When faced with uncertainty, people yearn for more structure. Sometimes they demand it, in surprisingly reactive ways—when their bodies and minds are overwhelmed by all the messiness. My colleagues and I are seeing this everywhere right now: Clients who want everyone to move on already, to reengage with their 2019 plans, to press onward, or to rev up productivity. They want meetings to be shorter and efficient. They don’t want to talk about feelings. They want the familiarity of work the way it used to be, and they're upset that so many of their colleagues aren't ready for that.
But this dynamic has always been with us. Our brains are wired to conserve energy, and Americans--particularly white-bodied ones--don’t have enough cultural stories about embracing uncertainty, grieving with one another, and creating new paths together. Our dominant cultural stories are mostly about heroes who lead people toward solutions with a singular will. If you're lucky, they have a strong moral code. The Enlightenment added new stories about scientists, nerds, technocrats, (and eventually, management consultants) who gather experts to solve more complicated problems through consensus. These are what I call Challenge Leaders.
But this time is showing many of us that there's another kind of leadership that's needed, too: The Creative Leader. They've been helping groups create new cultural stories about what leadership looks like for some time. We have much to learn from new heroes like adrienne maree brown, her sister Autumn Brown, Jennifer Garvey Berger, Glenda Eoyang, Cynthia Kurtz, Tarana Burke, and so many more.
Only recently have I re-embraced my own capacity to lead in this way. I have had to—consistently and unabashedly—dig into my theatre-director, community-organizer, classroom-teacher roots to recover what was lost when I got into management consulting. My professional world is dominated by figures who promise structures and “proven” methods that offer comfort, predictability, and contract-ready guarantees. Unfortunately, our world changes so often now, that anything claiming to be that predictable is probably lying... And I won’t lie to my clients.
This journey has been like coming home for me. I've always been a challenger of easy paths, assumptions of order, and an emphasis on productivity over personal connection. I like to break things down to build them back up again. I like giving people just enough structure to help them create new things, but not so much that they can surrender to a process. This is hard work that many groups need but resist; it requires curiosity, trailblazing, trial-and-error, iteration, vulnerability, and risk.
Moreover, it requires embracing of difference. Because in situations of uncertainty, it is most often outliers who hold the clues for change: Women, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled and neurodivergent people, Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Their liminal understanding of systems and structures is key to creating new pathways, rather than retracing the same old tired paths that are destroying ourselves and the planet.
Now, I know there are times when groups can still benefit from the kind of structures that Challenge Leaders provide; it's why I tend to co-facilitate alongside them. But more than ever, groups need Creative Leaders more than they know--to let go of what's no longer serving them personally and organizationally.
Is this you? What's your leadership home? Take my Leadership Orientation quiz to begin your journey.