Sometimes in life we can become disconnected from the things that matter to us most. We allow stuff to get in the way of our connections with the people we care about, with our work and career, the passions that motivate us, and our purpose in life. We can even become disconnected from our most important relationship of all, the one with ourselves. This disconnection is often unconscious, we can’t see it, it shows up unexpectedly and can trip us up again and again. We can feel it in the body as a sense of uncertainty, a loss or perhaps an anxiety that we can’t quite explain. When disconnected with ourselves we can lose sight of who we are and where we are going.
Our need for connection starts early, research tells us that if infants are deprived of sensory stimulus and human contact it can lead to degenerative changes and even death. In this sense, ‘stimulus-hunger’ has the same relationship to the survival of the human organism as food-hunger. Solitary confinement is one of the most dreaded punishments even by prisoners hardened by physical brutality, and during the COVID-19 pandemic social isolation has been mandated by governments the world over.
In organisations isolation and loneliness are not new experiences, especially for leaders. In a Stanford Business article in 2013 titled: ‘Lonely at the top’, David Larker reports that CEOs and senior executives are twice as likely to suffer from loneliness and associated depression than the general public. According to Larker psychologists see a pattern in our performance and success driven culture resulting in a “connection disconnection”. We lose connection with others and our capacity to lead authentically diminishes.
The routine of so called normal life has been broken
A few weeks into lockdown a close family member of mine passed away, this, of course, had a huge impact on the family and immediately shifted my perspective on what is important to me. COVID-19 has meant many of us have experienced the loss of people we love unexpectedly. Death, especially of family members, can impact on our sense of who we are, our identity and origins. It can also make us reflect on our own mortality and the meaning of our own lives. Many more of us have experienced the loss of our job or business, holidays have been cancelled, weddings postponed shocking us into thinking differently about our situation and what we want. These losses can also trigger unresolved grief for leaders in organisations and this can show up in a way that sabotages our ability to connect with others. The routine of so called normal life has been broken and the future has become more uncertain than before.
This disruption and uncertainty means the need for us to reconnect with each other, our environment, values and purpose in life has never been more obvious. People are now asking different questions and trying to connect with what matters to them most. Organisations across all sectors are working differently now, the context of work has changed and people have lost ‘how it used to be’. It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a return to ‘normality’. With working from home increasingly becoming a permanent arrangement, and online communication replacing face to face meetings – the context of work has shifted.
This pandemic may not be the only global event influencing how we show up in a daily lives. COVID-19 is happening at the same time as the racial inequality on our planet is again thrust into our consciousness, adding to the complexity and ambiguity in the system. It was always there and the reaction to the death of George Floyd has brought the point of Black Lives Matters into stark focus. The direct racism apparent in tragic events like this is heartbreaking and should be considered in the context of the structural racism in our community. ONS research shows that black people are 1.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. The reasons why are apparently inconclusive and might have something to do with the underlying discrimination in the system.
What’s going on ‘out there’ affects us ‘in here’.
People do not live in isolation of these events, the background of our daily lives is undoubtedly impacted, as they are continually described by an endless news cycle. Like the unseen disadvantage and racial prejudice that pervades our institutions, silently rotting from the inside, environmental catastrophe persists like a ticking time bomb. We live seemingly unaffected by a pending disaster too terrible to look at and we collectively procrastinate; putting off what has to be done to prevent what seems like inevitable systemic failure.
Field theory, developed by Kurt Lewin, a Gestalt psychologist, in the 1940s is a psychological theory which examines patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, environment or system. This theory helps us understand how what happens in our environment can affect how we show up in daily life. Lewin’s theory can be expressed by a formula: B = f(p,e), meaning that behaviour (B) is a function of the person (p) and their environment (e). In other words what’s going on ‘out there’ affects us ‘in here’. Whether we are conscious of it or not, this stuff is affecting the workforces of all organisations, we take what happens in our world (field) into work.
Similarly, systems scientists believe that everything is connected, the rapid spread of COVID-19 clearly demonstrates how connected we are and how something happening in one part of the system affects it as a whole. Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced by so many, so directly, rapidly and simultaneously. This notion of inter-connectedness points to us all being part of a single whole. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with this idea in a speech, which he delivered on Christmas Eve 1967:
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality…This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognise this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1967
How, then, can we reconnect?
Faced with the enormity of a disconnected world one can feel overwhelmed and even helpless. In this context, we are all still tasked with moving forward in life, earning a living, creating value, and growing as individuals. Getting out of bed in the morning and facing the world is the first challenge. James Hollis the Jungian author describes two gremlins that sit on the end of your bed each day, one called Fear and the other Lethargy. Overcoming these guys connects us with the possibilities of a new day as we start to take responsibility for what is preventing our best performance.
That was my journey, finding the courage to look at what was getting in the way of my connection with myself and others. A decade ago as a senior leader, I noticed that the challenging system I worked in had triggered me to react in a way that pushed me away from the people I was supposed to be leading. By working with an executive coach I was able to and look at the parts of me that lurked in the shadows and the unconscious complexes that had prevented me from forming the relationships vital to impactful leadership.
As poet David Whyte puts it I had to start close in, take the step I didn’t want to take. The step I didn’t want to take was to look into myself, my inner-system and attend to what was previously too difficult to look at. As I began to uncover what was getting in my way I felt more at home with my emotions and better able to navigate the matrix of relationships within my own system. If we take the time to stop and listen we know when we are connected, when what we do is in service of our passions and values, we find a flow to life that feels right regardless of what is happening around us. In this way coaching can provide a space for leaders where it’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling and make sense the of the new reality thrust upon us. To paraphrase Dr. King, if we are going to have peace on earth we must first find peace within. This doesn’t mean ignoring the injustice and inequality we see our communities, organisations and global systems. Rather it means that finding a space to reconnect with yourself might be the best place to start. In doing so our connection with self, our passions and our inner-purpose can provide the foundation for the sort leadership needed in our disconnected world.