After almost 18 years with one organization—all of them as an executive—my season ended differently than I had expected. Nothing had quite prepared me for the next chapter in my life, and certainly, there was nothing as confronting as a sense of having lost my identity and sense of significance. For nearly 20 years, my identity and reputation revolved around my role and effectiveness as a leader. What now?
Some see their transition experience as important but not necessarily much more. Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, describes this attitude in his epic work, A Secular Age (Harvard University), as “the Middle Condition”,” where –
“We have found a way to escape the forms of negation, exile, emptiness, without having reached fullness. We come to terms with the middle position, often through some stable, even routine order in life, in which we are doing things which have some meaning for us.”[i]
I believe Taylor would argue, that leaders who are unable to process and learn from periods of isolation, mistakenly avoid attaching a greater purpose or sense of meaning to what they are going through. While they may indeed move on, they do so in a less fulfilled way. They fall short of the potential that can be released.
Put another way, Taylor suggests that the inability to rise above and beyond “the Middle Condition” prevents a person from experiencing what he describes as “higher times” or the capacity to gather, assemble, reorder and punctuate the day-to-day mundane, profane ordinary times with something greater.
This brings us to the work of Shelley Trebesch, Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Like Taylor, in her book, Isolation – A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, Trebesch encourages leaders going through a period of voluntary or involuntary isolation to process more deeply what could be happening, and what is necessary before what comes next.[ii]
Whether you prescribe to her Christian worldview or not, Trebesch offers some interesting insights, from which I will highlight two.
First, she addresses the process of “stripping” away an identity that a leader has become reliant on, or where certain dependencies are present that may hinder growth in other areas. In essence this is where leaders may operate merely out of their strengths ignoring the negative impacts caused by existing areas of weakness. Although Trebesch places a spiritual value to this, it is relevant in all aspects of a leader’s life.
Second, Trebesch highlights the importance of being in an uncomfortable position or a place of weakness where a leader is released to look to the future with a different lens – a more meaningful and longer-term perspective. While the temptation may exist for a leader to try and get out of this awkward place as quickly as possible, Trebesch argues that to do so interrupts the transformational process and reinforces an unhealthy self-centred reliance that is sometimes the cause of the leader being in an involuntary period of isolation in the first place.
What’s the bottom-line?
I’m reminded of the words Marshall Goldsmith uses as the title of one of his books, “What Got You Here Will Not Get You There“.[iii] In other words, what made you a successful leader and helped you to get where you are now is not necessarily what you need to achieve what you want to. As Richard Rohr says, “the old agenda shows itself to be insufficient, or even falls apart.”[iv] Below are some helpful things to reflect on:
- Embark on an honest time of reflection as to how you came to experience this period of voluntary or involuntary isolation – don’t avoid what might have caused it.
- Find a mentor or coach who can help you maintain a balanced perspective and reduce the risk of becoming too self-critical and judgmental of others who may have contributed to your time of isolation.
- Take on the challenge of journaling throughout the season identifying the key things you have learned, progress that has been made, and questions that still need to be answered.
Finally, and there is much more that can be written on this topic of transition, and that is, rather than run from periods of isolation, embrace it instead, and realize that there is the need to think and behave differently during this uncomfortable season.
[i] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 54.
[ii] Shelley Trebesch, Isolation – A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader (Altadena, California: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), vii.
[iii] Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Will Not Get You There (New York: Hyperion Books), 2007.
[iv] Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 24.