The Parable of the Spider & Polarization

Is 10:30 a.m. too soon to be eating chocolate?

I burst out laughing as I read this text from a friend yesterday. Our new normal continues and it hardly feerls normal, whether outdoors, indoors or within.

Outside spring is unfurling her magnificent new life and invites our reflection: What is new, emerging, strange, struggling and perhaps beautiful that I am welcoming into my life?

This practice applies to our business world as well. It requires a mindset to greet our uncomfortable differences with the same graciousness that we welcome guests to our table.

This wasn't easy pre-COVID-19 and now it\'s even more challenging.

Social anthropologist, Timothy Clark, and author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, unfolds a practical process to guide leaders, managers and their teams straight into strangeness with low social friction and high intellectual friction that is the culture of psychological safety.

His challenge is significant:

Leaders must be comfortable portraying themselves as competent through their ability to learn and adapt rather than their expertise.....leaders must model a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien to most traditional concepts of leadership. Ironically, leaders are being challenged to develop confidence in the very act of not knowing. They must be submissive to the fact that they will pass through periods of temporary incompetence as they move through learning cycles. pp. 60-61

Temporary Incompetence

Submissive? Incompetent? Not knowing? Well, welcome vulnerability! And this, I believe, is our collective calling and reality in the COVID-19 crisis.

We are challenged to open up and welcome the Stranger – the fear, discomfort, awkwardness, irritability and yes, panic. We’re asked to live it, learn it, and lead from vulnerability as never before.

Of Course, There Are Easier Options

Paternalism is an easier option where we ensure our position of control while everyone else obediently and passively obeys. This is perhaps an effective short-term gain but hardly the solution for long-term and innovative success.

Polarization is another option, writes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, in her new book Welcoming the Unwelcome. She observes that with polarization we safely distance ourselves from uncomfortable ambiguity and sort people, places, things and ideas into two boxes: Us and Them.

Polarization will certainly keep vulnerability at bay, but it will also push the Stranger farther and farther away. And that’s a slippery slope as we unconsciously disregard and eventually dehumanize others.

Just Like Me

To shift our consciousness from other to us, from Stranger to a curious welcome, Pema recommends an exercise called: Just Like Me.

She recommends going to a public place. (Okay, that won’t happen, but how about practicing with a political leader pushing all your buttons? Or an aggravating family member, friend or colleague?)

Look at them and think: They’re just like me. They feel pain, just like me. They want to be included. They’re scared and feeling out of control. They lose it and say stupid things. Just like me.

This practice shifts our fear of Stranger to a practice of empathy and interconnectedness.
Again, and obviously, this is not easy.

The Parable of the Spider and Polarization

Pema continues with what I call the parable of the spider and polarization.

She writes that instead of flushing a spider down the shower spout (me), why not take a piece of tissue to help the “little fella out” and move him to safety?

Now I’m not afraid of bears or snakes, mice, worms or wiggly things – but I AM afraid of spiders. It has nothing to do with spiders (of course), but rather where I put my teenage anxiety when things were way beyond my control.

So, last night, I got into the bathtub for a soak, and what do you think I saw? A spider, the first one since last summer. It wasn’t black, thank God. And it was in the corner of the bathroom, pretty far away from me.

Well, isn’t that a coincidence, I thought, having just read Pema. How funny would it be if the spider moved nearer to me? (Please NO!)

And then seconds later – BOOM – the “little fella” had booked to the middle of the bathroom ceiling and dropped precipitously down, dangling dangerously close to my nose and trapping me in the tub. I waited and watched, fixated, as it slowly, slowly, then swiftly, made its way back up the invisible thread.

Then I bolted out of the bathroom.

About 10 minutes later, I needed to brush my teeth and spotted it on the far wall. Phew, I thought. I’m safe. But honest to God, it immediately made a beeline toward me, traversing laterally on the opposite wall. I swear it seemed like that “little fella” just wanted to get close to me.

What Opportunity Awaits You?

We’re quarantined with ourselves in so many new ways now. Your fears, my fears, our collective fears and our unpredictable behaviors under stress.

So what’s dangling in front of your face right now? What’s begging to be invited just a little closer as you lead with vulnerability in the unknown?

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