Leadership is Walking Through the Fog

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke

“It all feels a bit soupy to me right now.”

So said a participant in a change leadership workshop I facilitated recently. His comment came right at the end of an intense session where leaders from across the organisation came together to wrestle with some big questions about change. They’re embarking upon a high-stakes, multi-year transformation programme, and the desire for clear answers was palpable.

Except there were no easy, clear answers. Just big questions, and some clues about what to pay attention to next.

Do you ever feel like it’s ‘a bit soupy?’ Or maybe even more than a bit? You know that feeling when you’ve got glimpses of what could be possible yet it’s frustratingly ethereal? It can be like travelling through fog. We’re going through it, shrouded, feeling our way. Then it tantalisingly clears for a moment. We can see where we’re going! Then it just as quickly closes in again. Arrgh! What to do?

I’m feeling that way right now. Kinda in the fog. A couple of months back I came back from my sabbatical with a clear sense of purpose and vision for my work. I’d scribbled notes about it on an A3 and shared it enthusiastically with a range of people. It just flowed out. I was feeling energized, and whomever I was in conversation with got energized too. 

Here’s what I created and shared:

There’s a lot going on there, right? Now I’m wrestling with the question of ‘how do I make this a reality?’ 

The answer is still forming. 

And you know what? That’s OK. 

In fact, that’s how it needs to be. 

The act of leadership is an act of creation. Leadership, at its heart, is bringing people together to create something that hasn’t existed before. That requires us to be OK with not having all of the answers. It requires us to master the liminal and be adept in navigating the fog. 

I’ve reflected on how the best leaders I’ve worked with over the years have learned to navigate the fog more adeptly. I’ve also reflected on what helps me. Here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Keep Your Vision Visible

I’ve put that picture on my wall. While I don’t look at the details every day, just seeing it in my peripheral vision brings it back to my consciousness and keeps me focused.

  1. Live the Questions

Rilke’s quote at the start of this piece suggests that we’re better off first defining the questions that will guide our efforts. Just like the leadership group I’ve been working with. As Plato said, “the right question is usually more important than the right answer.”

  1. Start Close In 

I don’t need all the answers now. I just need to take the next step. David Whyte’s poem Start Close In is a wise reminder of this.

  1. Create Space for Reflection

Without question, the very best leaders and leadership teams I’ve worked with deliberately carve out regular time to make sense of where they’re at and where they’re going next. Otherwise, we’re like the lost driver who just keeps on driving because they’re running too late to stop and work out where they are 🙂

Leadership is, most of the time, walking through the fog. The more we can accept that, the more likely we are to develop the skill sets and mindsets to help us navigate it better.

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