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Holding Tension

Holding tension is both an art and a discipline. 

Like drawing a bow, a yoga pose as a beginner, or sitting with a partially formed idea. We can hold on to the tension until it becomes unbearable and goes off suddenly like a released balloon in all sorts of unpredicted directions, we can gently unwind it, or we can sit with it, become familiar with it, harness it, direct it, and release it with intent.

I sense that it is what “now” feels like for many people, myself included. The tension is being created by the pull of the familiar in one direction and the knowledge that we will have to change and embrace unfamiliar habits and practices in the other. It is getting stronger by the day. 

I have written before about it, describing it as a ‘quickening”, and that term still feels appropriate. A heightening of the senses, awareness of an accelerated heartbeat, alert for something we know is there but cannot see or describe.

Johnnie Moore brought my attention to a short video featuring Patricia Shaw talking about leadership three years ago, and I think she nails it. 

Leadership, right now, is about convening conversations. It is not about knowing; it is about sensing the movement of things that matter: emotions, ideas, purpose, relationships. Making stuff is pretty easy once we know how to do it; harnessing and orchestrating the energies of those who create the idea in the first place and then make it is not easy. When leaders lose sight of that, from Google to Goldman Sachs, and treat people as commodities, we can feel the quickening. 

When politicians and businesses regard the IPCC report as a promotional opportunity rather than bowing their heads in embarrassment, we can feel the quickening.

So I think we have to decide; what are we going to do? Are we going to hang on in there until the tension gets unbearable and go off like a balloon, a directionless release of energy? Or shall we just put the problem down and wait for fate to take its course, compliant to the last? Or are we going to take the opportunity to harness it, direct it, and release it with intent to demonstrate the power of being truly human?

As is probably clear, I have a preference. The question is, of course, how?

If we wait for politicians or corporations to take the lead, we will likely wait a very long wait. They show a consistent attitude that suggests we can negotiate with nature, and if we ask nicely and promise to be good, she will give us a little more time. Right.

This is down to those of us stuck between the polarities of the old corporates at one end and climate protestors at the other. It is for us to talk to each other, to share what we notice and what we feel, and change our behaviours quietly, without noise or drama. 

Consumption, as we called Tuberculosis a century and more ago, was a major killer. It is a different consumption that is killing us now and one much more in our control. We can make choices about what we buy and who we buy it from. Who we work for and where. Where we travel and why. Corporations are monolingual; they speak money. They will catch on soon enough.

It’s how to start. There’s an interesting theory in network science around the optimal number of connections in a network – too few, and there’s not enough data to parse; too many, and we lose sight of meaning in the fog of overwhelm. It links to Robin Dunbar’s theories on how many real personal connections we can maintain. This is a whole subject in itself, which I’ll come back to in another post, but it aligns with common sense. We cannot change things on our own, nor can we if we’re surrounded by people and data we have no connection with. We need to focus on the communities we feel connected to, whether that is where we live, where we work, or increasingly those meaningful connections we have online. Reach out to them and start harnessing the tension to direct it and release it constructively.

The tension of the challenges we face will not go away. I think we need to use it, not deny it. We need to talk.

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About the Author

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Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

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