*With apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Hands being held lovingly

I am an agent of change. I have been working to deliver change for my whole career, either as an operational leader in business and the military, or for the last 15 years as a leadership and change consultant. I have worked through some big transitions: such as re-roling soldiers to go on active service in 1988, or assisting leaders in BP to move through the human and business trauma in the aftershocks of the Gulf of Mexico accident in 2010. Both of those changes could be termed ‘working successfully through adverse conditions’.

Yet they pale in scale and significance when we look at the concatenation of recent events that make up the change landscape of 2020. Climate change, the energy transition, digital disruption, immigration, and a global pandemic constitute some of the existential threats we face as a species, even before we get to the party political or values conflicts that have arisen in Europe and the USA, as well as the rise of hate and ‘strong men’ leaders globally. As a change agent, I don’t mind admitting I am physically and emotionally overwhelmed. I have no idea how to explain all of this to my 16-year old son, who I thought would inherit the Golden Age conditions I grew up in.

It’s not helpful to attempt to hold all of this at once. Even listing it feels like a Biblical chapter. I teach others to chunk down change in order to manage its emotional transition, and this is helpful. Yet there is an underlying despair, a gnawing, fearful knot in my gut, which belies the sage advice of mindfulness or a daily yogic practice, and brushes off the guru-age wisdom of our social media feeds. ‘Be careful what you focus on.’ ‘Be in the present moment.’ ‘Hold the perspective of the perpetual novice.’

But people are dying. The air is thickening. The seas acidifying. The underlying policies unchanging.

In our book “Stealing from the Future” (2018), my business partner Neil Crofts and I outline the global crisis in leadership and suggest authenticity is one route though; a narrow path, barely mapped, but as a leadership principle the only one that can ameliorate where we are. It is one specific kind of leadership that has brought us to this point, and it will be a different one that gets us out of it. 

There is a lot of talk of an opportunity; the opportunity to make profound change of this sort on the other side of Coronavirus. But, like change, unless we can successfully move through the deep curve of despair and overwhelm, such change will not happen. Many talk in terms of fear and hope; two sides of a coin that seem to be the drivers of our actions. This is an incomplete list. Beyond hope, there is purpose, and purpose is born of love.

Every day it seems, I must reach into myself and find that spark of love in the chaos. I must search for trust, find ways to create optimism, and act above my baser instincts. When I am at my lowest, and contrary to all my somatic information that screams at me to contain and suppress such feelings, I reach out to my loved ones for solace and support.

The most common reaction to pain and difficulty, especially in the white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking world, is to ‘get on with things’, create a task list and DO something. Unfortunately, it is this impulse to take action at the expense of how we feel that has contributed in great measure to current conditions. We are dissociated from ourselves and from others. It is only reconnection; to ourselves, to each other, and to nature itself, that will provide the healthy basis for our recovery. Not the virus itself, but the conditions Coronavirus has brought, could provide us with a long enough pause to examine our task-based insanity and the space to bring into the world how we really want to live.

This nascent new world will not be created by those who hold power now. They are old paradigm appointed managers who will wheel out plans and lists with no vision and no connection to anything but their base. If such a world is to be created, it will be built by those who have embraced their fear and disgust, their dark passions and bright purpose. Facing into your loathing, self-hate, overwhelm, paralysis, will give you what you need to face the rigours of what is coming with true resilience and a long-term view.

This is leadership – a fierce self-leadership that allows us to be vulnerable and despairing, and yet purposeful and resourceful at the same time. It isn’t leadership when things are easy. It’s leadership when the situation is hard, and we have do things we never thought we could.

Share your overwhelm, love yourself and others, and we will be able to move through these times together.

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