Do you choose high seas or a safe harbor?

sail boat under the storm, detail on the winchOur culture loves superheroes – the ones who fight fierce demons, go where no one has gone, and help save the planet.

Superheroes are willing to take on big risks for big causes.

If you ask a super hero to choose between going off to high seas or staying in safe harbors, you could imagine her answer. Because no one got to be an action hero, by staying near the shore!

But wait – don’t superheroes ever take naps or just chill out for a while?

After all, didn’t Superman spend much of his time as mild mannered Clark Kent?

Safety is much underrated.

Three years ago I was craving the high seas. I turned 60, dove into improv theatre, and even started clowning (a CRASH course in the art of being vulnerable in public.)

I was having a ball jumping into new challenges.

Last month, I surprised myself when a good friend suggested a new clowning class. I heard myself grilling her about the instructor,  “Is he supportive? Encouraging? Positive? Kind?”

I was steering the boat towards a safe harbor.

With all the excitement and work that’s come with re-launching my business over the past couple of years (Webpage! Social media! New worlds!), not to mention a couple of health-related episodes with my husband, I don’t need thrills and spills.

My riding instructor has even lowered my jumps.

I treasure the quiet times when I can sit, alone in my cabin, with a cup of green tea, and just write.

Even though choosing safety doesn’t sound sexy.

I crave the adventure of the high seas AND the safety of the harbors. They’re a polarity – representing the tension between risk and safety we carry within us all the time.

The Castle versus the Battlefield

My friend, the great organizational consultant Roger Harrison, (who, sadly, recently passed away ) used the metaphor of the “battlefield and the castle” when talking about organizational change.

When you’re on the battlefield, personally or organizationally – you’re breaking ground, upsetting the status quo, provoking dissension and asking people to change.

In the safe castle, behind the moat, you stabilize the system, breathe out, find harmony, consolidate and acknowledge your gains, and restore your balance.

Trouble is, some organizations (and people!), never have much time for life in the castle. High stakes projects follow high stakes projects – and relentless change becomes the new normal.

There’s no time to breathe out.

The BOHICA organization

Years ago, when coaching a group of health care managers about change leadership, I felt a giant smirk fill the air. “What are you laughing at,” I asked.

“Oh you’re talking about BOHICA!”

They translated: “Bend Over Here It Comes Again”.

Constant change had left them jaded.

When we want more risk

But risk has its place. If our lives or organizations become too calm, complacent or easy, we can stagnate.

I once asked the mother of Todd Trewin, the Olympic equestrian, how Todd found the courage to start jumping the challenging and often unforgiving advanced cross country jumps. (I can’t imagine ever taking a horse over them.) She told me, “The other jumps got to be too easy for him.”

Maybe that’s how you know when it’s time to go back to sea.

Fear is not our friend

Too much stress or too much fear takes its toll. We stop thinking clearly and become dull. When my horse is scared, she stops learning. She remembers her primal script: “Get me out of here”.

Humans are more nuanced, trying to hide their fears or channel them (aghh) into trying to control others.

Our nervous systems need an occasional break. It’s OK to feel safe. There’s good stuff to do in the harbor: hang out at the dock, grab a drink, read a book, or go exploring!

 

Will I take the clowning course? I’ll let you know.

 

 

 

 

Why Some Conflicts Will NEVER Go Away

Conflict Between CouplePicture this:  You need some time alone, while your partner wants you both to go to a large music event that’s happening downtown.

You imagine the traffic, the parking, the noise, the expense and wonder if you’ll have the energy to make small talk with the friends you’ll invariably see. You try to explain this to him, but he counters with the fact that the two of you haven’t been on an outing together for a month, that you need to stop being a hermit, and how you’re going to love it when you get there.

You suddenly remember the time you asked him to go with you to the theatre and he decided to stay home.

Your stomach starts to bind up.

You’ve got a conflict.

On the one level, the conflict is resolvable – you can choose whether you stay or go together, or do your separate thing. Done.

But underneath the choice, there’s a conflict that will never go away as long as you’re together: the tension between taking care of yourself and taking care of your partnership.

This chronic tension between conflicting values that look like opposites but are really two ends of the same cord, is a polarity.

Clearly, in any healthy partnership, we need to “attend to self” AND “attend to the partnership.” If you do too much of one side without the other, you’ve got trouble.

Like inhaling and exhaling – you’ve got to do both!

Although you’ll always have the tension, the key to managing a polarity lives in two simple words: “both/and.”

Yin and Yang.ying yang  icon on white background

You want to get the best of both values while avoiding the problems that happen when you attend to only one side.

You don’t want to become either a self-sacrificing martyr or someone who thinks “it’s all about me”.

Maybe it’s time to step out of the specific conflict to look at what’s really at issue. You could ask: “How can we enjoy going out together – and still give each of us some space and downtime to take care of ourselves?”

Leadership is full of polarities. Leaders need to balance the need for change and stability, candor and diplomacy, justice and mercy, standardization and variation.

In our culture we often swing from one polar value to another without noticing how the two values will always be linked.

One political party cries out for individual rights and freedoms while the other emphasizes the collective good.

Then the parties demonize each other.

Sorry knuckleheads in Washington, D.C., but don’t you get it? Respect for individual freedom AND concern for the common good go together. We NEED that tension. So stop fighting and deal with it!

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p.s. If you want to know more about polarities and leadership, I recommend the book Power Surge by my friend and colleague Margaret Seidler. It’s a very accessible fable-styled book that shows us how leadership polarities play out.  Or, read the book that started it all: Polarity Management by Barry Johnson.

 

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