Stressed Systems – Thriving Through Emergence

Every leader, organisation, and society around the world has been affected by the pandemic. Every organisation is a unique conglomeration of individuals, team-power-plays, psychological agency, value propositions, strategies and tactics, wider ecosystem relationships, and market forces. No two organisations are ever the same, just as no two leaders are ever the same. This is what makes leadership and organisational development so rich and fascinating. And yet, there are some underlying dynamics – some core truths – that underpin the diversity of every organisation, leader, and team.

One thing is certain, we can expect more systemic shocks to come. We are in the midst of a global metamorphosis, which sounds pretty but in reality, can feel excruciating. Profound shifts are affecting the way we work, how and why we do things, and the purpose and meaning we bring to our organisations and wider social systems. There are myriad factors contributing to this metamorphic moment. There is immense stress in all systems, everywhere. In 2020, the world was a sadder, angrier, more worried and more stressed-out place than it has been at any time during the past 15 years. Gallup’s Global Emotions Report painted a grim picture of our workplaces and wider social systems. Rising stress across industrial, political and financial systems can often be too much for some people to comprehend on top of the daily stresses they are already dealing with.

Increasing volatility, complexity, and uncertainty is the new normal, which means our organisations need to evolve beyond surviving and into thriving amidst unceasing transformation. This new normal demands a new way of operating and organising in leadership and business. Yesterday’s logic is a hierarchic, KPI-obsessed, siloed, control-based mindset that reduces down the ability of leaders and organisations to adapt and evolve amid volatility. New business logic – the logic of living systems – is the order of the day, where we enliven our organisations to become agile, adaptive and alive. People want work cultures that unlock our creative brilliance and stimulate our collective intelligence. The breakdown of the organisation-as-a-machine mentality is giving way to the organisation-as-a-living-system breakthrough.

“Stress level: extreme. It’s like she was a jar with the lid screwed on too tight, and inside the jar were pickles, angry pickles, and they were fermenting, and about to explode.”
― Fiona Wood

Multi-Dimensional Stressors

Today’s world is characterised by multi-dimensional stress – economic stress, personal and social stress, ecological and political stress. How you respond to this stress determines the quality of your life, the success of your career, the state of your health and the health of your relationships. Do you like the way you respond to stress, triggers, discomfort, power struggles, unmet needs, expectations, exhaustion and more in your relationships? Viktor Frankl is quoted as having said, “There is a space between stimulus and response. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”   

The process of deconditioning and reprogramming your mind is marked by reclaiming power over that space between stimulus and response. What is in that space? In that space is your “story,” with all the thoughts, memories, beliefs, emotional artifacts from your past experiences. Your story is any narrative that you are holding that says it’s not okay for you to be who you are and how you are – it even holds your ancestral memories. This “story” is essentially who you think you are. When we change the story, regain control over it and write it with words and ideas of our own choosing, we begin the process of deconditioning. We begin to take back control over our own lives and we become deliberate instead of reactive. This is the first step in becoming a Phoenix Leader. When we become deliberate, we become more conscious. In this way, we are able to create a life of our own choosing – a life that is truly worthy of who we really are. 

“Stress is the trash of modern life-we all generate it but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.”
― Danzae Pace

Take Your Power Back

You deserve a good story. And you deserve to live that good story out in your relationships. When we live from our conditioning, we don’t show up in our relationships the way we hope to. It’s hard to be the parents, partners, friends, daughters, sons, siblings, community members, leaders and more, when we react and let our triggers control us. If you want to create peace in your relationships, and success in your organisations, you must learn how to become sovereign over the gap between stimulus and response. This is emotional intelligence. Taking back control over how you respond to your loved ones, to your own internal triggers and to the world isn’t just about you. It is about leaving a legacy of love with your life. In your relationships. In your partnerships. In your community. For the world. More than anything, the world needs people who have dominion over the space between stimulus and response. In this way, you can be the power that you are.

We live in a holographic universe. This is has been known by mystics throughout the ages, and more recently qualified by physicist, David Bohm, a respected colleague, and friend of Albert Einstein. It simply means that whatever we perceive to be a universal truth will become our reality. So, if you project ‘Everybody hates me, nobody loves me.’ Then that will most likely play out. This also illustrates how physics ensures we learn the lesson of the idiom, ‘Treat others the way you want to treated’ since others will mirror our behaviour back to us. Similarly, we must treat ourselves with loving-kindness or others will mirror the miserly and neglectful attitude we perpetrate on ourselves. When we aren’t even aware of our own needs, or we put ourselves last or negate our needs constantly with mantras like, ‘I can’t afford that’. This educates those around us about how to treat us so we end up being taken for granted.

“If dominoes lined up in a formation metaphorically represents how stress works, what are you doing to ensure your last domino never falls?”
― Sanita Belgrave

Know Your Own Motives

Ironically when we’re more miserly with ourselves we are often more generous towards others. This pattern may be unconscious as we seek approval, acceptance while sacrificing our own needs. Understandably this can lead to feelings of resentment or an expectation that others owe us something – whether that’s time or a degree of authority over their lives – causing others to distance themselves from the burden of obligation. This unspoken contract can be challenging to acknowledge. However, it restores trust when spoken to clear the air since most of our communication is non-verbal. Energy doesn’t lie. It is inevitable that others pick up on our unspoken thoughts and feelings which influences how they feel toward us. True giving is only when something is given freely, with no strings attached – when no conditions apply. Otherwise, it is not an act of giving, but an act of control, be it overt or covert.

Often those who want to prove to themselves they are a ‘good person’ strive to be seen as an altruist – an ‘all-giving’ provider or nurturer – for fear of being a burden or perceived as self-centred. This is not a sustainable ideal to try and uphold. Unless we identify our needs in a situation and speak up on our own behalf to meet them, we become so burnt-out or sick, that we end up a burden to those around us. Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s interest that we exercise self-care and educate those around us that everyone’s needs are equal so they need to be equally considered and honoured. It is through our individual choices we will together change the unsustainable expectation that a good person gives everything and asks nothing in return. This old outdated thoughtform is completely out of balance: equal reciprocity or no deal.

The challenge is for those who over-give to stop the pattern of self-sabotage in their daily lives. This must happen in every moment and every choice. Only then will we see this ripple out like a wave of social change as unrealistic perceptions change. Take a moment to consider how you devalue your worth, such as your time, understanding, talents or skills…notice what comes to mind and resolve to make a change. Make a clear commitment to ensure your cup of self-love stays full by always checking in with yourself to see if it’s a clear yes for you before saying yes to others. In this way, your gift is always true and your relationships authentic.

“Your spiritual journey won’t be all nice and flowery. Your inner demons will come to the surface and make you feel terrible before leaving you permanently.”
― Shunya

A Tale of Two Paths

At its core, this epochal time we are in is about death and rebirth, which is why the symbol for the New Leadership Paradigm is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. Death and rebirth are a natural part of evolution. It can feel uncomfortable to consider death, so we tend to gloss over it, yet it is fundamental to evolution. We ignore it at our own peril. When we look at how life unfolds and evolves we see a process of emergence – a constant creative adaptation to changing conditions. All life thrives through emergence, just as our human systems do. Thanks to brilliant Nobel Laureate scientists such as Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Ilya Prigogine, we now know that evolution tends to bumble along quite happily through a series of incremental changes amid relatively stable life-conditions. However, when life-conditions change quickly, living-systems experience significant stress. As this stress persists, every living-system has (simplistically) two pathways ahead of it:

Path #1 – Struggle with the stress, try and ride it out by sticking to routines, habits and behaviours of old, and eventually die as the stress undermines it; or

Path #2 – Allow the stress to cajole it into a process of death/rebirth, where it lets go of old ways and opens up to new ways that are fundamentally different from before – which means it evolves. This is called ‘punctuated evolution’ where an individual organism and the wider ecosystem shift relatively quickly into a new state that is fundamentally different from the old state in order to overcome system stresses. Ways of behaving and relating fundamentally change and a leap forward in evolution occurs.

“Everything must break open in order to live. The seed must break open in order for the tree to grow. The egg must break open in order for life to emerge. The Earth must be turned and the cloud must burst. You were never meant to stay in your shell.”
― Thomas Lloyd Qualls

Thriving Through Emergence

Both pathways require facing death. In the first pathway (where we stick to the status quo business-as-usual in the hope of riding out the storm) we experience a pulling in, a holding on, a contracting and tightening followed by a painful stressful dying into extinction due to a failure to let go of old ways. The second pathway requires a psychological death of our old ways of behaving and dissolution of our old structures, habits, and norms. This letting go is a surrendering and releasing, which is quite different from the tightening and hardening that occurs in pathway 1. Pathway 1 is fear-based. The changing life conditions and system stress naturally triggers fear in us, and if we allow the fear to become the dominant driver, then we hunker-down. The inevitable outcome of pathway 1 is extinction.

Pathway 2 is courage-based. We employ inner strength to ‘cross the threshold’ through a psychological death of letting go of old perspectives and transcending fear-filled reactions, so as to enter a deeper space of not knowing. We open up to not knowing with humility and vulnerability. We die (an ego death) so we can be reborn psychologically. From this space of vulnerability and uncluttered authenticity comes real insight. From this place of deep connection within, we can then start to creatively explore solutions that are unencumbered by yesterday’s status-quo logic and fear-based reactivity. The outcome here is evolution.

“Life is geometry and chemistry, not biology.”
― Joey Lawsin

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Learning to let go of old ways and open up to the unknown, amid challenging stressful times, is not easy. When we feel under attack it is quite natural to harden up, and yet to soften and release is what evolution requires for a threshold to be crossed. Only by being truly brave can we enter a space unencumbered by yesterday’s logic. In this way, we spawn radical creativity. From this space of not knowing, we evolve in an emergent way that can’t be planned or predicted but can be prepared for through the quietening, heart-centering, and surrendering presence. This creates a space of not knowing inside us and inside our leadership team; a space that is simultaneously empty yet abundant. From this emptiness, insight and creativity emerges. 

The wisdom here is that if we create space, something new will emerge. First we need to create the space, yet today’s must-get-on, must plan, strategise, predict, control, get-to-it mindset fails to create adequate space for something truly innovative and fresh to emerge. Of course, there is a right time and place for strategic planning, but first we need to let go of what we thought we knew, open up into a place of not knowing, and connect deeper into ourselves at the heart level. Only then can we access wisdom within life itself. It is in this space that we activate our super-nature.

“Organisms are themselves expressions of … emergent order and agents of higher levels of emergence.”
― Brian Goodwin

Super-Nature for an Evolutionary Up-stretch

This psychological death by letting go of old ways of thinking to open up to not knowing is immensely powerful. It’s the source of all real creativity, and it’s what powers evolution through times of system stress such as now. As we create space to centre ourselves, we allow our busy rationalising, analysing mind to ease its grip on our attention. We allow the fear to subside as we breathe deep. The busy head-thinking of yesterday’s logic is frantically trying to patch up the old ways, yet all the while distracting us from the real insight we need to evolve into future-fitness. As we quieten, we allow space for richer ways of knowing within our humanity to come to the fore.

The Godfather of psychotherapy, Carl Jung, extensively studied different ways of knowing we have within us: intuitive, rational, emotional, and somatic. When we integrate these different ways of knowing within ourselves we open up to radical creativity innate within life – the wisdom of life flows through us, and we create the conditions to move along pathway 2 towards future-fitness. 

“When you choose self-love, you are reclaiming your awareness of your own power, which raises your vibrational energy and contributes to your healing.”
― Susan Barbara Apollon

The Body-Mind-Spirit Complex

Rather than thinking of our mind as encapsulated in our head, the body-mind-spirit complex pervades our entire system (drawing on the somatic, intuitive and emotional as well as the rational and ether/pure love). The body-mind-spirit complex continuously senses and responds to changes within us and all around us – seen and unseen. Leadership specialist Otto Scharmer explores the importance of learning to let go of the dominant rational-mind in order to open up to the ‘Field’ within and all around us. The Source Field is where all wisdom resides.  As we let go, we connect more deeply with the wisdom inherent in the ‘field’. Then, we can invite in this wisdom to inform our emergence. Essentially it is about getting out of the way and letting a greater wisdom emerge.  Then our consciousness expands, and our ability to deal with the complexity of the current system stresses dramatically improves. 

We shift from yesterday’s logic into a richer way of engaging with life that serves our leadership, our organisations and our wider social systems. We become more human, and live up to our name as “wise beings” – Homo sapiens. This enables us to evolve. Yet holding space for yourself and your team amid the cacophony of confusion and stress is not easy. It requires an act of real conscious leadership. As we cultivate the practice of letting go of the busy over-analysing head-space of status-quo fire-fighting, we start to see how the tensions in this crisis can reveal insights. The stresses themselves act as crucibles for creativity to emerge, as long as we can hold the tensions rather than collapse them with incrementalism and busyness. This requires courage. Phoenix leaders are warriors for the future of humanity. All about us is confusion, and within us lies a deep-seated fear to get busy, to find some semblance of order and control amid this crisis. This is of course understandable. But we can’t go back, nor ought we wish to…. We must step into the fire.

“A “breakdown” is when you’ve exhausted every option and have no choice but to accept the fact that you are powerless to create the outcome you want. A “breakthrough” has the same definition.”
― Paul Colaianni

Holding Space for Stress to Reveal Wisdom

The logic that got us here will not get us out of here. In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic. The logic we now need to draw upon is actually all around us and within us – the Logic of Life!  We are being asked to face into the unknown, not with pre-prepped answers but with humility, receptivity, and not knowing; to have the courage to hold space for tensions to reveal pearls of wisdom through emergence. This holding space amid confusion and stress is what Phoenix Leadership is all about.

The word leadership finds its root in the old European word ‘leith’ which means to die and be reborn, to cross the threshold from an old way of being into a fundamentally new state. To cross the threshold from fear into trusting in life, trusting in the emergent wisdom of evolution, trusting in our innate creativity, trusting in the Logic of Life. It goes against much of what we have been programmed to do by outdated business methodologies, strategies, and MBAs rooted in yesterday’s logic. However, it is exactly what this crisis is now asking of us, if we choose to have eyes to see. This understanding of death and rebirth is an important key within all wisdom traditions the world over. Now is the time to use this key to enable us to evolve as wise beings. 

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”
― Ellen Glasgow

Life is Short. Don't Be Lazy.

This is not the time to take anything for granted, nor be complacent, amid this hour of humanity’s reckoning. Thousands upon thousands of species on Earth are experiencing pathway number 1 (extinction) as a result of the stresses inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems. Today’s stresses have a common root cause – an imbalanced out-of-kilter perception we have allowed to corrupt our worldview. The way we currently perceive life is skewed, and it creates a complexity gap amid our leadership today. This flawed perception cannot get us out of the mess it created. The good news is, it is well within our natural capacity to address this corruption in our perception.  In addressing this corruption, we adapt and evolve. It really is that simple.

To realign our perception from current imbalances into a more balanced perspective is simple and natural – though not necessarily easy. To shift into pathway 2 is to shift our mindset, to shift our logic: A shift from organisation-as-machine to organisation-as-living-system that recognises it is intimately interrelated with the living systems of society and ecology. The living organisation creates cultures where people love working and can bring their whole selves to work. This creativity in the culture enables the organisation to evolve.

“You are comprised of 84 minerals, 23 Elements, and 8 gallons of water spread across 38 trillion cells. You have been built up from nothing by the spare parts of the Earth you have consumed, according to a set of instructions hidden in a double helix and small enough to be carried by a sperm. You are recycled butterflies, plants, rocks, streams, firewood, wolf fur, and shark teeth, broken down to their smallest parts and rebuilt into our planet’s most complex living thing.

You are not living on Earth. You are Earth.”

— Aubrey Marcus

A Multi-Dimensional Approach

While it’s part of the process of inevitable change that old structures breakdown so new reforms are possible…it’s not comfortable. In fact it’s downright disconcerting to feel all of our foundations cracking beneath us and even more distressing to witness society fracturing into warring factions, often driving a wedge between friends and family. Our stress is compounded when we see the machinations being leveraged by those most afraid of change, seeking to dominate using the tactics of divide and conquer. So while there are many opportunities contained within a crisis, one of the gifts in the current state of play is it reveals to us our own ‘state of the union’…how integrated our own psyche is when placed under increasing pressure.

If we are one or two dimensional, with many aspects of our psyche unexplored and their behaviour largely unconscious, the more we’ll tend to polarise, seeing things in black and white. This mindset creates conflict with those who embody aspects and perspectives that are foreign to our understanding and experience. In our modern culture that programs us not to pursue the quest within to truly know all aspects of ourselves, but rather emulate the popular icons of the day it’s no wonder we’re seeing division based on dualistic thinking. However, just as we transitioned from black and white movies and television to the full spectrum of colour, we’re now being asked to do that with our own vision of ourselves and the world. We’re being asked to develop a multi-dimensional viewpoint so we may rise above the old paradigm of machine-based thinking that feeds on fearing the other and the unknown. 

We need the sum of all parts to be on board and truly effective. We need aspects like the hero and the mystic within us working together. Imagine if modern-day prophets like Ghandi and Martin Luther King just focused on healing their own core wounds instead of taking right action in the face of social injustice? We wouldn’t have seen the necessary social and civil reform. Their legacy is legendary because they embodied both of these archetypes in equal balance. All too often we witness the archetypal hero taking action to right perceived wrongs without seeking the insight of the guru within, the experiential wisdom of a mentor and a circle of fellowship to question their best laid plans. What unfolds is the road to Hell being paved with good intentions and fuelled by righteous indignation.

“By learning to recognise when your own archetypes are taking over, it’s easier to observe when other people are living from their shadow selves.”
― Catherine Carrigan

Balancing Archetypal Forces

If our inner mother isn’t consciously balanced by our other aspects, we may try to rescue everyone while neglecting our own self-care. If our inner father is running the show single-handedly, we’ll seek to implement rules and structures that are so rigid they alienate and oppress those we care about – rather than facing our own fear of chaos. If we haven’t confronted our survival fears, our underdeveloped primal selves will hand over our personal power to anyone who promises to keep us safe and secure. This leaves the inner child at the helm who is compliant to external authority and hides from those who question authority, accusing truth-tellers of scare-mongering to avoid the responsibility of processing fears triggered by their exposure to the truth. A crises summons all aspects within us and reveals to us their level of awareness and ability to function.

A crises demands we do both the inner work of healing and emotional processing; the work of the inner feminine. It also asks that we equally act upon our conscience in the outer world and take a stand for our values, which is the work of the inner masculine. If all our inner aspects are not integrated into a functioning whole, we will inevitably be divided and crumble along with all that no longer serves us in our waking world. If we want to rebuild our outer world into a cohesive harmony of all parts and rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of a world that once was; if we want to birth a new era of wisdom and integrity, we need to undergo a metamorphosis to awaken the multi-dimensional soul that consciously expresses all facets like a diamond. To do that we must be humble enough to accept our old approach is limited and commit to awakening the Phoenix Leader…the one who takes up the quest within. Now is our time. Together we rise!

“There was nothing a phoenix loved so much as heat.”
― Nicki Pau Preto

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