In Co-Active Leadership, two of our key concepts are the relational space and the Leader Beside. Both of these relate to the broader field of co-creation.
The relational space is that psychic zone where you are in partnership with another; where you are exchanging synergistic energy that drives co-creation (rather than just individual creation). The Leader Beside is the manifestation of the leader when called to work in tandem with others, in an authentic partnership where the inner-play of leading and following intermingles.
When you enter a Co-Active space, one of the things you discover is that the world is filled with opportunities to see wisdom manifest itself. For example: salsa dancing.
Many years ago, I was challenged by some close friends to take up salsa dancing. None of us had any experience with ballroom dancing before.
We walked into our first class, with this nervous bravado, grinning and acting cool as we nodded to the other students in the room, trying to hide the fear that we would make complete fools of ourselves.
There were close to 20 students, evenly divided between men and women. Shallowly, I started to assess the level of competency of each person, purely by appearance. “Who would I feel safe with to make a complete fool of myself?”
Our teacher called us in to form two straight lines — the men on one side and the women on the other, everyone rubbing their sweaty palms on their pant legs while avoiding eye contact with the strange person standing directly in front of them.
As our teacher called out, “5, 6, 7, 8!!,” she started to demonstrate the basic footwork and simple turns without music. With eyes wide open, we all did our best to mimic what she was doing, while counting to eight in our heads.
After a few minutes of dead air, shoes squeaking on the floor, robotic moves, and swearing under our collective breath, the teacher turned on a salsa tune for us to practice to.
A half hour into the class she commanded, “Take a partner! AND… 5, 6, 7, 8!!” We stopped in fright, as things got real. It was like prom all over again as we shyly shuffled about looking for that brave soul who would become our first partner.
You couldn’t hear the music above the stomping of feet, people counting to eight aloud, and the flood of apologies for injured toes, sweaty hands, and the many failed attempts.
After a few classes had passed, our teacher was confused.
Individually, we were grasping the basics really well. But when paired together, we looked more like people at war than people doing a sensual Latin dance.
Out of a creative impulse, she decided to blindfold the women and counted, “5, 6, 7, 8!!” All of a sudden, we were dancing salsa!!
What she saw in our collective inability to dance in pairs was two people not dancing but rather competing for control, not trusting in each other and blaming each other for making mistakes. Though we were technically dancing, it looked and felt constrained, rigid, and cold. The blindfold brought us into awareness of the relational space we shared.
The men realized their role was more than just leading in the authoritarian way. They had to be led by the creative expression of their partner while keeping them safe and balanced. The women realized they could let go of a rigid idea of “being led” and understood that to be good at salsa required trusting their partners to hold space for them so they too could be more self-expressed and confident.
And the physical contact in how we held each other created the alignment that was needed for the relationship — though temporary — to have purpose, form, and grace.
Both the men and women learned at that moment that salsa was a fluid, creative exchange of leading and following for the sake of the dance. And both had to choose to be in the dance for it to work.
I share this story to highlight how we are always sharing a relational space, whether it be at work with your team or peers, at home with your family, or with friends and the community at large. And we spend most of our time unconscious of the spaces we occupy and likewise unaware of what we contribute or put into these spaces.
When we operate purely from an “I” or “me” center, life is transactional, limited, lifeless, and frustrating. We coexist as partners, only in it for “what’s in it for me.” And with that we contribute just enough, never really being our full self. While we may get a lot done from this place, we can feel very isolated and long for deeper connection and greater self-expression.
The I-centered approach cuts us off from the current of life that is abundantly creative and synergistic, and that is available only when we recognize the relational spaces we share with others and the whole.
Leaders are responsible for their world. And that includes consciously attending to the relational spaces we share with each other and the whole, for the benefit of all.
In Co-Active Leadership, we call this the Leader Beside. We recognize how we’re always occupying a relational space. And this space contains a constant exchange of creative and synergistic energy that enables us to create from each other rather than to each other.
We continually accept ourselves and each other as unique bundles of capabilities, experiences, perspectives, needs, and desires. We’re aligned in purpose and direction. We’re free to agree and disagree. We have the courage to be vulnerable and be held to account. And we’re willing to take greater risks because we know there’s enough trust in the space to weather any setback.
As with salsa dancing, the movement in Leader Beside can be a graceful exchange of leading and following for the sole purpose of the dance.
Imagine the possibilities when we recognize the relational space we occupy with our teams. It is then, as the Leader Beside, we move freely between leading and following, in the exchange of synergistic energy that drives co-creation. And from this place we see how the world is filled with opportunities to see wisdom unfold.
What’s the most interesting setting in which you’ve seen the Leader Beside dynamic manifest, out in the world? What colorful, unique places have you witnessed co-creation come to life? Let me know in the comments!