When Covid-19 started to spread in the US and the stay at home order was issued in California back in March, it was clear that life would not be the same going forward. Jean-Pierre, my partner, and I tried to adapt as quickly as possible to working remotely and virtually –as quickly as two middle-aged+ people-not-technology-savvy could. Our effort became frantic. All we had preached for years about developing leadership skills in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous)– had to be applied now. We were trying to make sense of an ambiguous and critical situation by absorbing a wealth of information, while maintaining business as usual, and clinging to a somewhat normal life. We felt a pressure building in our immobilized bodies.
Then, the murder of Georges Floyd happened, unabashedly public and horrific – a long eight-minute vision of what an oppressed body truly is.
Because of the pandemic, we were not distracted by life-as-usual preoccupations. This brutal event was in our face. The cumulative effect of social disparities – in Covid-19 cases and in racial injustices- was not avoidable. A break in the collective consciousness felt palpable. A long overdue Great Awokening. Lots of organizations (including ours) took a stand and sent out anti-racist statements of solidarity and indignation.
Here is a truism: we think we know and understand ideas, until we get to know and understand them at a deeper level.
I devoted my life, 30 years ago, to the work of self-awareness and personal empowerment, addressing how our counterproductive ego-tendencies create misuse of power and divide, at work and at home. I was aware that our context shapes our ego. Yet, there was something specific to recognize and integrate about situatedness awareness, the notion that, in order to truly understand the perspective of others different from myself (in race, gender, nationality, social class, religion…), I needed to be aware of my own embedded cultural background, as well as be willing to reveal my situatedness relative to other people.
Otherwise, I was undertaking the risk of awakening in a bubble – if I wasn’t already in a bubble – or heightening my consciousness in a shrunken world.
I had felt the importance of situatedness awareness one year ago, when I was facilitating a retreat for a global organization in South Asia where a dozen CEOs in education from the South-Asia-Pacific region gathered. The night before the session, I met one of the leaders who had come from Vietnam. I introduced myself and after a few minutes of friendly conversation, he looked me straight in the eyes and told me: “- For 18 years, French people called my people lazy and the stigma is still present in education.” I knew he was referring to the colonization and the Indochina war period, but I knew almost nothing about French colonization. I was mortified by my ignorance. Although I had approached my facilitation with humility, I had underestimated what I was bringing to the table as a French/American facilitator, facing such an audience. After this interaction, I spent a few hours reworking my introduction to the group. It wasn’t about being perfect in historical knowledge (although a minimum of education is a general requirement). It was about expressing my awareness of these delicate matters in situating myself as a passing white French/American woman (half-Jewish, half-Moroccan) and trying my best to open a safe space for conscious dialogue.
Back in July, I was discombobulated, submerged by cognitive dissonance. I was in a thick fog; I had no idea how to integrate the work of leadership development, ego, culture and organizational transformation – with the race equity diversity and inclusion work that I thought was necessary.
The summer passed. More uncertainty, more confusion and more effort. Wildfires burst into flame in California near our home, reminding us of the consequences of sur-exploiting our eco-systems.
The thick fog had turned into sick smoke. And we, middle-aged+-middle-class-white-people- would have a glimpse of what it feels like to live in a toxic and threatening environment where we can’t breathe properly, no matter how smart or rich we are.
Eventually, by the end of August, thanks to a client project on which Jean-Pierre and I were cogitating, a modest clarity emerged in the form of a Venn diagram.
Our work with teams and organizations had led us to a space in between three overlapping fields of consciousness:
- The field of culture that makes explicit mission, vision, values, expected behaviors, leadership models, structures, and practices – as well as gaps and underlying assumptions – hidden forces that ultimately drive behaviors and motivation. A field co-created by everyone’s energy, whether or not we want it.
- The field of Race Equity Inclusion and Diversity that makes explicit systemic and structural issues of marginalization and inequities in society, and their pervasive effects in organizations via taken-for-granted norms, practices, habits and biases. A field that invites everyone to bring their whole self to work and own their story/social identities with compassion. A field that helps us navigate dynamics of power and privilege, with humility and courage.
- The field of Ego and Leadership Development (our field) that makes explicit areas for growth and learning edges, and reveals our habitual patterns – shaped by our context, social identities, legacy and life circumstances- that keep us fixed in a scarcity mindset. A field that reveals both our inner strengths, deep aspirations, core purposes, and the unconscious drivers of our ego chasing the fantasy of being better than others/most-than-perfect and hiding any sign of being less than. A field where we develop our personal mastery in relationships to others, and the skills necessary to navigate an ever-changing world that needs all of us to show up.
We wanted to foster safe and sound learning environments where we could meet others in the middle and explore how to do the deep work of cultural transformation, internally and externally, together.
By the beginning of September, that was our point of departure.
Reflective question: If you read this long memorandum up to this point (thank you!), it’s probably because something resonated with your own process. How was your summer? What have you been chewing on? Brewing? Concocting? Have you found your own point of departure?