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13 May 2020


Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

There was a new clutch of ducklings at St James’s park this morning, and the weary Londoners looked on in delight and exhaustion after so many weeks of staying home. Around the world, restrictions are starting to lift, and people are probing the edges of a new reality. All around me I hear the wish to go back to the way it was before the virus, and I have lots of sympathy for that. But the river of our experience just moves forward. There is never a chance to go back. Peering ahead down the river, I’m wondering what helps us as we begin this next chapter of our collective existence.

There’s this funny way all of our habitual ways of thinking about what’s next seem broken; our ability to imagine the future is utterly gone right now. On a virtual program last week, we tried an exercise where we looked back ten years, looked at now, and then looked ahead ten years.  We’ve done this before and it’s illuminating; whether we’re right or not, what we believe might happen in 10 years is interesting. But when we tried it last week, we got blank stares from all of the participants. Ten years ahead is an impossible amount of time right now. Could we try to see ourselves in ten months? Ten weeks?

One of the ideas that helps me catch my breath from all of this uncertainty is the idea that while the future will emerge in unknown ways, the seeds for that future are all around us today. Predicting forward is impossible; making sense of now is what this moment requires.

We are standing at the threshold of a new world, the old world just beginning to fade, the new one just beginning to sprout. All around us are seedlings of possibility. Some of the seedlings could grow strong fruiting trees that would support our collective flourishing—increasing our understanding of global interdependence and adding to our compassion, increasing our understanding of the interconnection between humans and nature and changing our organizations to protect the ecosystem and the most vulnerable people and places. Some of those seedlings could bring poison to the land—increasing disparity between those who are thriving and those who are faltering and using the fear and confusion of this time to create a dark and difficult next chapter.

Now is an important time for a new kind of leadership. This isn’t the leadership that is about creating a vision and driving towards it—that form of leadership is more helpful in times that are more stable than this. In this moment, leadership is about pruning the poison, feeding the fruit trees.  But any gardener knows that the earliest seedlings are hard to distinguish from one another. Sometimes we think we are nurturing a tomato and really, we are nurturing a weed. This means that leadership—for all of us as leaders of our own lives as well as whatever else we might lead— is about watching, discerning, and making sense of what is emerging now. It’s about stepping out of our mindtraps and into a more open and curious way of interacting with the world. It’s about trying experiments that nudge one way or the other and give us more information about what’s been planted.

So here are the core leadership attributes for this new world: discernment, curiosity, experimentation. Because the “seeds” will often be patterns of behavior, interaction, and thinking, leaders need to become excellent at sensing into what the humans around them are thinking and feeling. We’ll need new ways of paying attention to what’s going on inside us and between us. And we’ll need new kinds of conversations (and new supports for having them—I love this tool from Shift).

The ducklings hatch each year at around this time. They don’t notice that the context of the human world is so different this year. They can’t shape their environment the way we can and have to simply cope with what the world throws at them. For better and for worse, humans are creators as well as receivers of the world. Let us spend our time noticing well and with curiosity so that we can nurture a future with more fruit, less poison for ourselves and for our world.

P.S. I know the image is of cyngets and not ducklings. The ducklings flee from Aria when we get close, so this year it’s too hard to get a picture. This is last year, when the world was different

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