It may feel more like years have passed, but, barely a year ago, talk of our collective return to work first began in earnest. We were experiencing our initial sustained dip in COVID-19 cases and were ready for something other than working from our homes. Or were we? When faced with the previously only-wished-for prospect of a return to what once was, questions arose.
Given many of the benefits discovered, should remote work continue? Or should we instead re-embrace the long-held view that work takes four shared walls? What about hybrid options?
If you were to look back at the headlines, you’d see that even as things felt as if they were settling a bit, the future of everything was still deeply unpredictable. Yet, that is precisely what most leaders at the time were busy trying to do: to predict, and more, to guarantee. A majority of leaders were seeking solutions to the future of work in a once-and-for-all form.
Different views of a possible future of work
In a key study then, McKinsey & Co. described leaders as seemingly possessed by a “finish line” mentality and a need to declare both victory over COVID-19 and a stable future. It wasn’t just that leaders wanted this; they seemed to believe their employees wanted, above all else, “freedom from the wolves” of uncertainty, to borrow from philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The trouble was, leaders were wrong.
While a full 75% of leaders sought a finish line, the same study revealed that 75% of their workers perceived the future of work in the exact opposite way. Perhaps they intuited the rest of Berlin’s observation, that “[f]reedom from the wolves, has often meant death to the sheep.” Bottom line, employees didn’t believe the future was, or perhaps even could be, certain.
Yet, the more compelling data point at the time (continuing today) is what has come to be called the Great Reshuffle (or Resignation, or Reorder): millions of employees expressing their very different view of the future by voluntarily leaving their jobs to seek places where they can have a hand in where their organizations are headed.
Discovering a rare “thin place”
Following the study, I wrote an article for SmartBrief about what leaders were missing in all of this. But the truth is that leaders and their employees were together missing something greater: a rare opportunity or, said more poignantly, one of those rare “thin places” where great change is possible.
When I first heard the term, a thin place was described as a moment when the seemingly immoveable barrier between the world we live in or the way we operate in that world and “something bigger” becomes thin, to the point of offering up a connection between the two. Thin places are, for example, where artists, athletes and others tap a flow state. When the idea of purpose begins to actually be realized, that, too, is most likely to happen in a thin place.
A thin place is a unique zone. And nearly a year since the Great Reshuffle began in earnest, organizations still have access to one. This thin place is the chance to see that leadership is something very different from, and much greater than, the person with the leader title. Leadership is collective, and in the best cases, cultural.
How to recognize a thin place
How do we begin to see this thin place and to seize the opportunity it presents? What are the signals that show us where to step into it and make change for the better? Here are some signs to look for:
When senior leaders don’t have the answer — indeed, when there is no known solution — a thin place exists. When a problem recurs repeatedly, in part because the attempted resolutions support conflicting priorities, the ground is thin and ripe for change. When people must work across borders to find a way forward, or when the path forward is clearly nonlinear, the thin facade between the leader-as-hero tale we were all raised on and the truth that leadership is a shared human capacity allows some light to come peering through.
A long-running project at Harvard focused on adaptive leadership, in which Eric Martin of Adaptive Change Advisors took part and about which he has thoughtfully written, dubbed such signals as “leadership flags” and encouraged executives to use them as moments to step up and lead.
Identification and use by senior leaders alone isn’t what makes these thin places. The thinness is revealed when, in seeing these signals, we also accept that senior leaders can no longer step into such leadership moments alone. The treasured thinness comes when all of us accept and embrace that leadership, rather than something gifted only to those with the title leader, is instead acknowledged as our shared human capacity.
Let innovation lead to new future of work
The wisest organizations in these uncertain times — in other words, the ones that are thriving, are using collective leadership not just to decide what work must look like, but what innovation looks like, and value, and reward, and every other aspect of work. That’s what ought not be missed in the headlines focusing on mass exoduses or executive over promises. That thin place is where the future of success ongoing resides.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”