I regularly feel like I have no idea what I am doing. But as a consultant and so-called “expert,” people expect that I will come in with all of the knowledge and experience and know just what to do to “fix” the complex problems they are facing.
It is true that I have a set of skills and a compilation of knowledge that the people bringing me in usually don’t have – around conflict, facilitation, trauma, embodiment, and how to make change – and this mix of knowledge and skills are usually very helpful.
But they don’t mean I can fix it all, or that I know just what to do.
The truth is most of the problems I am called in to help with are complex, and the most important skill set is the ability to make informed guesses, try them out, learn from what worked and didn’t, and then apply the learning. And then repeat.
As Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire said about social change, “We make the road by walking.”
This is all fine and good when we can just embrace not knowing and curiosity as the path, but that can be very challenging. Whether we are in leadership positions or consultants, it is very easy for the expectation that it’s possible to know and to be able to fix to seep into our hearts and leave us feeling like imposters.
Leading in complexity is … complex
We are living in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Fundamentally, the more complex our contexts are, the harder it is to “know” what to do in any situation. We are in a very difficult, confusing, rapidly changing time when many things we used to take for granted feel like they are crumbling, conflict is escalated and explosive, and there are no real simple or “tried and true” solutions to any of it.
The more we lean into acknowledging and working in the context of complex systems, the more this is true.
I see this most often in organizations that are taking courageous steps to change how they work or the impact they want to make.
Some internal examples include when organizations or networks try to:
- Move away from traditional hierarchy and toward collaborative leadership
- Commit to supporting people to show up as their full selves with all the messy “unprofessional” bits
- Shift their ways of doing away from meeting specific predetermined outcomes to focus more on adapting and responding to changing conditions
Some external examples I have been involved in include when organizations or networks try to:
- Move away from direct service provision to directly impact the roots of the need for the service (poverty, food insecurity, or climate change, for example)
These are not easy paths to walk. There are not consistent models to learn from. We have to make a lot of it up as we go, and there will absolutely be mistakes, rough patches, and wrong turns.
And of course this feels terrible when we are told at the same time that our role is “to know,” “to fix,” “to have the answers.” It would be so much easier to believe that we just have to learn the right thing, reach the right level of expertise, and know the exact process to follow.
Make space to sense make
In my organizational change work, I am often walking into a situation with a range of complex dynamics. There is the individual trauma, wounding and experiences that people are carrying with them, which often clash with the experiences of others. Those are layered into challenging interpersonal dynamics, along with team and organizational culture. And then there are the ways that larger systemic issues – for example inequality, injustice, and social breakdown – thread throughout all of it. All of these dynamics play out at the same time. It is extremely complex, and while I have many good tools and past experience to draw from, there is rarely a clear way forward.
I expect to sometimes take wrong turns. The problem is when I feel the pressure, from myself and from others, to know what to do and to be able to do it quickly. What is really needed is patience, curiosity, and trust that it’s ok to slow down and make sense of it all. To notice when we are moving off track and need to reorient.
Expert culture tells us that things should be perfect, but the expertise that helps in complexity is curiosity and being willing to learn from what happens.
“I follow four dictates: face it, accept it, deal with it, then let it go.” – Sheng Yen
I work with many leaders who are working in complex situations who feel bad about themselves because they get things wrong. There are feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and impostor syndrome. The level of pressure they put on themselves is extremely high.
I love the above quote by Taiwanese Buddhist monk Sheng Yen as a life practice to go by when we have taken a wrong turn.
Imagine you are guiding people through the woods, and you just made a decision that has led the whole group to be stuck in a swamp.
Facing it is about acknowledging that I took a wrong turn and there are negative outcomes from that choice. It got us stuck in a swamp. People are upset, hurt and scared. This is not a good situation. I won’t pretend that everything is ok, or try to defend the choice. I also won’t make it a bigger mistake than it was. Mistakes happen, and we can face them with compassion and curiosity and also with accountability.
Accepting it means recognizing that there is no way to turn back time. No matter how much I might rage and fight against the wrong turn, we are still stuck in the swamp. How can we process the difficult feelings about what happened in a way that doesn’t get us more stuck? What can we learn about the choices we made that might help avoid similar ones in the future?
Deal with it
Dealing with it is where you get out of the swamp. This is when we do the hard work of pulling our feet out of the muck, offering a hand to those who are more deeply stuck, and finding our way to drier ground.
Let it go
And then when it’s over and we are out of the swamp, we can let it go. Taking a wrong turn doesn’t mean I should judge my leadership capacity for the rest of my life based on that decision. In my experience, the level of self-doubt and judgment that happens when we can’t let go of a mistake can lead to an inability to make decisions moving forward. We might be out of the swamp, but we are still lost in the forest because we don’t trust ourselves to make the next choice.
But actually it’s really hard to face, accept, deal with it, and let go
We are not all Buddhist monks, and face, accept, deal and let go is pretty hard to do in practice.
The feelings that come up when we make mistakes in a leadership role can be very hard to navigate. There might be panic, shame and self judgement. There might also be defensiveness and a tendency to blame others. All of these emotions are totally natural, but when they are very strong, they can be like sticky mud. They make it hard to get out of the swamp.
Get through the worst of the feelings
When we are overwhelmed by strong emotions, usually the first priority is to do whatever helps us get through the worst of it. It might be some deep breaths or a hug from someone who loves you. It could be taking a break and going for a walk or pushing hard against a wall or jumping up and down and shaking your arms. I find being outside and away from my computer is essential. Other times, it might be watching several episodes of a funny show. With a few exceptions like blaming others or picking fights that might make the situation worse, it usually doesn’t matter what the thing is that helps you get through the worst of the feelings. It’s just about doing whatever helps you feel a bit less stuck so you are more able to face the situation.
Understand the situation and take away the blame
Once the feelings are more manageable, this is when it can be very helpful to spend some time understanding the specific situation. I tend to try to notice the critical messages I am telling myself, and then I might put a hand on my heart and send myself a message that feels honest, but also kind. It might be like, “You are human and everyone makes mistakes. This might not have been your best moment, but it is not everything you are. While this situation didn’t go so well, I think people felt supported and that is very important.”
If I’m finding it too hard to find something honest and kind to tell myself, I may also seek connection with someone who cares about me and can give me honest and kind support. Some of the kinds of questions that can be helpful are: What happened that led to the wrong turn? How bad was it really? What happened that was helpful or fine? What can I learn from this situation?
Do the deeper work to feel less terrible when wrong turns happen
Of course the big feelings we feel when we make a mistake or take a wrong turn are often rooted in past experiences of being made to feel bad, wrong, or unworthy for getting things wrong. Addressing these roots is longer and harder work, but deeply transformational, especially if you are someone working in a lot of complexity. This work looks different for all of us, and often benefits from guidance, whether that be therapy, loving community, spiritual practice, or contemplative practice.
But also we can do lots of this deeper healing in fun and creative ways. At one point when I was struggling with self-criticism, I took a life drawing class because I knew I was going to be very bad at it. I wanted a low stakes and pleasing experience of enjoying myself doing something badly. At first it was agonizing, but eventually I was able to let go and enjoy it and it helped a lot.
It is also helpful to notice, deconstruct and challenge ideas of expertness or perfection any time you notice them coming up in yourself. Unpack the idea of perfection: that it’s possible and good; that if you’re making mistakes there is something wrong with you; and that everyone else is doing things perfectly. These are all fake narratives. They have been taught to us by the very systems that we are often trying to challenge in systems work. When we get familiar with their messages and know how to challenge them, we have more capacity to notice and interrupt the stories they tell us about ourselves and each other.
Let yourself feel the feelings in your body
You can also work directly with the feelings and the body sensations that go with them. While many people benefit from support to do this, especially if they are not used to working with the body, the following is a simple practice that you might try if you feel comfortable noticing your sensations.
Start by getting as comfortable as possible. Wear comfortable clothing. Make sure you aren’t thirsty or hungry and that you don’t have to go to the bathroom. Put on nice music, light a candle or anything else that makes the environment comfortable. Sit on a soft chair or lie down. Notice what sensations in your body let you know you are feeling comfort or maybe pleasure. Maybe your back feels supported, or your feet are pleasantly warm. Maybe your head is appreciating the soft pillow. Really let yourself feel and appreciate the comfort and pleasure, and stay with that for a minute or two.
Then bring to mind the mistake or wrong turn, and notice what shifts. If the feeling of pleasure goes away, bring your mind back to the comfort your body is feeling, and stay there until you can really feel it again. If you are able to hold on to the feeling of comfort or pleasure and also notice whatever sensation arises when you think about the wrong turn, then stay with the two sensations. Be aware of both at the same time. For example, you might feel the heat of shame in your face, but maybe your back is comfortable and supported against the chair. See if you can be aware of the feeling in your face and also in your back. Can you let the feeling in your face be aware of the comfort in your back?
Do this for only a moment and then return your attention to the feeling of pleasure and stay there until you have returned to just enjoying the comfort or pleasure.
Go slow with this. If you find it overwhelming, go back to just doing whatever helps you get through the feeling.
If you think being with your sensations might be helpful but you’re not sure you can do it on your own, that’s a great time to reach out for some support.
And remember “we make the road by walking“
Ironically, the idea that people should be experts and should know how to fix things actually sets us up for more failure. There is no one right way to deal with complexity. And in fact, many of the best and most transformative ideas have come out of so-called mistakes, or “wrong turns” that brought us to beautiful clearings that we didn’t know existed.
If you would like to read more posts about leading in complex systems, organizational change, conflict and other topics, or if you want to find out about trainings to help you navigate some of the challenges of leadership, sign up for the Big Waves newsletter at this link.