leadership 8: riding out the vacuum

Over the last few weeks as I’ve pondered leadership lessons, I’ve had cause on several occasions to think back to my time in outdoor education, working with Higher Ground Australia.

One of my very first encounters with the crew at HGA took place on a training weekend. I was there as a potential staff member, alongside a range of others who were interested in developing outdoor leadership and facilitation skills. We were working through a series of practical and theoretical sessions over the weekend.

One of the most memorable moments of the weekend for me (and it would live long in the collective memory at Higher Ground) happened late one evening. We had been out running some navigation and rescue simulations before being sent scurrying by an electrical storm.  As we (a group of 20-25 potential leaders) gathered in the warm, dry shelter of the campsite hall, we figured the experienced HGA leadership team would tell us what to do next – when it would be safe to move back outside, or whether the evening’s activities would be cancelled due to the weather.

Those same facilitators abruptly asked us to make our own decision with only one condition – it had to be unanimous – and then retired to the back of the room to watch.

In a complete leadership vacuum, the consequence was both predictable and frustrating and eventually a powerful lesson.

Loud voices dominated.

Proposals were offered, analysed, and often split the group.

Consensus was far away.

Voices were raised, frustration increased and a stalemate quickly grew between those who wanted to return to the activities, and those who wanted to call it done as rain continued to fall.

There was no solution reached, and eventually the leadership team returned, quickly moving the conversation from whether to return to the activity or not, to an analysis of what had just unfolded between us.

In a sense of course, the situation was artificial. But as a participant, the experience was powerful.  With no structured handover, no established hierarchy there was an absence of leadership.  Some offered power as a solution, some quiet reason, some obstinate refusal.

This week in class one of the topics we touched on was the transfer of power from one leader (or leadership group) to the next.

There is a sense in which the incumbent leader needs to release power, to let go. And to do that fully and properly, not holding on to influence over the community. That’s maybe a story for another day.

And there is always the need for the next generation of leader/s to be identified, to take up the reigns as it were.  That too, might be a story for another time.

But it seems to me that there is always this in between time.  Even when there is careful transition from one leader or group of leaders to the next, there is so often a moment of uncertainty – when the relationship between the group/community/organisation and the new leader has to be understood on its own terms, rather than just depending on the endorsement of the outgoing leader and carrying on as all-systems-normal.

The question for me is: do we resist this in between time? Do everything we can to minimise it? Perhaps even imagine that we have arranged such a smooth transition that there is no need for the in-between?

My sense is (and feel free to disagree) that sooner or later the relationship between the new leader and the community will be tested, reformed and reshaped.  If we allow that process to happen naturally at the point of transition, just maybe that’s better in the long run than the re-shaping happening in the face of some challenge or crises a little while down the track.

However we manage it, three things have to happen in leadership transition.

  • Someone (or group) has to leave the leadership role, fully and properly and appropriately.
  • Someone has to be chosen or appointed.
  • The community/leader relationship has to be re-defined.

Even if the in-between space is uncomfortable, even if the outcome is uncertain, even if we feel momentarily rudderless….the in-between time matters a great deal because it’s where we understand who we are together.

That camp hall experience as the rain pounded down will live long for me. First as to what can occur in a vacuum of leadership with no process in place to move forward. But second as a reminder that however leadership transition occurs, there is always a moment (fleeting as it may be) where there are no hands on the wheel.

And that’s kind of ok.

By the way….we did eventually go back outside that night and finish our training activities. But we took so long to make the decision that the storm had passed and stars shone above. I think that’s a lesson in itself – about the power of procrastination!

NB: This is the eighth in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

NBB: That’s the end of the course. I’ll offer a closing thought on the experience in a week or two. If you were part of the course, let me invite you to send me your own reflections which I’d be very happy to post as a Guest Blog. Thanks for reading.


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