A long read for you about leadership, liminal spaces and the wood between the worlds. Written earlier this month and sharing it in this space for you.
Space. We can do so much with it. Reshape it. Reinvent it. Explore it. Transform it.
This week, we were able to look up and witness a once-in-a-lifetime meeting in space. The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn coincided with the December solstice and our solar system’s two greatest worlds were the closest they’ve been to each other in 400 years.
There’s a story about space that stole my heart as a child - The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Standing tall in its pages is The Wood Between the Worlds, a space that connected different worlds yet was not connected to them. The thresholds to each world in this multiverse were pools of water beneath the trees and the two main characters, Digory and Polly, find themselves in this wood, faced with a choice of worlds to explore to find a cure for Digory’s ailing mother.
In these ember days of 2020, with the pandemic still raging, hope rising and falling in equal measures around the world, we too are in a space in between, approaching the threshold not just of a new year but a new era with an, as yet, indiscernible start date. Like Digory and Polly, we are faced with a choice of worlds and the choice we make could move justice, equity and humanity backwards or forwards.
The Wood Between the Worlds is a liminal space, which anthropologists describe as a threshold between two fixed states in a rite of passage or, by architects, as two spaces connecting threshold and transition. It’s a word from an old world, with Latin roots, but aptly describes our current state. Caught between pre-COVID and post-COVID times, this space creates a new leadership imperative, one that demands deeper understanding and empathy from our leaders in order to create an equitable, transformed space for us to move towards together.
This year, many hours have been spent online - itself a liminal space - discussing what’s now, what’s next and what shape it might take. Scenarios have been explored but still a clear vision of what’s possible - and what is equitable - is needed and that needs good leadership, good communication and good relationships.
As public relations professionals we too must understand this space if we are to help our leaders and society navigate onwards. Old models of leadership no longer fit our space-between-times so leadership styles must transition from the past to styles more suited to the unknown needs of our ultimate destination. We must interpret what this new space demands of us as leaders and the behaviours and actions necessary to help us adapt and ensure nobody is left behind.
Our purpose as public relations professionals is building and sustaining the relationships necessary to maintain a licence to operate. The relationship is at the heart of all we do with its components of trust, satisfaction, loyalty, commitment and mutuality, identified 20 years ago by academics Grunig and Hon. I add reputation to the mix because reputations can be the start or end point for any relationship. The relationship is supported by three other elements, communication, behaviour and understanding - think of the whole as an atom with the relationship the nucleus and the other elements in perpetual motion, essential for success.
Communication - oral, written, visual and experiential - are supported by behaviour, how we interact with our stakeholders, the actions that we take, our ethics and societal contribution along with understanding, the story that we develop, the knowledge we share.
In navigating this transitional space, human relationships must remain the central focus and we must advise our leaders against devolving to the tactical, creating the 'illusion that communication has taken place’. The tragic consequences that ensue when inadequate leadership is matched with poor communication have been thrown into sharp relief this year. We’ve also seen the benefits to society when leadership is itself led by compassion, empathy and service. When people’s health and well-being have been put before profit it has created unexpected and successful transformations yet such a leadership path would have met with criticism and distain in our pre-COVID world.
When Digory and Polly leap into their new world they encounter the Empress Jadis, a terrifying leader who shows them statues of former kings and queens of her world. The first rulers have gentle, kind faces but progressively, the leaders’ faces change, becoming increasingly terrible as they come to value the power they wield rather than the people they serve. All compassion and empathy has gone and only terror remains beneath a sick and dying sun.
Today, in our wood, we've moved from established forms of societal operation across the world towards something very different indeed. At this threshold, we have to decide which world we choose. We must recognise this transitional space and adjust the way we lead to accommodate the emotional, physical, and digital conjunctions people have to contend with as we move towards the next.
Transition has a time lag. Look to the turn of each century and you’ll discover a 15-to-20 year space, a wood between the world of years, a moment before transition truly begins. This year we've hit that change point head on.
The societal, political, economic and technological models that worked in the past won’t work in the future. Change is finite, and, although consistent, every change has a conclusion, while transformation never stops. Managers manage situations and keep things going but leaders guide people to the next phase, showing them hope and possibility. We must help people navigate ‘spaces within spaces’, the most obvious and difficult for many being online.
Physically and mentally the online environment changes the dynamic and authenticity of human communication and action. Reinterpreting the visual and oral communication tools we use online to something that transforms experiential communication and promotes the engagement and proximity we hope for as humans may well be a good starting point given it is our primary transitional tool in an age of isolation.
The new leadership imperative is the navigation of this space. Leading through uncertainty, communicating compassionately the possibility and vision of the next space, guiding the learning we need for tomorrow and evolving the skills we need. In this space where things are not as they were but not yet as they might be, we must be creative and brave. It may need a leap of faith, a courageous step into the unknown but there is, out of tragedy, an opportunity to shape the next space – and shape it well.
Reflecting on storytelling after uploading the Words that Work session, I found myself pondering current progress in algorithmic storytelling. A week ago, the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College announced the winners of the 2017 Turing Tests in the Creative Arts - a prize given to those able to produce a story by algorithm, indistinguishable from the average human writer.
We've been telling each other stories since the beginning of time and the structure of our stories remains pretty much the same. Probably the most documented structure is the 'Hero's Journey', credited to Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The core structure is simple - the hero goes on a journey, encounters crisis, overcomes crisis, is victorious and emerges transformed. It's a structure embellished and central to myths and legends for millennia but it is by no means the only one. Rags-to-riches comes to mind (think Cinderella) who also fits the more complex form of rags-to-riches-to-rags-then-riches-again.
As humans, we enjoy - and remember - stories that challenges us, deepen understanding, change our perspective, entertain, amuse and many other things besides. So it's fascinating to examine the stories, sonnets and music created by this year's algorithms as we tip-tap our way towards total automation of writing (take a look at Wordsmith). The DigiLit 2017 prize encouraged the creation of algorithms able to produce 'human-level' short story writing indistinguishable from an 'average' human effort. Poetry was also in the running and I would urge you to read the prize winners in each category and spare a moment for the winner of the 'Human-Written Sonnet Most Mistaken for a Machine-generated Sonnet' category.
Increasingly, algorithms are charged with gathering information and producing stories about our organisations. Compare story types used most frequently by organisations - news, chronicle, history and report - with the types employees use when they tell stories about their organisations. Their stories are found in the more appealing forms of anecdote, rumour, hearsay, gossip and jokes. I'd suggest that depending on the available data fed to our new algorithmic friends, there will be few organisations basking in the warm, comforting glow that results from a successful hero's journey.
When digging for stories for our organisations, I always urge colleagues and delegates to look beyond entrenched or traditional stock narratives broadcast on behalf of their organisations and search instead for the heroic exploits happening right under their noses. In this century, in this decade, if we want to be allowed to continue as organisational storytellers we must drive ourselves beyond 'average' human effort.
Every organisation has heroes - and villains. Indeed your organisation could well be the villain, given that for every story, there is an anti-story. As you dig you'll discover there are monsters to fight, obstacles to overcome and always an epiphany of sorts, even if it is ignored.
The stories we tell today will be the fodder for algorithmic storytelling tomorrow. Algorithms will scoop up and spit out all we have uttered, in word, on the web, in print and on video. So do we understand our own story? Why must we tell it? And who needs to hear? How does our story structure help our communities understand who we are, what we do and why we do it? And are we telling that story in such a way that it will be remembered, relevant and useful to those who listen?
My challenge to you would be to revisit your organisation's story arc or find a structure that resonates with those who will listen, read or watch your story unfold. At the very least, build a 'who-what-where' structure.
So will an AI sonnet smell as sweet as one gently coaxed into delicate form by a human? Probably. And scarily, when it comes to organisational reputation, AI-led storytelling is likely to cause quite the stink.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.