housed at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies, because we want to equip professionals with the knowledge base and skills to better understand the challenges that women face accessing places of power, and how we can be more intentional to grow women’s leadership. We want to equip business leaders with the knowledge to become more gender aware and see the strategic advantage gender balanced teams offer. In the climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp, there is a rich conversation about issues impacting women and men. We will be sharing strategies that we use globally with our clients.
Come learn how you can mine the gender gap and become a trailblazer on gender dynamics in your field.