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Leaders who Know How to Die Know How to Thrive

Lorna McDowell on the art of living and dying as a leadership skill in 21st century

“There are large lessons for the world of politics and business if people can find the appetite within themselves to be open to letting go so that they can make space to bring in the new and begin again differently.”

To truly live we must first learn how to die.  In the dying we break the eggshells of pride and complacency that hold us in gridlock, so that we can be open for new thoughts.

The art of living and dying is reflected in ancient texts the world over, yet largely ignored in the reductionist principles of “do more for less” that prevail over the way businesses are run traditionally.  Reductionist principles assume that growth is infinite on a linear scale if you stick to the same set of assumptions, whilst generative principles work a basis that everything has its season and one must often change your guiding assumptions and beliefs according to the season, and the stage of the season, you are in.  Changing one’s guiding assumptions, is rather like dying a death because it entails letting go of what you have considered to be true and safe for a long time, but that perhaps no longer works in the new season.  It is terrifying, especially if you do not have support.

Annihilation is what we fear most – all anxieties in our lives and businesses, ultimately link back to this – and the unspoken rule in most organisations is to somehow avoid this at all costs and stick to the same habits and assumptions.

The most common example, is a as a response to hierarchical styles of leadership, where staff avoid speaking out what they really think or feel. Leaders respond by unconsciously protecting against exposing this fear, by either assuming what people think and saying it for them, or keeping conversation to a fixed routine agenda outside which all other conversations are suppressed.  People may “tell” and download opinions in email monologues and tedious verbal debates, but nobody really practices the art of listening and heartfelt dialogue.  The silence is suffocating as blood boils, thoughts remain disconnected and people cut their hearts out of their work.  Rigamortis sets in as the living dead just take their bodies to work.

But this isn’t just about making people feel better about themselves.  It’s about smashing open the elixir of innovation.    Breaking the silence may feel like opening Pandora’s Box, but actually when you open that box wide for a decent period of time, the light illuminates Hope  and a whole array of previously unseen resources.

This is the work of leadership in the 21st century – to create the climate for real listening and dialoguing together in a way that hearts can open to rise above fear.  When we work with a new awareness of the environment we create inside an organisation and the environment that exists outside the organisation’s walls, we find many resources for improvement.

Bringing people to dialogue in heartfelt ways and reading what is elicited by this is the way to find new answers to old and new problems.  In this way, we can create cultures where people really feel they can contribute and flex themselves, and are willing to cut and release what no longer serves inside themselves, whilst nurturing more of what needs to come out or be preserved for growth in the next new cycle. This is the work of leadership.

Xenergie provides 1-1 and group interventions that help leaders work with their awareness with this kind of leadership and accompany them in practically working with these issues inside their organisations.

For more information about living and dying as a leadership competence, join one of our workshops below or contact me to receive details of our forthcoming research report on  The Art and Science of Living and Dying for Leadership.  I also provide keynote talks for managers on this subject.

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