Leadership In Liminal Times

I’ve started hearing more frequently about a concept called liminal time. Author and theologian Richard Rohr defines liminal time in this way: “It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.”  It is essentially a time of transition. Individuals can go through liminal times — graduations, marriages, moves, births, a health diagnosis. Organizations can go through them – like a CEO transition. But entire societies can go through them as well. In Irish folklore, the festivals of Samhain and Beltane are liminal times when contact with “other worldly spirits” was more likely. Ancient cultures often referred to them as “crazy times”.

Some would argue our entire planet is in liminal time right now as we navigate coming out of the depths of the pandemic, into what exactly? A worsening climate crisis. Historic inflation and a potential recession. The decentralization of finance, but also massive pain in the emerging crypto markets. An escalating battle for gender and racial equity. A war that is representative of two fundamentally different ideologies for governance. In a week when NYC put out a PSA on how to survive a nuclear attack, I think we can all agree that this feels like crazy times.

But when you dig into liminal times – and what happens during them and after them, you find some pretty fascinating patterns and trends. First, people are really susceptible to tricksters, or charismatic leaders who ultimately sow discord and pit people against each other. It’s because we generally hate not knowing and gravitate to someone promising a return to “normal”, even if deep down we know the way things were will never return. Richard Rohr states, “If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”  

Second, and more positively, liminal times are often where the most innovation and creativity happen. As Dr. Carol Kershaw discusses in her book, Brain Change Therapy, “being in a liminal space puts your brain in a prime position for change to take place. The state of mind achieved when you’re in a liminal space—either physically or mentally speaking—is conducive to forming new habits, changing old ways and finding creative solutions”.

I’ve collected advice from a range of experts, ranging from Susan Beaumont, the author of “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going” aimed primarily at religious leaders to writers about liminal time from the Harvard Business Review.

So how do we demonstrate leadership in liminal times?

  1. Be Present

    Help people manage their anxiety and embrace the freedom of not knowing. Acknowledge what may not be working, but express confidence in the capacities of the people in the organization to find what will.

  2. Focus on Core Values & Purpose

    Anchor back to why the organization exists and the values that are deeply embedded in the culture that may be even more relevant and important now.

  3. Practice Inclusive & Open Leadership 

    Leaders need to leave power dynamics, territorialism and hierarchy aside and focus more on engaging people, coaching, listening, persuading, and building consensus. 

  4. Encourage Experimentation

    Leaders need to stress the importance of innovation and the values of courage, passion for growth, enthusiasm for change, and belief in spirited teamwork.

In a LinkedIn essay, Benjamin Donovan writes, “I believe the world at large is in a liminal state and is in the process of crossing a boundary from an age where [hu]mankind is ill equipped to deal with these global challenges to a future state where the global community has the technology, policies and processes to solve the big problems currently facing the world.” We all hope he’s right.

In the interim, we each have the opportunity to be the leaders the world needs now – in order to get to that ideal future. We just need to tune out the crazy and tune into the creative.

Quote of the Week: “Honor the space between no longer and not yet.”

Nancy Levin

Are you ready to build a better working world?