Is it possible to balance joy and fear in leadership?

A few weeks ago I was reading an article in The Sunday Times (London) by Sean Langan (Home Sweet Hell, June 8, 2014). He was writing about his experience of being held captive by the Taliban. He was tortured, regularly suffered fever and dysentery and lived with the threat of execution for three years.

What caught my attention in this article is best explained in Sean’s own words:

“…for the first time in my life I knew – really new- what it is to live in fear. But the strange thing is that I felt genuinely happy inside that dark room.

The happiness I felt during my time in my captivity – was closer to a spiritual awakening. Living in fear of my life I became acutely sensitive to other people’s suffering, but also to the exquisite joy in life.”

Sean’s insightful reflection on his horrific experience sparked an insight for me about systemic facilitation, a much less daunting position.

In order to have balance in a system, i.e., an organizational system, it is natural that joy and fear should co-exist. To make a far less extreme comparison, when a systemic leader or facilitator is willing to hold the space of ‘not knowing’ in a group, then the system will create balance by the group being able to ‘know’. This systemic lens can be used to look at an organisational level, as well as the group level.

Many leaders and facilitators take on that role precisely so they can ‘hold’ knowledge and ‘hold’ group process. And while they may be good at that, it is also a powerful skill and ability to ‘not know’, either intentionally to allow process to happen or to realize that, indeed, one does not know. The honesty about what we know or don’t know creates energy in the group or organization, which ends up supporting stronger leadership and more agile facilitation. Recognising that the group has experiential and thoughtful knowledge, and facilitating the flow of it, creates stronger commitments and implementation.