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3 April 2018

Nine Panes, Nine Perspectives for Cultivating a Complexity-Adapted Self

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

Are you leading a team that, despite your best efforts, is plagued by infighting?  Busting your butt to put together a leadership team that will attract the next round of funding your start-up so badly needs, but key members of your team aren’t doing what you need them to do?  Maybe you have a teenager who finds herself in a repeating pattern of self-sabotage, and you’re exasperated because nothing you do or say seems to shift the pattern.  Or perhaps you are simply overwhelmed (or even scared) by your increasing awareness that technology is changing the world faster than you can possibly keep up.  If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you don’t need much convincing that the world has become more complex than most of us can comfortably and skillfully manage. The daily news, the leadership literature, and our own experience remind us of this reality every day.

In my last blog, I talked about the difference between knowing that the world is complex and actually being able to do things differently as a result of that knowing; the former is relatively easy while the latter seems both to hold the keys to the kingdom and also to be devilishly elusive.  But wait—there is hope!  Described in Doug Silsbee’s new book, Presence-Based Leadership, the Nine Panes Leadership Model offers a practical roadmap for how to grow a complexity adapted self by engaging with three levels of scale (Context, Identity, and Soma) and three meta-competencies (Sensing, Being, and Acting.) Follow along with me in the model as I tell you a story about development.

The first step is to make complexity Object[1].  We Sense the complexity of our Context (Sensing/ Context,) waking up to the reality that many of the challenges we face every day, particularly when they involve people, are endlessly complex.  And this is no small deal.  This awakening means that what we thought the world was is not actually what it is. When we don’t (or can’t) see complexity for what it is, we are Subject[2] to our belief that if we just work hard enough, if we are just smart enough, if we just learn the right skills or have access to the right experts, we can predict, control, and solve most of the problems in our lives.  With the complexity of our Context as Object, we see with new eyes and, therefore, have access to possibilities exist.

Next, we make Object the ways our Identity is at stake in the face of the Context we now see (Sensing/Identity.)  In my experience, when leaders are first introduced to the language and concepts of complexity, they are usually excited and relieved. But when they try to actually engage in complexity-adapted approaches to leadership (e.g. deciding not to spend 3 months of the team’s time developing a detailed 5-year plan) they often find it extremely difficult and they are baffled by their inability to change.  Sensing their Identity at stake (maybe their attachment to being the Heroic Leader who can see into the future and anticipate and avoid failure,) they are able to see the ways that they inadvertently expend energy trying to protect the Identity that has made them successful, rather than adapting it to what the Context is demanding of them now. All of us have identity at stake all the time, and complexity tends to challenge some of our core ones—the ones that want to predict, control, and know.

Meanwhile our bodies are having an experience of their own!  Guy Claxton, in his book Intelligence in the Flesh, suggests that our bodies are always taking care of us.  When we are under threat, for instance, (even if the threat is to our Identity and not actually a threat to our physical safety) our bodies leap into action.  If we can learn to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us, we have access to extremely valuable information in the form of early warning signs. Sensing/ Soma means learning to notice what’s happening in our body (tight chest, short breath) as we face a particular context (my team just can’t seem to get along no matter what I try) and an identity threat (what’s wrong with me, I thought if I just put the right procedures in place or just cared enough, they’d get along,) giving us a new channel through which to intervene as we seek to develop.

Having sensed our experience at these three levels of scale, we can then engage in practices that regulate our triggered somatic state so we can act from a body that is grounded rather than triggered.  For example, having noticed that our chest is tight and our breath is short, we can feel our feet, breathe into our belly, and center ourselves (Being/ Soma.)

From this more grounded place, we see that we can actually de-couple our inner state from the context (Being/Context.) De-coupled, our inner state is not only not defined by the context, but it can actually shift the context.  Just think of someone you know whose very presence has a calming effect on an entire room.

Finally, from a grounded state that is de-coupled from the context, we can make the powerful move of embodying what we care about (Being/Identity.)  I saw the power of this move with one of my clients just the other day, when she was feeling overwhelmed and disheartened by the behavior of her leadership team.  She re-focused on why she had chosen to lead this organization in the first place (she knew she was the right person,) connected to the future she wanted to create (a world where everyone, regardless of means, would have access to a new life-saving technology,) and found that she was then able to find a new compassion for her team and the resolve to address the dysfunctional team dynamics in a new way.

Having Sensed our experience at these three levels of scale and engaged in practices that enable us to embody what we care about, we Act, engaging with all three levels of scale.  We extend our leadership presence out into the world—our family, community, team, organization, or whatever matters to us.  We do that through the way we communicate our vision and listen to the views of others, or simply how we show up every day, acting congruently with what we care about–Acting as Identity.  Through leadership presence, we cultivate a culture of collaboration and trust, in which experimentation and failure is not only allowed, but encouraged and expected– Acting in and on the Context.  And finally, we engage in the ongoing cultivation of the self, tuning the instrument of our self through whole body practices that enable us to continually adapt to the unpredictable and uncontrollable things with which our Context presents us (Acting through Soma.)  Having played basketball in my younger days, I think of this tuned instrument as one that has the shape of the “ready stance,” a shape that is both stable and ready to respond to whatever comes its way.

If this neat narrative sounds overly simplified (wait, aren’t we talking about complexity here?  Shouldn’t it sound less simple?) you’re right.  The Nine Panes narrative is indeed oversimplified.  In real life, we can’t neatly parse levels of system, nor can we separate Sensing, Being, and Acting. The world (and we in it) are endlessly complex, so the very act of paying attention to one of these “panes” necessarily shifts what we can see through the view of any of the others, in ways we can’t know, let alone predict.  The Nine Panes Model, like all theoretical constructs, is wrong in every particular way.  But in my experience using it on myself, in my coaching, and in my leadership programs, it provides an incredibly useful set of handholds in a sometimes overwhelmingly complex world.

Go ahead, try it!


[1] When we hold something as Object, we can see it; seeing it doesn’t always mean we actually do something different than we did when we were Subject to it, but it means we could potentially make different choices.

[2] When we are Subject to something, we are fused with it…it’s the lens through which we see, but we can’t see that we see through that lens, so it feels like just the way things are, and we, therefore, have no choice about it.

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