Belonging : the Art of Transformation

“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Brene Brown

I love the idea of transformation being coined as an ‘art’ because this is exactly what it is: a complex, multi-layered process that requires creativity, skill, and self-mastery. For me, these three topics are fundamental to mastering both personal and collective growth.

The official definition of something being an art is ‘something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings’. We are all intricate and complex works of art. In the transformation process, the first step is dark, hard, and scary – but that’s where the magic lies as we step into something lighter, imaginative, creative, and more fulfilling, like trying on a new t-shirt that fits us perfectly, feels right and looks good. It is rare for me to put on a new piece of clothing and immediately love the look and feel of it, and changing habits is no different!

‘The art of’ basically means ‘the skill of’, i.e. there’s great skill in doing something. Like a game of Jenga, it takes patience, courage, enthusiasm and practice! I like to say that ‘practice makes progress’, to get away from the obsessive idea of perfection. I remember when I was learning to play the cello, going through painstaking hours of practice (my poor parents!) and often I would get so frustrated that I would have to get up and physically move away from the cello as I understood that my emotions had got the better of me and that it was a process – a practice. I concluded that impatience can yield some great results, but not while trying to play musical scales as accurately as possible! But for a long time, this stunted my progress and led to critical and harsh internal narratives about my ability to play the cello.

I speak about the above as if it were something I have solved, but I have merely got better at focus, practice and mastering my reaction to not being able to achieve excellence as fast I would like to! I have also shifted my focus from me to we, so that my goal is to make sure that the symphony is harmonious and I make the best contribution I can to it.

But my reactions in this anecdote also represent the start of a transformation journey – a personal story of self-discovery, growth, dissatisfaction, acceptance and pride. I liken this experience to intentionally designing for inclusion in organisations, and delving into your own story of belonging. Belonging is the foundation of innovation, performance, well-being, and business productivity also. I engage regularly with leaders around the world on this topic, and what I love is that it is never the same conversation, even though it is the same subject matter. When discussing innovation, creativity and diversity, we often underline the differences – different ideas, different perspectives, etc. – but the starting point is more holistic than that:  it is the famous kaleidoscope view, connecting the dots.

Belonging is a fundamental human need, deeply ingrained within our psyche. It encompasses more than just being a part of a group or community; it reflects a profound sense of connection, acceptance, and identity with regard to ourselves.

The art of personal growth

It is not all about strategy, assessment centres, promotion and boardroom talk. How many of use have truly met ourselves? How many of us truly look in the mirror and build a relationship of acceptance and curiosity about the different parts of us that make up the whole? Understanding who we are as a leader is the starting point for self-awareness and growth. Human beings are not static creatures, but living, walking systems that evolve with time, experience and context. The journey is never finished, but the destinations can be exciting. I often say it’s like hiking: you need to know yourself and your limits, remain humble in the face of something bigger than you, and constantly check the contents of your rucksack. Do you still need it? Is it still serving you? If not, make your bag lighter. Is anything missing to get to the next step of where you want to go?

We must consciously understand our mental models, our biases, our assumptions and beliefs and, in short, what has contributed to our current formatting to date. This is the backdrop for the stories we tell ourselves regularly. Brené Brown tells us that stories are data with a soul. I love this for so many reasons: because stories make the world go round, because we engage other human beings on an emotional level, because they are a big part of how we talk to ourselves and how we connect human souls. You cannot effectively tell a captivating story, a true and authentic anecdote, if you are constantly trying to fit in or be something you’re not. So many of us spend our time doing this – building a mask to protect ourselves from what we think we are meant to be, what people expect of us, and, more worryingly, what we are telling ourselves we should be.

What if we looked compassionately at how we feel, what we really want, and what we need to belong? Having empathy for yourself and your stories and accepting yourself (with the advantages and disadvantages of your personality, formatting and character) is where it starts – only then can we think about having empathy for others’ emotions, experiences and reactions.

Executive coach Paru Radu and I discuss in our recent podcast why being true to oneself is not just admirable and impressive, but necessary in today’s business landscape in order to engage yourself and others (listen here). Transformation requires us to confront our fears, challenge our beliefs, and embrace change. In the pursuit of belonging, transformation becomes not just a means to an end, but an essential aspect of our existence and how we decide to be and show up daily with our peers. It requires us to delve deep into our inner selves and confront our vulnerabilities and insecurities. By acknowledging our flaws and imperfections, we open ourselves up to the possibility of change. Self-awareness and self-acceptance serve as a foundational block for growth. As with every skill, there is both theory and practice, and practicing this is the hardest and most energy-consuming thing ever, but it is so worth it.

Intuition – the silent guide

Transformation also requires us to constantly shift perspective. It requires us to see the world through different eyes as we cultivate and home in on our inner wisdom. This is our intuition. According to Einstein, “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant”.  We do not use the gifts we have enough, let alone unwrap the ones we might find if we were to go looking! Listening to one’s inner genius takes time, courage and, again, practice – letting go of things enough to let your intuition’s voice rise to the surface is hard. Learning to trust that inner voice is hard too. When your inner critic is quiet, when you lose track of time, you feel strangely calm and elated at the same time. This is a skill that many overlook and quite simply never make the time to experiment with. However, this is where your wisdom lies. Productivity and the best ideas come from a still mind, and insight comes from intuition and human connection, which are lost when we are too busy. Once we are in this space of constant activity, we shut down on many levels and are functioning only in the cognitive space; we step onto the hamster wheel and, once there, find it very difficult to step off, frequently leading to stress and burnout, which serves no-one. So how do we make this a practice so that we have enough headspace to think intentionally about how we show up?

In today’s hustle culture, busyness is still glorified and rewarded as a badge of honour in leadership. People go out of their way to use it as a way of proving they are good leaders, justifying themselves, or simply trying to fit into the organisational culture and be seen and heard. And they are recognised and rewarded for doing so. Recognition today is too often still given to those who are the most visible, whose voices are heard in the centre of the organisational system and who deliver the most. It is no wonder that we constantly strive to fit into this paradigm to make sure we and our ideas are seen and heard, but is this really tenable?

Collective growth – belonging together

The art of transformation is not a solitary journey, but one that is deeply intertwined with the communities and relationships we form along the way. We all recognise that warm feeling of returning to a familiar physical space or emotion – we feel safe, connected, and part of something bigger. Belonging is not just about fitting in, but about finding a tribe that accepts us for who we are and supports us in our journey of self-discovery. In turn, these connections serve as a source of inspiration, guidance, and encouragement, empowering us to embrace different perspectives and ideas.

Collective leadership is something I see very rarely in practice, although I hear the term being used a lot. The art of collective leadership is essentially the art of mastering one’s ego to reach a more collective goal, that of the greater good. Getting a kick out of having impact and helping people rise to join something that is created by many is talked about quite frequently, but I rarely see it truly enacted. So, if we take transformation as an art, how do we start understanding what paints to put on the palette, which different paint brushes we need, how we should be mixing the different colours and what can really enable collective belonging? This is key for organisations’ competitive advantage in a world of ecosystems and interconnected, interdependent teams, communities, markets, and systems. Creating the conditions for belonging and inclusion has to be the ultimate goal, as this lays the foundation for all the key levers that organisations need today: innovation, sustainability, emerging ideas, collaborative ecosystems and, most importantly, workplaces where people can thrive. So, what does this mean for how you enable the creativity and potential in your team? And how can you as a collective leadership community nurture and scale this?

·      It’s not (only) about you: what do others feel, experience, and need to thrive and grow?

·      Step back from the reactive and comfortable behaviour that is used to get things delivered quickly.

·      Use empathy regularly as a tool and a team practice: this can be as simple as using design thinking or agile rituals.

·      Respect and create a space where people actively listen, suspend judgement and where failure is seen as a normal part of learning.

·      Encourage curiosity and creativity as a way of being.

·      Nurture a culture of trust: check in regularly as to how people are feeling.

·      Roles and responsibilities: provide clarity and transparency to feed co-responsibility.

·      Encourage healthy challenge and respectful debate.

·      Give employees a chance to use their voice: listen to them and act on it.

These are all tenets of a newer, more humble type of leadership that has its roots in a conscious understanding of oneself and others, and a will to develop and grow people and the business. Collective leadership is designed for growth and learning, not control. It is through the art of transformation that we find our true sense of belonging, forge meaningful human connections that transcend boundaries and help us leverage the rich opportunities that digital technology continues to bring. This has to be a collective quest if we are to build workplaces and cultures in which people can thrive and collaborate as a way to improve business outcomes.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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