Scylla & Charybdis: Managing Polarities
It's a moment I never grow tired of, I've witnessed and participated in it hundreds of times and I can feel the energy of it now as I write. When we set up oppositional choices, towards the beginning of TeamEverest participants have to get up from their chairs and stand under either "Bring People Back Alive," or "Get to the Summit," or "Take a New Route, or "Climb in a Meaningful Way."
Some participants go directly to a particular statement, others mill about and look around the room before moving towards where they feel most at home. Here we have a human venn diagram of the organization, overlapping circles of participants standing in physical space representing something important to them that together forms a uniquely expressive picture of the group.
We coach the leadership team to be very conscious of the message their choice sends to the group. We also ask them to hold back till most of the group has self-selected.
As I stand there I feel a vague unease, a twinge of guilt for setting up these oppositional choices, of presenting these as seemly contradictory dilemmas. Even though they are directly from the remarkable story on which TeamEverest is based - it is still a process developed by Tim Dixon, our experiential designer, and I years ago. Yet I also know that it is through resolving and understanding dilemmas that we grow as emotionally mature humans and solve the tough issues of our time.
We facilitators rove around with mikes and participants speak out about why they are standing where they are and why it is important to them. There is a seemless and fluid integration between what is happening within the organization at this moment in time and the metaphor itself - no coaching required. Some voices emphasize the oppositional nature of the choices, others emphasize the importance of the whole. This is the BIG tension under the oppositional choices. Some stand between two choices, some even gravitate to the middle unwilling to choose.
What I intuitively knew years ago was as a facilitator my role in this situation was to bring out all the underlying tension that is being repressed. I turned from a peace loving and collaborative facilitator to a Golem that taunts and goads and speaks all the dark underlying thoughts and brings them to the surface. I can still see the shock on many faces as I hunched over and took a Golem like form, other faces were emboldened.
Do not water down the paradoxes, do not gloss over the essential differences that divide us and cause so much misplaced energy. What we are learning that these underlying differences must be given a voice to bring them from the dark into the light.
We've had a CEO stand upon a chair from the position of "Bring People Back Alive," and a Receptionist rise to a table from "Take a New Route," fingers raised and shouting. Others followed. Often it is profound. In other cases it has been shocking, the true colors of the leadership team were revealed to the participants.
As a storyteller, in times of uncertainty I head back to the "Wine dark sea," to the epic story that has shaped Western culture, The Odyssey.
Between the Strait of Messina, Sicily and the Italian mainland was a rock shoal called Scylia, described by Homer as a six headed monster, and on the Italian side was Charybdis a giant whirlpool. To return home to Ithaca, Odysseus/Ulysses had to sail his ship between these two perils. Now a bit of backstory is in order. At this point in the story life had become extremely important to Odysseus, he did not want to loose one other person as so much had been lost to the Trojan war - a total of 1,186 ships and a total of 142,320 men - according to the detailed Catalogue of Ships.
Odysseus chose to sail closer to Scylla, stand upon the prow and cut off each of the sea monster heads rather than risk loosing the entire ship to the whirlpool. What a choice for a leader. I always find this moment in the story moving.
Why do I feel a vague unease about setting up oppositional dilemmas? They are dilemmas because together they form something that is whole. They are not something that can be chosen between without cutting off a part of yourself or your organization.
The dimension that we often don't consider is the fourth dimension of time. We can choose one then the other, sometimes as a life stage, sometimes changing course in the very next moment. Now, before TeamEverest events, I coach the Senior Leader to tell stories of when he/she was heading North towards an important objective and had to change directions to reach that goal, go South to collaborate. How when taking a New Route he/she had to head towards Meaning. These stories heal the real divisions that exist in our organizations, they point the way to reaching our goals through wholeness rather than preoccupation with one polarity.
Next stop PolarLeader our new program that works with two contrasting styles of leadership, both racing towards the South Pole at the same moment in history. A story rife with dilemmas and polarities.