Analogue leadership in a digital world

Layers of Time, Stewart Brand, Pace Layering, 1999

It is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historical consequence and understand in real time that is what it is.  (Alan Little)

For the past two years I, like almost everyone else on the planet, have been locked down (or up, depending on perspective!), separated from family and friends and corralled into the virtual world.  Zooming or Teaming or just talking on the phone became my primary means of communication which meant that if I wanted to connect I had little option but to go online.

I keep on being reminded of E. M. Forster’s novel “The Machine Stops” where humans had exchanged the meatspace for the virtual-space.

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.  (E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops)

We have now had the opportunity to play in this space, and for many this has meant learning new technical skills and embracing new communication styles that are often at odds with our natural inclination.  Whilst I’ve always been an early adopter of useful technologies the reality is that communicating via screens is not how I like to do things but this forced me to more fully explore myself as a digital being, both alone and in how I interact with others.

Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops)

As I now reconnect with my global life back in London what has struck me the most is how much I have missed during the last two years being reliant on screen based communications.  All organisations I work with are navigating the new world of hybrid work and I know that for many senior managers this is causing enormous stress.  Whilst they are happy avoiding the time-waste of the daily commute, their personal sense of control and authority has been challenged, and they realise that they don’t actually trust people to work independently out of the office.  Last year in the rush to resume ‘normality’ many organisations began to mandate a return to the office before the main Covid waves had even manifested.  Since that time they seem to have realised that their timelines of command and control, and those of the ‘natural world’ are deeply out of sync.

This is where Stewart Brand’s concept of Pace Layering is so very useful, particularly as we begin to transition to whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to be.

I have felt a pressing need to re-engage and resume my London life as it was in early 2020, meeting lots of people, going to events and filling my calendar.  But I have largely resisted this spending much more time in my flat, reducing the number of interactions and ensuring that those I have are given the right amount of focus and attention they deserve. I am hugely conscious that my new life can be, and perhaps should be, very different from my old.  Being forced to stay put, to disconnect and to reassess has been life changing and powerful, whilst also confronting and exhausting as we spent so much time with ourselves.  For some, like those in China, the pain of lockdowns continues and the mental health cost will take years to process.  Having had two years being told to maintain social distance and that other humans are dangerous there is heightened sense of distrust of pretty much everything.

So, as we transition in to the new normal it is imperative to understand that people, processes and systems all change at different paces, and that these paces are much more nuanced and complex than we realise.  Transitions, as people such as William Bridges, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Change Curve and Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze describe, all involve loss, fear, uncertainty and discomfort, but they also provide opportunity.

When one door closes another opens but the corridors can be a real bitch!

We are currently in the corridor – the interstice between the old and the new – which Bridges’ model describes as the Neutral Zone:

  • Endings – the first stage is that of ‘letting go’, of identifying what is being lost, grieving for that loss, and appreciating that things will never be the same.
  • Neutral Zone (in reality, the interstice) – the most crucial part of transition where “critical psychological realignments and re-patternings take place”, new processes and learnings emerge, and the foundation is laid for the future.
  • New Beginnings – new understandings, values and attitudes.  An emerging fresh identity together with reorientation and renewal.

I have been reflecting on the last ten years of Intersticia and all that we have achieved (more on that to come) and whilst I firmly agree that even before the Pandemic we were in the process of embarking on a new horizon the difference now is that everything around us has changed and we do ourselves a disservice if we rush the process of moving out of the interstice whilst it is still useful and productive.

We need to create our own space to imagine.

Our little community scattered all around the globe is much like a global radar giving us snippets of insights in to how humanity ids dealing with all of this, and the value of our work now is to really listen to the ebb and flow of what they are telling us, their different paces of change and their plans and dreams for the next phase.

The emerging generation is one of hope, awakened and will reboot the way we live – regenerate society as you gain voice, implicitly awakened choices – Professor Lisa Miller

This is why we do what we do, as servants of the emerging generation of 21st Century Stewards. They deserve that we do this with courage, persistence, grace, integrity and authenticity to give them the best chance they have, for all our sakes.

An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. (Bertrand Russell).