In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Leadership

The sun has its story

That no curtain can stop. Mark Nepo

Many years ago, so the story tells us, an archaeologist hired some Inca tribesmen to carry his many discoveries from an archaeological site deep in the mountains to the sea where a boat was waiting to take him home. The tribesmen were happy to carry the load and set off covering many miles of mountain territory each day. This went on for several days; each day the archaeologist was up early wanting to get to the boat as soon as possible and the tribesmen were happy to walk. After they had been moving for a week in this way a morning came when the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Nothing happened for three days. The tribesmen would not move, nor would they speak. Then, strangely, on the fourth day the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up their burdens and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story- a story behind the story I should say-of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something that afternoon; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive Boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was one of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.

Why is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles?  Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’

In a plenary session one would not know anything is wrong of course. We all learn as a consequence of modern life to hide certain things. We develop a public face in order to succeed and to get along and rightly so perhaps-it’s called socialisation and it has its proper place in the adaptation of the spirit to society and the culture in which the individual grows up. A central part of the work of leadership is to learn to manage the tension that inevitably exists between that public or ‘onstage’ self and what we could call our private truth- a view on things that is personal, the essence of who we are-what some call the souls voice. Sometimes we manage the tension well and sometimes not.

Typically in environments that are wary of emotional expression (the soul feels vividly) we learn to hide how we really feel and present a persona-call it the voice of the ego- that sends out a clear message that says ‘all is well’. High fives, joking around and an air of invulnerability shield and protect us from some other voice-the story behind the story- that is at once strangely distant and very close. If this condition persists we may become slowly closed to the quiet calling of our inner life or discover ways and means of numbing the inevitable suffering that comes when the gap gets too big for too long and we ignore the importuning of our innermost concerns. We can do that for years-perhaps until the children are estranged or we fall asleep at the wheel and the story changes and we wonder as the Talking Heads song goes-how did I get here?

As facilitators in the practice of leadership we talk about how it ‘feels’ to lead-such is the nature of any dialogue on the ‘inner work’ of leadership but in general what comes back from the circle, well intentioned as it is, is what people think about things. Feelings are uncomfortable; a problem in organisational life. The intelligence of feeling is valued less than the capacity for rational and objective thinking yet nothing is seen to be lost because of that, our perception is not thought to be diminished by an over reliance on logic. It’s easy enough to confuse a feeling for a thought of course but they are very different things. Perhaps it’s no surprise that what is denied in public spills out so frequently and with such force in private. Psychologically-given the level of denial- we could call it a shadow aspect of leadership. One wonders how and where else it spills out when unguarded. In the conversations I am involved in I know it comes out in the myriad forms of violence that the author Wayne Mueller describes in his reflections on the cost of a successful life;

A successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we do not take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.

The violence of modern life takes its toll in many ways it seems. Perhaps it was the recognition of a ‘safe space’, the chance to be honest for a moment, that provoked the sudden grief that poured out of the hearts of those men that afternoon, not broken open as a natural consequence of living fully but exhausted and shattered by years of ill treatment and neglect.

The shadow of VUCA

Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.

Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity.  The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development

The term discontinuous has superseded turbulent as an adjective to describe the deepening nature of constant change that organisations face. The edge of chaos, drawn from the science of chaos theory tells us that the dynamically charged space between the known and the unknown, between entropy and chaos, is where innovation, creativity and new possibility emerge as new patterns of life. Leaders are encouraged to adopt ways of knowing that are experimental, curious and able to hold paradox, to be unafraid of failure. The ability to navigate effectively in that space offers any executive a competitive advantage and we might make the assumption that it will be a pre-requisite for organisational survival in coming years within the existing paradigm within which business is presently conducted.

Whilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan call self-transforming mind, I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them. Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called individuation, is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.

When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul- when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’- the consequences are devastating. The fact that these consequences are largely hidden and denied makes the fact more dangerous and inhuman, not less so. The poet WB Yeats writes about the dialogue between self and soul.  The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect-if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence it’s a matter of sanity.

A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;

I’ve been watching stars

rely on the darkness they

resist. And fish struggle with

and against the current. And

hawks glide faster when their

wings don’t move.


Still I keep retelling what

happens till it comes out

the way I want.


We try so hard to be the

main character when it is

our point of view that

keeps us from the truth.


The sun has its story

that no curtain can stop.


It’s true. The only way beyond

the self is through it. The only

way to listen to what can never

be said is to quiet our need

to steer the plot.


When jarred by life, we might

unravel the story we tell ourselves

and discover the story we are in,

the one that keeps telling us.


I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms-that is to say-authentically.

Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’. In my estimation the people in the room with me a few weeks ago were committed, intelligent, courageous leaders actually marked out for advancement in the corporation they served-yet privately they were suffering; willing and able yes as any good soldier is, but ill equipped for the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual cost of VUCA life.

Leadership and Addiction

Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.  I learned that anyone could get caught in addiction and over the years have worked with people from every conceivable background.

The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.

It’s relatively easy to spot addiction to Crack cocaine and in some ways ‘easier’ to work with since its consequences can be so quickly and obviously destructive. Other addictions are sometimes more pernicious and hard to see. A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity-in its myriad forms- at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.

Intensity is of course both an appeal and a danger in the context of VUCA. VUCA if misunderstood will speak only to the classic hero myth; It’s easy enough for the psyche to repackage a thing and miss the point, as TS Eliot put it, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. VUCA is a call to adventure which is fine in itself but if not grounded by a mature perspective that includes a capacity for stillness, it will appeal only to the adolescent in us, the young warrior, because it is derived from and works with the language and intensity of warfare. VUCA tells us that we need to be alert, prepared, anticipating, evolving, aware and ready-all the time. In a world addicted to better, bigger, faster, what better than this?

The issue with VUCA is that it takes real depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It can be tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilisation that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.

Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviours are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviours ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.

The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure amongst other things is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul. Conditions that are inhospitable to the work of ‘soul making’ as the poet John Keats put it divide and diminish us in every conceivable way and bring about a particular quality of suffering that is life denying rather than life giving; shattering and isolating, more closely related to hopelessness, a quality writ large in the ennui, despair and loneliness so prevalent in western society today.

It is in the nature of a life that we suffer and indeed it is through our suffering, our passion, well met that we might be moved towards the greatest gift of fellow feeling that we call compassion, again deriving from the Latin meaning to suffer with. Compassion has to do with the heart as addiction does, but where the addict protects and shields the ego from the wounds of life, the compassionate person admits it all and recognises that we grow and become fully human precisely out of our heartbrokenness.

Finding Sanctuary for the soul

Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically if we follow the same linguistic root we discover a place that is deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary, taking time for retreat from the push and pull of the daily round, is essential to life; essential to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t.  It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for shelter and refuge, refreshment and renewal, solitude and companionship, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us. We know it in our lives both by its presence and its absence.

To deny the value and importance of sanctuary is to deny the depth of our experience and the conditions necessary for proper human formation. In times of change and transformation it is natural that our questions become more philosophical. We inquire of ourselves; about who we are, what are life is for, what matters, and in this way we create and re-create meaning. The work of becoming a mature human-there is no free pass to adulthood based on the number of years lived-includes this process of reflection and honours our need to make meaning of our experience as a central part of our development. It is a process that takes time and is connected to other practices of interiority such as contemplation and meditation, practices of being that balance the bias for action so prevalent in our society. To ask the ego created in earlier life to carry us through our total life experience in its entirety is naive and asks too much of a psychological system not designed for such work.

A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organisationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed, ignored or in some other way, waived aside. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’ to use the term ironically. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so. Nonetheless, this being the case, it falls into the hands of the executive leaders themselves to ensure that they include access to times of sanctuary as an integral part of their leadership practice and it is, I submit, the work and responsibility of executive development facilitators and establishments to ensure that such spaces are available and such practices encouraged. At the moment it seems to be something that happens only rarely but it can be developed and must be.

Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favoured by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.

If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work-James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’- and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary. Through this work we might if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and  trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honour that story and let it speak.

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2 Responses to In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Leadership

  1. Tom Coleman says:

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Elloa says:

    Nick, I stumbled upon this today in autumnal England, a year after you wrote it – and I want to thank you so much. Beautiful, soulful and just what I needed to read. And that Sting song that Tom shared in the comments is perfect.


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