Blowing the Lid Off

When and where do leaders most add value? Now that’s a simple question with absolutely no well-defined answers.

On one level it seems to have something to do with articulating the felt needs of some group of people and fostering conjoint action toward something the group wants: wealth, security, social justice, political influence, what have you. The leader’s value, in this context, is often to express the vision, hold to it, and connect it up to the felt needs of a community of some kind — often in the face of some form of adversity.

Ah, but then there’s the other side of it — the desire by groups to have things simplified for them, to have, as Chris Corrigan wrote today, “clear paths forward,” no matter how unfair that expectation, especially when the future requires messy social changes that involve shifting mindsets and paradigms. Chris suggests the place where leaders (meaning everybody) add value is in hosting a variety of uncomfortable emotional states, such as “confusion about what we are doing,” and also in helping people “hold each other through very trying times.”

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I love Chris’s thoughts. For myself, I have often expressed that value as “entering and being able to sustain awkward, uncomfortable places in the name of fostering positive change.” Standing, figuratively, in the place others are not drawn to go because of risk, confusion, a sense of powerlessness, cynical responses, self-pity and so on and so forth. It’s the leader somehow that gets us all out of that dark place of “rather not,” and moving toward more positively oriented possibilities. Whether it’s through reassurance or voicing the challenge, liberating the conflict or simply inviting an engaged, genuine dialogue, leadership breaks open the dilemmas that both cause and come from sitting still.

We talk about that “breaking open” as most value added when it seems to draw down into our own most personally felt powers and values — doing what’s right, reclaiming the best of what we are and can be — all that stuff that inspires courage, connection and meaning — stuff that we are in charge of — but not, it seems, either by just telling us to do it or just leaving us to our own devices to figure it out. Leadership’s value is neither in telling nor abdicating, but showing how to get across the deep, murky, turbulent waters of change. (A lot of showing is really a form of telling, and a lot of telling is really a form of abdicating).

The times have moved away from the charismatic view of the leader as one person here or there to a concept of shared leadership in which we are all involved. So asking the question of where and when do leaders add value isn’t really much different than asking the question where and when do you or I add value? And ain’t that just a rip? It’s more about my stand regarding murky, turbulent waters. It’s more about how I think I can help myself and others. My piece of the bridge that needs to be built or the raft that might get me and us from here to there. My contribution. My service.

I love the fact that sometimes when you take out the formal leadership, the folks that are sanctioned to lead because of power or position or election of some kind, when you blow that lid off, there’s a natural thing that begins to happen. People start to talk to each other, make connections, figure out what needs to be done. In fact, if they are not doing this, I think it’s often because someone is still trying to play that formal leadership role (however subtly), and maybe has placed him or herself in a position of advocacy for something the group doesn’t really want or believe in — but certainly fits the agenda of the one trying to be leader.

When you really blow the lid off, really mutiny about the way things are, when having that river to cross just sucks for everybody, it’s totally amazing what people can do.

That may be part of the value, that mindset of seeing what it could be like “if we really blew the lid off,” having a vision for just that. But this isn’t about finding someone else to do it for us — some “leader,” some “follower,” some other group, lord knows not some consultant or facilitator. I think it’s mainly about blowing our own lid off, and no matter what the roles are, the services and contributions, it’s about stepping into that awful, rich space of anxiety and excitement, where what breaks open is most simply and immediately you.


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  • Dan, we all face those murky situations in which we are confused. Those people who come forward to encourage, add some suggestions or help bring a bit more clarity are lifesavers when “the lid blows.”

  • Yes, they sure are, Robyn. My sense is often these folks aren’t thinking about how they might lead so much as how they might pitch in. Yet, because they do so first, they clear the way and set the tone for how a whole team of people can work together. Their service is what leads.

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