Liminal Leadership

I operate with clients in that liminal space between the known and the unknown. The area where we have yet to find things out, where there are no benchmarks or “solutions”

Many people use people like me at a point of pain. When something has become manifest. It’s a much easier point of access, but limited in scope. Like taking painkillers, it’s often a fast and convenient, but temporary relief for a symptom rather than something that address the root cause.

Organisations love painkillers. However, there are always people inside those organisations who understand symptoms for what they are.

Accessing these people is not easy. It’s not about marketing, or logic. Mostly, it’s about reputation, empathy, and an ability to start a conversation about the liminal space. It’s about trust and crossing boundaries.

Liminal spaces are the gaps between one state and another. In traditional cultures they can be rites of passage, In music, the space between one note and the next (Miles Davis said that he paid more attention to the space between the notes than the notes themselves – and he was rather good…)

In the uncertain and complex times we are in, the new normal, leadership is increasingly about helping those we work with to occupy this liminal space. To reduce the need for “certainty” and learning to dance with uncertainty.

It is leadership of a different order. Crystal clear briefs about where we need to get to, making sure we have the right people who are competent, capable and resourced to deliver with minimal supervision. About communication and support, not micro management. About letting them lead their own dance to get to where we need them to be, not waiting for our instructions on what to do next.

Most organisations and most managers are still tasked and assessed in the “organisation as machine” that have served us well in the past, but now, whether we like it or not, we are in liminal space as we deal with the three climate changes – environment, technology, and social.

As leaders, we need to have the confidence to look outwards, to see and sense the changes taking place and taking action before they overwhelm us, confident that those inside are delivering what we have asked of them.

Complexity, technology and ubiquitous connection mean that we need to think in terms of ecosystems, not just our immediate team, or our immediate organisation. Increasingly, strategic success is more about influencing systems more than hands on supervision of people – providing of course, we have got the right people.

The reality is liminal space offers huge opportunity. Traditional sources of differentiation and commercial power dissolve in the liminal spaces. Hotels yield to AirBnB, Transport to UBER and Lyft, Routine healthcare to e-medicine, routine back office work to AI – and this is barely the start.

Leadership now is about learning to dance beautifully with uncertainty.


We love hierarchies. But they’re changing.

It used to be easy. We knew where we stood. We had a place in a known system. We knew who to ask, who to tell, and who controlled our future. We could design processes, create protocols, develop template answers and become really quite efficient.

As with anything like this, it becomes habit, and habits are addictive. People who depend on the system – particularly those in the middle of the hierarchy – become far more adept at categorising challenges and applying template solutions than analysing the challenge. It’s faster, easier and safer. When appraisals and bonuses are at stake, that’s important.

The flow of information, opinion and power was straightforward. There were limited nodes in our networks. Things that weren’t simple did at least have to good grace to be complicated, and computers are good at complicated, and much better than the people we’ve trained to do it. In those areas, the threats we see to jobs are real.

Traditional approaches to hierarchies gave us tools appropriate to the times. Organisation hierarchies, hierarchies of need, SMART goals.

There’s a new hierarchy in town. Hierarchies of understanding and connection. Ubiquitous connections means we are now all part of fluid systems, with inflows of data not just internally, but externally. Alternative views, expert opinion, latest views, job offers.

As something of a thought experiment, take a work unit of fifty people (according to Dunbar, the most effective “intimate” unit where everybody knows each other by name). In their work network, without dealing with clients, suppliers etc, they have to manage around 2,500 different relationships. In their personal lives, the average number of connections we have is around 500, meaning they have around another 250,000. Clearly, not all contacts are equal, but that’s still a lot of bandwidth, and a huge source of varied data.

And, therein lies your power.

It may be easy, conventional and convenient for an organisational hierarchy to see you as a job spec in a role. Assessable, replaceable and controllable via salary, bonus and appraisal.

We are all much more than that. We are unique nodes in a series of complex interlinked networks. Somewhere in there, the things we know, the people we know, and the perspective we have gives us a unique value. To use a chaos theory metaphor, we are potentially the flap of a butterflies wing that triggers a hurricane in some far distant place.

The future of our businesses, and our individual careers, lies not in linear progression but in understanding our place in the system; in this field of information, and where that has value.

It’s difficult to do logically – there’s just too much information, and too many options. We need to go beyond the logic, our appraisals and pay attention to our instincts. In our hearts, and in our soul, we know when we’re heading somewhere we need to be, and equally, when we’re a passenger on someone else’s journey.

For sure, the short term is vital, as is our marketing plan, our goals, our appraisal – but the short term is getting shorter.

Pay attention to your hierarchy of understanding:

  • What’s important to you – now, next? Where are you heading?
  • Who’s there to help you achieve that?
  • Where does what you are doing now fit in?
  • Where is what you are doing now heading?
  • What do you need to understand?


The game is changing in front of our eyes, but I suspect we’re often so busy we just don’t see it.

A session of BBC’s “question time” this week encapsulated it well, and wherever you are in the world, you will be seeing populist driven equivalents. The topic was Brexit, and it pretty much nuked our concepts of British reserve, politeness and humour. Driven by a heady mix of facts, fake facts, biases and fears it was horrible to behold.

No connection – just lots of noise, very little signal. Yet, that’s where the future lies. When the Brexit debacle is eventually resolved, we will have to deal with the situation it leaves us in, whatever that might be. It will require collaboration, debate, support, humour – in short, connection.

There a great piece on Medium today by @zatrana. He writes about Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship, and it struck me that we have much to learn.

The challenges we face – from AI to Climate Change, to the more mundane areas of making a living will only be solved by meaningful connection.

Jim Rohn states that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. I’d suggest that whatever else you do today, whatever you pay attention to, and whatever winds you up,

Remember that. It’s where your future is,