Random finds (2017, week 46) — On liminal leadership, the paradox of growth, and the balance of humility and hubris

Mark Storm
13 min readNov 17, 2017
Best architecture of 2017East Sydney Early Learning Centre in Sydney, Australia, by Andrew Burges Architects (winner in the category ‘Schools’).

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Liminal leadership

“Whatever leadership used to be — it used to be. Now, it has to be something different. Now, we all have to be more than we were,” argues Nora Bateson in a recent article for Kosmos, titled Liminal Leadership.

Strategic leadership, leadership from behind, organizational, innovative, creative leadership, collective leadership, transformational leadership, cross-cultural leadership, team leadership — the list of leadership models is endless, Bateson writes. “But the kind of leadership that I want to explore may not be identifiable as leadership at all. I am interested in a kind of mutually alert care and attention to the wellbeing of all people and ecological systems. This kind of leadership cannot be found in individuals; rather, it is found between them. It cannot be found in organizations, nations, religions, or institutions; rather, it is found between them. I have called it Liminal Leadership to highlight these relational characteristics.”

Like Bateson already wrote in her seminal book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, this kind of leadership is produced collectively. “The illusion of the prevailing way of thinking is that there is someone to blame — or to praise — as a leader, hero, villain, tyrant, saint or Satan. And that thinking — that is how we got where we are today.” But in the ecology of the interdependence of our world, this individualistic idea is wildly out of sync. It “distracts from our ability to perceive larger interactions in context. In a world in which individualism is a viable illusion, collaborative discovery is unseen” (page 87). The prevailing notion of individual leadership also pulls the focus away from the contextual conditions that made them. “Is the tree tall because it grew more cleverly than the other trees? Or is it because the soil, light, water, and biodiversity of that particular acorn was nourished to provide the conditions for thriving trees? It is precisely this contextual relational process that the future depends upon,” Bateson writes in her article for Kosmos.

Liminal Air Space — Time, by Shinji Ohmaki. (Installation view at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan)

“Complexity and interdependency are messy. The relational processes that are at work are in motion — always calibrating, changing, and compensating. In between the hours, in between the phases of evolution, in between being professionals and parents and lovers, friends and patients and citizens, activists and athletes — in the liminal land of being alive together in this incoherent moment, there is mutual learning. Between us is the genesis of ability to perceive and respond to the complexity of this time.

I will meet you there. In the liminal plaza of our shared future.

I know how misty that may sound.

The tone of skepticism that sterilizes the complexity of the way things are is toxic to the vulnerable of visionary seedlings. When new ideas appear, their inventors often get their heads chopped off, even though leadership is supposed to be about discovery. It is about doing new things, in new ways. If, and it is a big ‘if,’ humanity learns to live in a new way, I believe we will do so by learning together. This will not be because a hot-shot author has a new best-selling book on change-making, or a viral meme, or a super TED talk.

Our liminal leadership will be as people together in a struggling biosphere — just you and me and the other 7 billion mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. We will not lead on behalf of a company or a nation, not on behalf of a religion or a belief system. We will hold each other through the storms of economic volatility, ecological turmoil, and political insanity. There will be trauma, pain, and loss through which our solace during this transformation will be nothing less than the creative expression of tenderness. Healing together is learning together is leading together. Together includes the human and non-human world.”

Liminal Air Space — Time, by Shinji Ohmaki. (Installation view at Shokoreishokan, Ritsurin Garden, Takamatsu, Japan)

According to Bateson, there are three things to remember about responding to interdependency. First, wicked problems require inter-systemic change — not siloed solutions. Secondly, taking action before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy. And finally, perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing sensitivity is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.

“Are we ready? We better be, because increasing sensitivity is an opening to also feeling the pain of so much exploitation. That pain is asking a question: can I bear the tenderness that real systems change requires?

Years, decades, and more than a century have passed in which brilliant minds with breaking hearts have tried to create change in the institutions that frame our lives. They tried incrementally changing the system from within. They tried using the legal system to change the laws. They tried becoming politicians, teachers, doctors … but the institutions did not budge. The multifaceted crises the world faces today are proof enough that the establishment is not built to question itself. The pillars of civilization are pinned under the stone slab of the last several centuries of assumptions. Pillars of politics and money, of education and medicine, of psychology and religion. Structure is hard, and hard to change. The institutions have no water in their edges, no improvisation in their memory.”

“We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense, and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways, we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the ‘common sense’ of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom.” — Gregory Bateson

The paradox of growth

A society dedicated to growth can become a society enslaved by discontents, but a society without growth is a society without endeavour. So, what is the resolution of this paradox?

In a still extremely relevant article for Resurgence from 1996, The Paradox of Growth, Charles Handy writes that “[w]ithout growth, the available wealth would tend to collect in ugly little clusters, creating ghettoes of rich and poor. We need the momentum of growth to keep stuff moving, to give opportunity to those without it to get their hands on some, without having to grab it from those who have it.” The paradox, however, is that while it creates opportunity, growth also fuels envy. “A society dedicated to growth can become a society enslaved by its own desires and discontents, but a society without growth is probably a society where endeavour and experiment are no longer worth the aggro, a society, therefore, without a future.”

Paradoxes like this, Handy writes, have no easy resolution. “[T]hey have to be lived with, not solved. A judicious balancing of the opportunities is the only way to go.” Handy subsequently shares three thoughts that might help us with this balancing act.

Charles Handy — A social philosopher whose broad interests spread from religion and philosophy to the organisation of the workplace.

The first of Handy’s thoughts refers to the ‘doctrine of Enough.’ “The first step to personal freedom,” he writes, “is a definition of ‘enough’ — enough money, enough things, enough promotion at work, enough professional renown. If you don’t know what ‘enough’ is, then you will always want more and, by definition, will never be satisfied, or free to do anything else, because you can never know the meaning of ‘more than enough.’”

“An upper limit to enough, in our own interests, must be balanced by a lower limit, for others. If ‘more than enough’ is unnecessary, ‘less than enough’ is intolerable, and should be recognized as such by a decent society. Balancing the two definitions of enough, the upper and the lower, would keep growth going but spread the stuff around in a more equitable manner.”

In the final paragraph of this visionary article, Handy introduces Plato who maintained that the soul had three parts: a desiring part, a reasoning part, and ‘thymos’ or self-worth. “I suspect,” Handy writes, “that, in large sections of modern society, desiring (or consuming) and reasoning (or efficiency) have dwarfed the element of self-worth, which comes in large part from a sense of making a difference, from a feeling of responsibility for others and from the satisfaction of living a life that is not a lie, that is true to one’s real values.”

Handy believes that, if we want to restore the soul of our society, we will have to rethink our economics and to adopt the doctrine of Enough. “Paradoxically the end result would not be less growth but more growth and, I believe, better growth because more widely spread.”

More timeless wisdom from Charles Handy in Humanity at a Crossroads, an article he recently wrote for the Global Peter Drucker Forum 2017 for which he will deliver the closing address on November 17th.

The balance of humility and hubris

In We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better, professor of philosophy and the author of The Evolution of Imagination, Stephen T. Asma, argues that anyone who has played improvisational music with others is familiar with the virtuoso who has great skill and expertise but bad social sensitivity. “In performance, he tears into melodic acrobatics, but never listens enough to know when to stop, or hand it over to another player, or modify and adapt to the aural environment. His narcissism undoes his own musicality.” But it can also go the other way, since the overly shy improviser never gets courage enough to assert his musical ideas. A balance of humility and hubris facilitates good improvisation, not just in music but also in art, science and business.

The single greatest predictor of quality improvisation is simply experience. But there’s nothing simple about experience. “A great jazz improviser such as Miles Davis had thousands of hours of practice and problem-solving underneath every one of his improvisational flights,” Amd writes. “This kind of experience makes good improvisation highly intuitive in a biological sense, not a mystical sense. It taps into the subtle systems of animal awareness, mostly unconscious, that we all possess, such as body-awareness (proprioception), personal space (proxemics), and arousal states such as fight or flight. Muscle memory is loaded with this kind of intuitive wisdom.”

But improvisation is also highly adaptive because “it seeks to fit (adapt) to an environment, to fit a structure to a function, a part to a whole. Primates and other mammals improvise occasionally (e.g., piling boxes to reach food, etc), but humans are masters of repurposing materials to new functions — turning reading-glasses into fire starters, dental-floss into fishing line, and duct tape into everything else. We are the improvising apes.”

Well improvised — Dizzy Gillespie at Deauville, France in 1991.

According to Asma, this kind of decision-making is particularly valuable in situations of resource deficiency. “The perfectly provisioned kitchen or tool shed has an implement for every task. But the improviser does not have such optimal resources. And this paucity of resources is the very condition of creativity because it forces a kind of lateral thinking.”

Failing is a major aspect of improvisation. It’s what we learn from, and the cornerstone of productive experience. Aristotle described improvisational decision-making as ‘practical reason,’ distinct from rule-following logic. He believed young people can become experts, but we don’t usually consider a young person to have good improvisational skills. He argued that practical reason includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which the young do not possess for experience is the fruit of years.

“Ultimately, improvising is a form of receptivity to experience, and also a behavioural style based upon that experience. It evolved as part of our cognitive operating system to make good use of available resources,” Asma believes. “It is a fundamental inheritance, emerging out of our primate evolution. But the narcissistic improviser and the inexperienced improviser — so popular these days in politics and celebrity culture — leaps tragically into delicate situations with no plans, practice, tact or ability to read the room. That is an improvising ape of an altogether different kind.”

And also this …

“We’re all human — so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices,” write Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman in Why Beauty Is Not Universal, an adaptation from The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017).

According to Brandt and Eagleman, visual symmetry is an oft-cited candidate for universal beauty. But the relationship between beauty and symmetry is not an absolute. Rococo art was rarely symmetrical, while Japanese Zen gardens are prized for their lack of symmetry. So perhaps we should look elsewhere for evidence of universal beauty.

The Language of Symmetry in Islamic Art — The pattern above (15th century) from Yazd, Iran, is derived from six regular divisions of the circle. From this a regular grid of triangles is established, on top of which the design is elaborated.

But scientists have struggled to find universals that permanently link our species, Brandt and Eagleman write. “Although we come to the table with biological predispositions, a million years of bending, breaking and blending have diversified our species’ preferences. We are the products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. Although the idea of universal beauty is appealing, it doesn’t capture the multiplicity of creation across place and time. Beauty is not genetically preordained. As we explore creatively, we expand aesthetically: everything new that we view as beautiful adds to the word’s definition. That is why we sometimes look at great works of the past and find them unappealing, while we find splendor in objects that previous generations wouldn’t have accepted.”

What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself.

Robin Hood Gardens, a Brutalist icon completed in 1972, has been run-down and facing demolition for some time, targeted by a local borough that wants to replace its 252 flats with more than 1,500 new homes.

“Yesterday, some dramatic news came,” Feargus O’Sullivan writes in A Duplex of London’s Public Housing Will Become a Museum Exhibit. The estate will in a sense remain alive although not in a way that anyone could have predicted. It will still be leveled by wrecking balls — a process which has already begun — and new housing will still spring up in its place, but a 26-foot-high chunk of the building, comprising one duplex apartment, will enjoy a strange second life. “It’s going to be scraped off the building’s carcass and preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Britain’s national art and design collection, where it will go on display in the public galleries (possibly in an East London branch that’s due to open in 2021). A remnant of Britain’s great 20th century social housing experiment will end up not as somewhere to live, but as a museum exhibit.”

V&A acquires segment of Robin Hood Gardens council estate. (Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum)

The debate about the demolition of Brutalist buildings in Britain has been a battle over wider social change. The constructions most frequently reviled by planners and media are all housing projects and public buildings, reflections of a post-war social democratic, welfare-state-driven ethos.

“That ethos is now as dead as any fossil,” O’Sullivan writes. “London’s housing projects are increasingly being redeveloped with more private housing, typically displacing many residents […] in the process.”

“When Robin Hood Gardens was built, it was in a working-class neighborhood that had been plunged into decline by the then-recent closure of the adjacent London docks that provided most of its employment. Now the area is towered over by the skyscraping new financial district at Canary Wharf, packed with office workers prepared to pay a premium for a convenient location. While residency is being transferred from lower- to higher-income residents, some might see the new development’s bland aesthetics as an improvement.

It’s still telling that the developers are, to some extent, riding the coattails of Robin Hood Gardens’ former prestige, with their website selling the area as being ‘formerly a pioneering 1960s urban estate.’ At least the V&A’s façade plan will preserve some partial memory of what the place looked like — and maybe spark some debate — even as it serves to embody the evisceration of London’s public housing. But conserving a building’s skin while destroying its heart isn’t historic preservation. It’s taxidermy.”

Reclaimed wood chips and recycled plastic were both used to create this IKEA chair, designed by Swedish studio Form Us With Love. The chair is the result of a three-year-long project exploring how a sustainable composite material could be used to create an affordable seat. The designers saw sustainability as just one of five qualities that the chair should achieve — along with simplicity, comfort, affordability and beauty.

Stockholm-based Form Us With Love created Odger for IKEA’s PS 2017 collection, which was first unveiled in June 2016, and is now available in stores worldwide. (Photography by Form Us With Love)
Detail from the Bocage map of 1784 depicting Ancient Athens.

“Stoic cosmopolitanism should not be taken to imply that the ideal human society resembles a beehive, where individuality is subsumed for the benefit of the group. On the contrary, the Stoics were keen defenders of human freedom and very much valued the independence of individual agents. But they thought that the freedom to pursue our individual goals, to flourish in our own way, is predicated on the existence of a society of similarly free individuals. And such society is possible only if we realise that our collective interests are broadly aligned. We might be from Athens or Corinth (or the United States or Mexico) as an accident of birth, but in a deeper sense we are all members of the same global polis. We would be well advised to start acting like it.” — Massimo Pigliucci in When I help you, I also help myself: on being a cosmopolitan



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought