By Sarah Mali
Years ago, I had a student in my Adaptive Leadership class named Hannah who barely spoke during the first part of the semester. She would sit quietly and sullenly – yet very present – in the same seat every week. When she spoke, her input was curt and her body language stiff. Midway through the course Hannah made it clear to everyone that she wasn’t learning anything in class. In speaking with her, I found out that Hannah held a deep-seated belief that everyone and everything was “out to get her.” It was clear to Hannah that this belief was failing to advance her well-being and relationships, yet she held on to it because it appeared to help her make sense of the world.
Upon completion of the course, Hannah was responsible for leading a process of change in her workplace. Yet, in order for her to succeed, she would first have to confront her own adaptive challenge and neither I nor anyone else could do this work for her. I encouraged the other students to challenge Hannah’s assumptions and normative frames of seeing herself. I asked them to simultaneously reflect on their own assumptions – which they did courageously. Hannah quickly discovered that she wasn’t the only student stuck in her way of seeing the world; her peers were also struggling in their own ways. Through the Adaptive Leadership process, as played out in the classroom, Hannah began to test her own assumptions by observing, and re-interpreting the degree to which classmates both supported and challenged her with care and concern.
Towards the end of the semester she told me: “I understand that leadership is about having the capacity to look at things differently which means first taking a long hard look at myself.” Hannah was able to grasp what she unknowingly was unwilling to do before; she built the capacity to re-author her own life story. Hannah opened up to the possibility of seeing the good in people and in turn recognized that each of us, herself included, are capable of growth and change.
We are all wrapped up in the narrow stories we tell ourselves. As an example, we have developed a social media system that, by its nature, is designed to create in-groups that share similar likes and opinions. Ironically, in a period in history with the most access to knowledge and diversity we find ways to curb our exposure to new ways of thinking, keeping us bound to the familiar and blocked from seeing the world from other perspectives. We choose to know more about less; deepening our knowledge within our own self-made boundaries. Paradoxically, rather than illuminating our lives, we essentially choose to remain in the dark.
Knowing and knowledge, in their variety of meanings hold a profound place in Biblical tradition. In the book of Genesis, after Jacob steals the birthright from his brother Esau, he flees home and sets up a place to sleep. Jacob must come to terms with being the second born son with the first-born blessing. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reaches towards heaven. Upon awakening, Jacob proclaims: “Indeed there is a God in this place and I did not know,” Ve’anokhi lo yadati. The Zohar offers the interpretation saying “I did not know anokhi – myself.” The emphatic “I” – the subject of Jacob’s insight – also becomes the object. Jacob’s journey from home into dispossession and ignorance allows him to recognize his own foreign self as part of a process that will conclude with integration; in becoming Israel. It is Jacob’s journey of dis-integration, of not knowing that allows light to shine upon his own darkness.
When we face a disjunction between the ways we know ourselves and the ways we know the world we have two options: to attempt to fix the world so it aligns with who we are or develop a heightened capacity for working with the complexity that this disjunction engenders. We live in volatile, uncertain, and complex times. To address some of the systemic challenges we face, we require the ability to allow ourselves to recognize and work with multiple and competing perspectives, understanding that there is no one clear answer. We find comfort in the ‘knowledge’ that our worlds reflect our deeply held personal values, social commitments and communal legacies, even if, as in the case of Hannah, they prevent us from thriving. We must hear our dissonant selves, the stories we aren’t telling. Only then can we find the curiosity and courage to lead processes of change where the outcomes are yet to be known. This is the practice of Adaptive Leadership.
Like in the story of Jacob, adaptive work requires expanding our capacity to exist within a space of not knowing, breaking out of our self-made insularity, as individuals, as action-groups, as communities in order to see ourselves in new light: embracing the idea that in periods of disintegration we can achieve greater integrity. As the People of Israel we have inherited a legacy of a people forever in the process of becoming – on the cusp between what we know about our-selves and our otherness. Today, we might take heart in the fact that, as a diverse and fractured People, there are many opportunities for the light to come in, if we have the courage and fortitude to recognize and embrace them.
So, as Chanukah, The Festival of Light is upon us, it is worth considering that being in the dark is a space full of potential.
Sarah Mali is the Founding Director of the Global Leadership Institute and the Director of al.l, the Adaptive Leadership Lab, at the Jewish Agency for Israel. al.l. advances courageous and purposeful work among a diverse group of North Americans, Europeans and Israelis learning together to generate broad, systemic insights into local and global Jewish challenges and opportunities. Applications due by 15th January 2017: www.adaptiveleadershiplab.org