Leadership and the Work of Transformation by Vicky Coates

Leadership and the personal work of transformation takes place in the broader context of what is happening at this time on the planet. We cannot easily divorce ourselves, personally or professionally, from living in times of profound change. Many thought leaders and futurists have written about these times, and I have found their comments on our current historical context to be of immense value. Their interpretations and predictions have helped me to make sense and legitimise what I experience, assisting me to embrace current challenges with a more informed and acute awareness.

There are two key things that have stood out for me in much of what I’ve read: 1) that I am living in a radically different world to the one I was living in even a mere 10 or 20 years ago and 2) that I’m not alone in many of my experiences traversing this new landscape. We share as a global community the complexities of this era.

To quote from the book, Coaching to the Human Soul (Vol 1) by Alan Sieler, “A pioneering exponent of the view that we are living in times of major historical change was American sociologist Alvin Toffler, who was commenting on the nature of change as early as the 1960’s. His initial ideas are contained in his 1970 book entitled Future Shock. The expression ‘future shock’ was derived from the notion of ‘culture shock’, a term invented by anthropologists, who conducted much of their research by temporarily living in the cultures they were observing. This placed them in unfamiliar circumstances, requiring them to continually adjust and adapt to the different ways of living, and to the related social practices, of various cultures. At times the differences to their habitual Western practices were so great that they experienced a sense of dislocation and disorientation, which was a shock to them – physically, mentally and emotionally. They called this experience ‘culture shock’.

“Toffler’s thesis was that the speed of change in Western civilisation was accelerating, and unfolding at such a pace that it was as if the future was repeatedly rushing up to, and intruding into, people’s lives. In other words, the future was arriving before people were ready for it, just as if a foreign culture was having an impact on you and you had never left home. The impact was one of continual disruptiveness and shock in the process of living and working.

Some of the descriptors of the current global context we find ourselves in are relentless and disruptive change, the death of permanence, accelerative technological thrust, the breaking down of certainty, transience and what has been termed “navigating permanent white water”. The river-rafting metaphor of permanent white water is a powerful one. It seems there fewer and fewer still pools that we can rest our canoe in these days. The world we’ve created and now find ourselves caught in, is constantly demanding us to find new ways of thinking, being and doing.

To quote from James Canton, CEO and Chairman for the Institute of Global Futures, “An entirely new era is emerging that will redefine risk and opportunity in the 21st century. Get ready for fantastic, radical and complex global change that will transform individuals, society, markets, consumers and business. New and dramatic changes are coming at a furious speed to change our world. Nobody is prepared for the challenges, crises and risks that lie ahead”.

He speaks about five factors that will define the extreme future. These are:

  • Speed: The rate of change will be blinding, comprehensive in scope, and touch every aspect of your life.
  • Complexity: A quantum leap in a number of seemingly unrelated forces that will have a direct bearing on everything from lifestyles to work to personal and national security.
  • Risk: New risks, higher risks, and more threats from terror to crime to global economic upheaval will alter every aspect of your life.
  • Change: Drastic adjustments in your work, community and relationships will force you to adapt quickly to radical changes.
  • Surprise: Sometimes good, sometimes difficult to imagine, surprise will become a daily feature of your life, often challenging sensibility and logic.

These five components are not new to us. All one has to do is look at some of what is already happening in our own lives (or turn on the local and international news channels) and many of these changes are all on our doorstep already. Toffler suggests, “dealing with a lot of changes in a short time puts an enormous challenge on the body and its coping mechanisms may be overwhelmed”. Some of the typical responses in these situations are:

  • increased anxiety and hostility to authority
  • an increase in tendency towards violence, physical illness, depression and apathy
  • erratic swings in mood, interest and life style
  • an effort to “crawl into a shell” through social, intellectual and emotional withdrawal
  • feeling continually bugged and harassed
  • desperately wanting to reduce the number of decisions to be made.

I’m sure some of the above symptoms are not foreign to us in our daily lives as we navigate these times of strange motion and intensity. Increasingly, our current circumstances will demand that we make the internal shifts and do the personal work of transformation, or we will find ourselves spiralling down and being negatively affected by whatever is occurring in the external environment. I remember a friend saying, “no matter what the circumstance or situation is, DO NOT follow the noise”. It is something that has always stayed with me. We are called to be self referential (self referring) and not to take our cue from all that is happening around us.

I’m not suggesting that we won’t and shouldn’t feel the full range of emotion that arises. However, even as we experience the threshold of a new world and all that comes with it, fear, anxiety, sadness or anger, we always have the choice to identify ourselves with the unshakable power and force that is the very core of who we each are. We don’t have to be governed or completely consumed by our emotions. We cannot afford to be defined by our circumstances. We have choice. Viktor Frankel, who found himself in Nazi Germany in a concentration camp facing the most dire and desperate circumstances every day, stated in his book, Mans Search for Meaning, “even in situations of immense suffering man can still find meaning”. Powerful words drawn from experience. His work on Logo therapy, which is now used by many around the world, is based on this premise.

In dealing with radical change and having to deal with novel circumstances there is the constant challenge to strengthen our inner security in order to live and be well at this time in human history. There are many descriptions for leadership today, but the one that speaks to me is the ability to stand steady and extend a creative influence in the midst of the swirling winds of change. With challenge also comes great opportunity. It is an exciting and unprecedented time to be alive. It is a time for innovative ideas, a time to remake and recreate, to legitimise “doing differently” and to dare to fly in the face of that which we know doesn’t work. It is a time to trust our instincts and to navigate in fresh ways and with new maps. And to quote a Korean monk, “it is a time to find within us the capacity to celebrate both sunrises and sunsets”.

Some core competencies that I believe are essential for us to develop at this time and strengthen in ourselves, with some measure of urgency, are the ability to cultivate resilience, hold paradox, to be flexible, develop the ability to improvise, adapt, make friends with uncertainty and move quickly with change. Edward Gibbon, the English historian recognised for his works on the collapse of the Roman Empire, said, “The wind and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators”.


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