Recently, I had the honor of presenting for the first time at the International Leadership Association Conference (ILA) on practical solutions to nurture positive environmental impacts through community building. During the paneled discussion, a question was purposed that was so powerful that it will now guide my leadership style and ability to build community from this day forward:
Will Covid-19 be a disruption or an interruption?
In other words will I power through with blinders and only focus on the future that will or will not exist or will I stay present and use disruption as an opportunity to check-in with myself, challenge my behavior, and make change that will positively impact the moment?
Quick story of feeling connected:
I hold the International Leadership Association close to my heart for several reasons that ultimately boil down to my first observation made back in 2018. The ILA is a global hub for researchers, practitioners, and teachers who connect and share their passion for leadership and its meaningful impact on society. My dear friends at the University of Denver Pioneer Leadership Program took me under their wing and invited me into an exceptionally large ballroom in West Palm Beach, FL. You may know these rooms. Larger than life, full of people who all have a common interest to yours; strangers connected by deep passion. Conference goers filled the room and, on stage, was the keynote speaker, Dr. Donna Ladkin, who later would become my professor. While we sat among an audience of 1,000+, she challenged the notion that authenticity is not fixed but emerges from self-questioning, reflexivity and through context. In other words, we explore who we want to be through the process of positive impact for others. It was less than two years after the world discovered the United States elected an unconventional leader, who denied so many popular images of presidents and norms of positive leadership. As I sat among a sea of strangers, for the first time in my professional career, I did not feel stifled. Instead, I acknowledged I was among others who saw wicked problems as challenges worth taking on.
Fast forward to November 8, 2020.
My dear colleague, Dr. Kathleen Allen, posed the question in our panel: Will Covid-19 be a disruption or an interruption? The 2020 election was still in the throws, our current president chose not to concede, and we, as the human population, were approaching our first full year living through a pandemic. Disruption was and continues to be key to our lives.
Throughout the conversation, my fellow panelists and I discussed tensions, nature’s systems of adaptability and resiliency, and our role in moving forward cohesively. After the discussion, I pondered this notion of disruption and using its tension as a tool for change. Let’s face it, the only constant thing is change. We live in many systems whether we recognize them or not. When I think about what a system is, I visualize movement, like the way water moves through a hurricane building in the Gulf of Mexico. It cycles. Churning water, grabbing its power, and propelling with great velocity.
When I presented, I discussed nature’s innate abilities to adapt quickly and resiliently to tension and disruption. Living systems, systems found in nature, like the hurricane, are constantly moving. I proposed that nature may model sustainable leadership for humans. For instance, in nature, sustainability grows through a network of diverse agents who are intertwined.
Naturally, living systems are interdependent and interconnected through diversity. These open and connected networks constantly share feedback. Feedback is shared knowledge! The reverberation that occurs creates community. For example, in the forest, tree root systems can only reach so far before they need to rely on microfungi to communicate with their fellow tree-members. Trees inherently rely on a species very different from their own to create a strong connection back to themselves. In response, microfungi inherently rely on trees for nutrients (How trees talk to each other). This authentic exchange of needs, creates a strong bond; a necessary bond for survival. Natural causes, like forest fires, create tension on the sustainable system. In the fire, the system is now disrupted and all the energy that went into maintaining the system is now released. When energy is released, it enters a state of disequilibrium. This may look like a crisis or potentially death of a system, but instead it is a disruption. Since living systems are in constant movement, “disruption is amplified movement” (Allen, 2020). For humans, the release of energy can be emotionally overwhelming (Lawse, 2020). This is a time when organizations begin to notice the system that once sustained itself is now in a chaotic and uncontrollable state. While it could be perceived as tumultuous, this stage is essential to ridding any excess that created inefficiencies in the system (Lawse, 2020). During a state of release, change can be difficult, but when energy is freed and disruption occurs, space is now created for emergence (Lawse, 2020).
Emergence. New! Creativity! Opportunity!
Therefore, when I think of disruption and the tension that the pandemic has brought on my life and communities, I do become very sad. The disparities that were always there are now fully exposed, and I am once again reminded of something I, embarrassingly, forgot. These disparities are groups of people. People who have not benefited from the system that was in place.
The marginalization that is now exposed, because of disruption, also sheds light on new possibilities for how we want to recreate our system.
A system that takes a top-down structure could begin to become more cyclical. The boundaries that once divided us can now span — walls become open windows to a network as diverse as the people who make it (Roberts, Perry, Davidson, 2016). Like nature, we are diverse and interconnected. If the pandemic has taught me one thing, it’s that tension is part of the process. Disruption is part of the process. Change is part of the process. We are part of the process.
In a moment of rest, I leave you with a bundle of feelings that move through my body, heart, and soul. We are in a time in human history that is allowing us to retreat even more from each other and our efforts to engage with people through accidental interactions is far and few between.
Nevertheless, like nature, the organic connections at this very moment, like the Black Lives Matter protests and record voter turnout, are astounding and ever evolving. There is harmony in everything, so take a moment to step out of your normal routine and step into how you want to engage with your community. How do you want to use this tension and disruption to make a more stable system for you and your fellow brothers and sisters? At the end of the day, we all have the power to make change, whether we think we have privilege or not. Therefore, will you use this time to change or will you wait for the interruption to be over?
Ileya Grosman is currently a Ph.D. student in Antioch University’s Leadership and Change Program. Her curiosity has led her through a career of photojournalism, social entrepreneurship, and education. She is passionate about building connections within and beyond community to create supportive and regenerative spaces that encourage a sense of belongingness and celebrate uniqueness.
Allen, K. (2020, April 15). Living Systems Characteristics [PowerPoint slides]. International Leadership Association. https://kathleenallen.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/leading-through-disruption-slides-4-13-20.pdf
Allen, K. (2020, November 8). [Lecture notes on Sustainability in the time of COVID-19: Regeneration or an afterthought?]. International Leadership Association.
Grosman, I. (2020, November 8). [Lecture notes on Sustainability in the time of COVID-19: Regeneration or an afterthought?]. International Leadership Association.
Ladkin, D. (2018, October, 25). [Lecture notes on Why self-constitution trumps the true self as the foundation for leading authentically]. International Leadership Association.
Lawse, D. (2020, April 15). [Lecture notes on living systems ability to rapidly adapt]. International Leadership Association. https://kathleenallen.net/leading-through-disruption-post-call-materials/
Roberts, L.M., Wooten, L.P., Davidson, M. (Eds.). (2016). Positive organizing in a global society: Understand and engaging differences for capacity building and inclusion. Routledge.
Simard, S. (2016, June). How trees talk to each other [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en#t-1079170