Collective Intelligence

Liminal Leadership

We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense, and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways, we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the ‘common sense’ of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom.” ~ Gregory Bateson

Reason has become unreasonable. Things are changing and the reasonable path of maintaining life as it is today may well be one of short sightedness and destruction. A new frame of reason is needed.

This is an unreasonable article. I am becoming less fixed on presenting a rational strategy, despite accusations of idealism.

The future is coming too fast and shimmers with patterns that are, for now, still invisible. Going forward, who knows what will happen. People are nervous. Consequently, leadership as a topic is popping up everywhere. I am not certain that ‘leading’ is the best metaphor for what is needed now. But for lack of another symbol, let’s continue with it.

Inter-Systemic Change

Whatever leadership used to be—it used to be. Now, it has to be something different. Now, we all have to be more than we were.

Leadership models come in many flavors. Strategic leadership, leadership from behind, organizational, innovative, creative leadership, collective leadership, transformational leadership, cross-cultural leadership, team leadership—the list goes on. But the kind of leadership that I want to explore may not be identifiable as leadership at all. I am interested in a kind of mutually alert care and attention to the wellbeing of all people and ecological systems. This kind of leadership cannot be found in individuals; rather, it is found between them. It cannot be found in organizations, nations, religions, or institutions; rather, it is found between them. I have called it Liminal Leadership to highlight these relational characteristics.

Inter-systemic change is at hand. More than change and more than system change, the interdependency between systems of economy, health, politics, ecology, and communication is where the change lies. This is a murky territory of alive in-betweenness. The interdependency we are discussing should not be thought of as a part that can be replaced in an engine. It is elusively not in the economy or the education system; it is not in politics or the health system; it is not in the media or even the culture. It is in the way in which these aspects of our world are steeped together in a slow-cooked stew. The ingredients of the socioeconomic stew cannot now be pulled out, but the chemistry can be tended.

We, as citizens, as human beings, cannot point to these institutions as ‘them’—there is no them. All of these contexts of society (and more) are in a kind of ecology of interdependency, pattern, and relationship. You and me, we are simultaneously in the systems and occupying the position of observer or change-maker. We cannot get out.

But we are also within another ecology: the ecology of the biosphere. The difficulty is that the ecology of our institutions does not support the larger ecology of the Earth’s systems, nor does it support the patterns of natural process in complex living organisms. Most of humanity, with the exception of a few remaining peoples who live deep in the natural wilderness, live in the middle, in the liminal space, needing both ecologies to survive. Needs—like to breathe, eat, love, and make community—are arguably impossible to change, whereas rethinking the structure of society is merely extremely difficult. Keep in mind that the ‘reality’ of these socioeconomic systems is a human construct; the deer and the sea algae do not buy food. As our systems begin to fray in this unraveling time, reorganization is necessary. Who will lead the way?

Who are the experts at being in the liminal space? Who are the professionals who know this territory in which each day is touched with health, economy, media, politics, education, and the Earth… who? Of course, the answer is all of us.

Vignette 1: When I moved to Stockholm, Sweden, I spent my days on the arm of my best friend. He took me everywhere. This city was his city; his body was extended into it. So, I never paid any attention to where we were going. I leaned into his knowing and merrily went wherever we went. Alone, I fumbled with maps and place names I could not say. The effort was not merry, and the results were patchy. I travel constantly and I don’t have this issue in other cities. I deferred my sense-making of the city, for plenty of good reasons, but in doing so, I habituated a lack of attention to the landscape. Likewise, leadership has been located inside ‘things’ —organizations, nations, departments, ministries, authorities—and people have leaned into that leadership. Leaning into the liminal is unfamiliar.

Noticing Holdover Ideas of Collaboration and Competition

I recognize that it is believed that great leaders have brought us to this point in history. I am willing to acknowledge that perhaps during the previous phases of human and societal evolution the notion of leader was necessary. But now, to meet the complexity ahead and to make the evolutionary jump to co-existence, I think we need something different. Leadership has an ugly side. The image contains hubris and the bloodshed of the colonial conquerors. It is laced with competition, ambition, dominance, and arrogance.

The notion of leadership pulls the focus to individuals and away from the contextual conditions that made them. Is the tree tall because it grew more cleverly than the other trees? Or is it because the soil, light, water, and biodiversity of that particular acorn was nourished to provide the conditions for thriving trees? It is precisely this contextual relational process that the future depends upon.

I was sent an entry for a contest to win a prize of several million dollars awarded to the person that provided the winning project for developing social collaboration. The irony was too much. Competing for ideas on collaboration is a perfect illustration of why so much change-making today is riddled with toxic fumes of the last century’s hero-envy. The rush-for-the-gold and step-over-the-next-guy approach is the thinking that got us into this mess. Surely, it won’t get us out. This sort of contest will divide people who could be working together. They will need to keep secrets about their work, lest their ideas be stolen; they will claim credit instead of giving it. The hunger for the keynote gig, the best seller, the viral meme about how to save the world is better suited for Wall Street than for change-makers. Watch out. The future lies in the capacity to understand and respond to interdependency. When you see collaboration with a promise of fame or awards, you are seeing lingering ideologies of capitalism.

The change-making ideas that hold onto the realism of the last century bring the baggage of mechanistic thinking, capitalistic exploitation, and dog-eat-dog aspirations with them. It is hard to see at first how these holdover poisons sneak in, but they do. In the form of a boxful of visions for new economies there is still the issue of how to produce wealth without exploitation. In the greening of consumer goods there is still the need to fuel the furnace of desire to buy more stuff. Integrity is being reduced to a market value, and making sense and finding meaning will soon be for sale.

Collaboration is an idea that is unconsciously attached to the mechanistic world in which many parts are assembled to create function. But in living systems, collaboration is much more than each doing their part. Collaboration is the readiness to show up and do what needs to be done, in improvisation and mutual learning.

In the liminal realm, our conditions are co-generated, which is an important qualitative shift of interaction that translates roughly into this: idealists are more needed than assholes.

Give Credit; Work Together; Learn Together Across Fields, Across Generations, Across Cultures, Across Species

Complexity and interdependency are messy. The relational processes that are at work are in motion—always calibrating, changing, and compensating. In between the hours, in between the phases of evolution, in between being professionals and parents and lovers, friends and patients and citizens, activists and athletes—in the liminal land of being alive together in this incoherent moment, there is mutual learning. Between us is the genesis of ability to perceive and respond to the complexity of this time.

I will meet you there. In the liminal plaza of our shared future.

I know how misty that may sound.

The tone of skepticism that sterilizes the complexity of the way things are is toxic to the vulnerable of visionary seedlings. When new ideas appear, their inventors often get their heads chopped off, even though leadership is supposed to be about discovery. It is about doing new things, in new ways. If, and it is a big ‘if,’ humanity learns to live in a new way, I believe we will do so by learning together. This will not be because a hot-shot author has a new best-selling book on change-making, or a viral meme, or a super TED talk.

Our liminal leadership will be as people together in a struggling biosphere—just you and me and the other 7 billion mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. We will not lead on behalf of a company or a nation, not on behalf of a religion or a belief system. We will hold each other through the storms of economic volatility, ecological turmoil, and political insanity. There will be trauma, pain, and loss through which our solace during this transformation will be nothing less than the creative expression of tenderness. Healing together is learning together is leading together. Together includes the human and non-human world.


So many lines have been drawn between clusters of people now that it is difficult to keep track. They are overlapping in a chaotic mess of loyalties; the confusion is profound. Witnessing this moment is gruesomely fascinating. Separating one group from another is a bad habit that, once started, can go on forever with generations of damage in its wake.

People can always point their fingers at another race, another generation, another class, another level of education, another religion, another profession, another gender, another health condition, another nationality, another political party, another lifestyle, another philosophy, another body type, another culture, another language, another blood type. And the list can go on and on.

It seems to me that as the illusions of our system crumble, each grouping of ideologies is ossifying in their own particular frequency and becoming less able to hear the others. The sense-making apparatus of our culture is losing its grip. The lines are moving. It is as though the gladiators of opposing belief systems are twisting their necks. Disoriented, these warriors are not sure anymore which polarity is which and where the binaries are. The fabric of left and right political parties is wearing thin and the gap between wealthy and poor is growing wider. While it is terrifying to see the humiliation between groups, the fact of so much rapid change in the system is perhaps a sign that movement has begun. But in which direction?

History tells us what humanity is capable of, but only in part. There is more to find out about who the two-leggeds are. We have not come to the end of the story? (Or have we?) Are human beings naturally aggressive and greedy? Are you willing to naturalize those behaviors and cast them in the concrete of our future? I am not.

I am not sure what humanity has hidden in our inner wilderness. I am willing to hold the door open because the alternative is just too dark. But short of a fundamental reorganizing of embedded assumptions of life and being alive, humanity may not make it. So, are we ready?

The Future Can See You Naked

Most of what matters now won’t matter later. Coming generations will shake their heads at the sacrifices their ancestors made for material wealth. They will not care how much prestige you gathered, how many bitcoins you bought, who considered you famous, or even what widget or vaccination you invented. If humanity makes it to the next level in the evolutionary game, it will be through recognition of our interdependency to each other and to the organisms of our biosphere.

If you consider this moment from the vantage of 30 years from now, there is nothing to hide behind. The excuses of dutifully perpetuating this destruction from one day to the next won’t hold water, literally. Remember the Nazis at Nuremberg who said, “I was just doing my job.”

Advocating for the delicate ecologies of life and humanity is both an active and a contemplative practice. Protection goes meta. Protection of me becomes protection of you, and protection of us includes protection of the ecology in which we both breathe. This interdependency is what gives every living system its vitality. It is the most ubiquitous experience of every living organism. And yet, it is not mentioned in the UN or the constitution. It does not have a Wikipedia page. It remains, it obtains, and it continues, regardless of not being recognized. The interdepending keeps interdepending just out of our hearing range, just out of our color spectra, just beyond the horizon of our logic.

The Sensorial Potential of Humanity is Largely Unfound

Is it possible to see what we have not seen before? To say what we have not said before? To love those we have not loved before? To think what we have not thought before? To live in ways we have not lived before?

Look backwards into history and you will see what people thought they saw and how they thought about what they saw. But, looking forward into the coming decades, perception and sense-making are wide open—unless they are already slammed shut. Numbness is dangerous now.

Authorization will not be granted to enter new realms of sensorial experience and description. No one will validate; no one can substantiate or accreditate that which has yet to be perceived. To show up now is to show up with one’s whole self, body, intellect, emotion, finance, career, family—and to show up ready to learn. The issues in this historic time are complex, and it takes complexity to perceive complexity.

Fresh skin
feels different sensations
With incoherent language new sentences arrive
on unfound tenderness
breaking the membrane of numbness.


Three Things to Remember About Responding to Interdependency

  1. Wicked problems require inter-systemic change—not siloed solutions.
  2. Taking action before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy.
  3. Perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing sensitivity is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.

Are we ready? We better be, because increasing sensitivity is an opening to also feeling the pain of so much exploitation. That pain is asking a question: can I bear the tenderness that real systems change requires?

Years, decades, and more than a century have passed in which brilliant minds with breaking hearts have tried to create change in the institutions that frame our lives. They tried incrementally changing the system from within. They tried using the legal system to change the laws. They tried becoming politicians, teachers, doctors… but the institutions did not budge. The multifaceted crises the world faces today are proof enough that the establishment is not built to question itself. The pillars of civilization are pinned under the stone slab of the last several centuries of assumptions. Pillars of politics and money, of education and medicine, of psychology and religion. Structure is hard, and hard to change. The institutions have no water in their edges, no improvisation in their memory.

Vignette 2: My grandfather, William Bateson, gave up on what he referred to as ‘the establishment’ in about 1908. He coined the term ‘genetics,’ then watched in horror as his work was taken by the science community to prove eugenics, and then as the scientific work was taken by the politicians toward creating platforms of exclusion based on race, and then by the journalists who used the politics and the science as propaganda, and by the academy to facilitate the ambition of eager department heads. He would have none of any of it. I am still catching up. I have been quicker than most and slower than I should be to really, fully, completely admit that “there is no there there.” I wanted to think that there was a possibility of incremental change, even a little, and that democracy, even though it is not perfect, would be able to improve with the hard work and sparkling minds that have walked through the past decades. However, increasingly, I am seeing that a refocus is needed. The institutions are bound to their continuance, bound to each other, and bound to crumble.

There is No Glory or Profit Whatsoever in Liminal Leadership

Vignette 3: Being a parent is sometimes dangerously close to playing God with someone else’s life. I was afraid to send my son to a professional acting school when he was 15. He was a good student on a path to a good university. I asked his acting teacher if he thought it would curse my son’s life to send him to study a skill that would likely land him a lifetime of waiting tables, and his reply was this: “If your son wants to go to acting school, don’t send him. If he will die if he doesn’t act, send him.”

Anyone who wants to help usher in a new way of living that honors the wellbeing of all people and the other organisms had better be willing to risk everything to get there. It will take nothing less.

There is nowhere to hide. Embracing complexity requires the integrity of having gone through the dark night and knowing that while you may not have a plan to face the confusion, you will show up completely. And you will do so as the best ‘you’ that you have ever been.

I don’t know about us. Are we ready to risk everything? What would you do for someone you did not know, for a forest you’ve never entered, for a future you won’t be here for? Would you re-evaluate the ownership of your stuff? Would you let go of your position? Would you show up nameless, penniless, and invisible to the collective and offer your bare hands? Would you be willing to find dignity and joy in the care of others who may not at first be kind to you? Will you prepare for the crises ahead by building a bunker full of everything you might need, or will you prepare by readying yourself to help others in need? Do you need to wait until there is an emergency to be activated? Or is now okay?

Can you walk in your integrity? And can you help pull the broken glass from the souls of the idealists who kept the door open?

The past is our definition. We may strive with good reason to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it. But we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
~Wendell Berry