Leading in the Liminal Age #16 #cong21
We’re heading into a time of great change. Thinks look dark because they are. Covid opens up some liminal space and possible futures will always be contested. The greater challenge is ahead. Remember that we all have the power to act. With power comes the responsibility to act well, to lead in the changes that are coming.
Reading Time in Minutes
- We’ve entered a liminal age.
- Nil Desperandum (never despair)
- We all have power and agency
- Leadership is acting constructively with the power we have.
About Dermot Casey:
Dermot is embarking on his fourth role since he first came to CongRegation. A husband of one and father of three he helps ambitious people imagine, figure out, and then create the future. At work he’s an Advisor, Innovator, Investor, Teacher, Mentor. In life a Catalyst, Synthesist and ever Curious.
Contacting Dermot Casey:
By Dermot Casey
I used to joke with MBA students that disruption was nothing new. Was the change they experienced more disruptive than that experienced my parents who lived through the arrival of electricity, radio, tv, man walking on the moon, the Internet and facetiming grandkids on the other side of the world. Now we’re in an new space, catalysed by Covid and with the overwhelming transformation that climate change will bring. We’re entering the Liminal Age.
The word Liminal comes from anthropology. Wikipedia defines it as “the ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.” Critically “The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”
We are entering the liminal age as existing institutions and structures fray and new and changed and reshaped ones have yet solidify. Even before Covid we’ve sensed this. I think it seeped into popular culture (all those Zombie movies and TV series ?). It has seeped into our politics, the craving for stability in a world of flux. This instability, created initially by neoliberalism, creates space for authoritarian leaders who promise a stability they can’t deliver.
We’re in multiple states of change at once right now which heightens the challenges. There is Covid liminality. Illustrating the challenges ahead Covid has created the home v’s office workspace liminality. Where we work is now a contested space. Real estate companies talk about how workers are clamouring to be back in the office and Remote work companies talk about the end of the office. We have companies that are terrified of forcing workers back into the office in case they leave. And we have workers going ‘theres more to life than this’ and leaving anyway.
Any liminal space is going to be contested. What is new is not yet fully formed and will be contested. Those who benefit from the how things are, are terrified of change. The Spanish Flu didn’t make much of a difference to working habits with a quick reversion to the status quo. Post WW2 in the US there was an almost frantic haste to get women out of the workplace and back into the home (middleclass women at least). The history of the Irish state for more than 70 years was mostly a resistance to change. Emigration was effectively state policy. It drove out the innovators, the creators, the artists and the entrepreneurs, those who could create different and better futures than the sterile misogynistic homophobic Ireland of McQuaid and DeValera.
We’re having a partial fight for the future right now, partial as we’re still in the pandemic. Dublin’s city center feels hollowed out as the much of the past is built over with grade A generic glass and concrete boxes. Covid caused some problems and exposed others, reflecting what feels like a narrow vision of what a great city could and should be. “We need the workers back” is a poor version of building a great city, that pulls people in, a city where people want to live and work and play. We are social creatures and that’s not going to change. We’re also ‘homo ludens’ the playful ape and have a visceral need to play and explore different ways of doing things. Any city that wants to thrive in the future needs to build on its uniqueness and be a magnet for great work, play and life. It needs to create space for exploration and experimentation. It needs to show imagination and leadership.
So what is leadership in a liminal age ? Machaevillis echoes the challenges ahead “There is nothing more difficult ….than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the innovator has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order” The history of Ireland demonstrates this powerfully. Concentrations of power post-independence hollowed out the state, stunting development and growth, leading to generations of emigration. More recently it offers some possible reasons for hope. FDI and technology has created some wealth not anchored to existing power structures. Citizens assemblies, and movements like those for equal marriage and Repeal show that there are different ways to construct the future.
The future belongs to those who can envisage, communicate it and will it into being. For better and for worse. At its worst it’s the former US president banned from Twitter who lived rent free in too many of our heads for years. At its best it’s an emancipatory process where we co-create a better future. It built by years of hard work. Its crystallised and brought to focus by individuals as different as Greta Thurnburg and Marcus Rashford and Malala Yousafzai and Colin Rand Kaepernick. Its John Hume and his decades of work and single transferrable speech. It the crazy dance video guy (Google it if you’ve forgotten). Its Eoin Kennedy and Congregation. Its Tracy Keogh and Grow Remote. Its starts with asking “why not?” It’s a recognition that we are not helpless and that we have power and a voice if we choose to exercise it.
As a postcolonial country – and the only European country colonised by another European country – sometimes I wonder if we have a certain learned helplessness in Ireland. (And that we fail to realise we’re so colonised we don’t realise how colonised we have been). A word I keep coming back to is will: to want and to choose. And the phrase that builds on it, that defines for me Leadership in a Liminal Age is Antonio Gramsci’s “The pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” The facts of the world may be dark and yet we have to take action in the world. The only sin is to give in to despair.
True Leadership is an act of will and an act of courage. It is taking a knee. It is Fridays for the Future. It is building a school or a credit union. It is starting a company or a conference or writing a novel, crafting a bowl or painting. It is an emancipatory act of the human spirit, and no matter how small, it is quietly ambitious for the creation of a better future. The arc of history bends nowhere without people deciding to bend it. I’ve seen some awful examples of leadership. Acts of power exercised badly, by bullies. Or bureaucratic managers so far out of their depth that they are lost. Negative to the extent we need an ‘unleadership’ word for them. And I’ve seen some great examples of leadership. We are in a time now where we all need to act and to lead.
Our most liminal space is climate. It will dominate the planet for the lifetimes of anyone alive who reads this. Nothing else matters really. With climate, the options for the future aren’t manifold, and won’t co-exist. The climate will either get worse for a while and then better. Even if we do everything in our power to fix it, it will continue to get worse for a very long time. And we need to be honest with people around this. And the fixes to this are structural and systematic and through the political system.
We can either let the world drown and burn or we look to quench the flames and to build something better. And it will be a ferociously contended space. Many people are getting rich while letting the world burn and some are actively setting fire to it. And others are terrified of the loss and change to come. We must dare greatly, choose wisely and in this liminal space we’ll all need to lead. As a great leader once said “The alternative is to set a lesser goal and then still misfire.”