Liminal Leadership

The case for spiritual work in leadership

“Somewhere between right and wrong, there is a place. I will meet you there”

You’ve heard it, right? Or maybe you’ve felt it.

There’s some version of the lament “I’m not sure what’s happening to the world” being repeated in my circle of friends and family. I am hearing it more in a professional context as well.

I’m grappling with this, wondering if it’s the curse of each generation to think that everything is going to hell, and nothing has ever been as bad as it is now.

I am sure our forebears said the same thing in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, and certainly they must have been in disbelief after the horrors of the concentration camps were revealed. As a child of the 1970s and 80s I remember the sense of existential threat “The Bomb” generated, the tension of the Cold War was ever-present.
Perhaps there’s a simple truth in Charles Dickens’ opening lines in a Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Whatever our perspective, it is hard not to see the evidence of rapid change, and even decline, in some parts of our world.

We have emerged from a pandemic where we were quite literally confronted with death on a huge scale. While we have mostly brushed ourselves off and returned to “normal”, there are some lasting effects. We’ve been left with questions about the nature of work, our understanding of wellbeing, the role of the state in our lives and how authority should be exercised.

Added to this is the frightening pace at which AI is developing, leading us to question what it means to be human, alive and agentic. Much of what we call “friendship” takes place virtually, with the average person using social media for 2 hours and 20 minutes per day.

Schools are the places where much of this is playing out. It’s natural that we are asking questions about what our learners need, yet we have to be honest and say that we are sometimes stranded between two worlds: the world our students (and young staff members) inhabit, and the reality of the industrial schooling model. To be clear, I’m not demonizing one or the other, each has limitations as well as gifts. Many lives have been changed by the system we have right now, and will continue to be so. And of course, many will continue to “not fit” in our current model, with consequences that should be considered unacceptable in a society as wealthy as ours.

So, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we, as leaders, navigate this present moment? I can only speak for myself as one who leads in a school and a tradition which I find nourishing and challenging at the same time. I can speak as a person who is trying to remain open to new ideas while also respecting the wisdom of previous generations. This space, I learned, was called ‘liminal leadership’.

Liminality is “the simultaneous presence of the changed and the unchanged, the familiar and the unfamiliar”. I came across this conception of leadership at the Sisters of the Good Samaritan Chapter in 2023 and have been ruminating on it since. Liminality emerged in anthropology and was used in that discipline to describe the space between transitions, marked in many cultures with rites of passage. For example, in the transition from childhood to adulthood there is a space between where we exhibit the characteristics of both the child and the adult.

There is also liminality in systems, as presented in the Two Loop theory of change. In this theory, there are old ways and new ways present at the same time; the role of the leader is in the gap. It appears to me that as leaders in education right now, we have to become masters of “minding the gap”. We must have a foot in the old/current system, remaining respectful of its practitioners and alert to its strengths. Yet we must also be open enough to allow a new way of doing things to come to birth.

In a 2019 paper Shaw, Lim and Jeong posited that liminal leadership has four aspects: it takes adaptability to context and place, requires direction to be provided (a vision) and relationships to be built. A fourth dimension was included – liminal leaders must be capable of self-reflexivity. I take this to mean the capacity and willingness to reflect deeply and authentically on one’s attitudes, biases, behaviours and motivations.

This sounds like the place Rumi talks about in “A Great Wagon”. In this poem the “the world is full of ideas” and we must find a space for our souls to rest. He tells us that “people are going back and forth… where the two worlds touch”. This is our leadership space.

This is a space we inhabit everyday as leaders; it is a spiritual space and takes work. Are we prepared for it?