Black Holes in Leadership

Antoinette Klatzky

Shame. Humiliation. Fear.

The Event Horizon Telescope’s image of the black hole at the center of Messier 87

What comes up for you when you think about a time when you experienced a voice of judgment, of cynicism, of hatred or fear? What are the feelings and images you experience?

In those moments, I see a giant black hole. It’s massive and destructive. A giant soul sucking energy that feeds off everything light. Apparently, a black hole is incredibly heavy — perhaps because black holes are stars collapsed into nothingness. Perhaps it’s because black holes have gravitational fields that even light cannot escape.

There is a black hole of leadership in our world right now. We are being faced with major global problems (or even crises) like global warming, a growing lack of clean water, hunger, poverty and homelessness for the world’s people. A dear teacher and friend, Otto Scharmer (Senior Lecturer at MIT and Founder of the Presencing Institute) shares how these crises can be summed up: the three divides. The divide between self and nature, the divide between self and other and the divide between self and self.

In the beginning of Scharmer’s MOOC, U.Lab, Leading From the Emerging Future, he shows a video of something that exemplifies a shift for our global collective knowledge: the moment when astronauts, shooting for the moon, turned the spaceship around and took a picture of planet earth. He reminds us of a crucial component of any leadership journey: as we shoot for our own moon (goal etc), we must turn the lens around and look back on planet self. We need to look at how we’re operating in the world if we want to actualize change. He reminds us that ‘the success of any intervention lies in the interior condition of the intervenor.’ Basically meaning, they way we show up is going to affect the outcome of anything we try to do in our lives and work. In that moment, on planet earth, when we turned the lens around, we humans were able to see ourselves in a way we never had before. Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who wrote Pale Blue Dot:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives... There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

When we are wandering around with unseen pain, hurt, shame, humiliation and fear (and we all are in some way, big or small) it comes out everywhere, often quite unconsciously. In society and in our lives, we have mainly been told that those emotions are not useful. For me, when I feel shame, humiliation and fear, I often jump to anger. What I’ve learned about anger over the years (or the way I’ve been socialized) is that anger is unacceptable. Many of us have these unconscious or autonomic responses (our bodies/nervous systems have these great response systems built in) which often show up as fight, flight, or freeze. What I’ve learned in the course of my life is: anger itself is bad and probably since I was a baby, I’ve tried to repress it, hide it and stuff it away somewhere. Ask anyone who knows me, has worked with me, has shared a roof with me; I haven’t been so successful. The reality is, the anger comes out. And often, since I’m busy pretending it’s not there, it comes out in all types of un-intended ways, with added bonuses of coping mechanisms rooted in my limbic system — either I jump into rage and fight or completely disappear.

The truth is, I’m sure I’m not the only one this happens to. Look at the three divides and Otto’s resonant quote, “Collectively we are creating results that no-one wants.” Or, take what my new friend reminded me, we are facing a black hole of leadership. Across our globe, I believe we are now in a new collective moment.

“At this historic moment, the world has paused to take in the sight of humanity’s first image of the strangest phenomenon in the known universe, a remarkable legacy of the general theory of relativity: a black hole.” ~Janna Levin

We have known about black holes since the early 1900s (thank you, Einstein) but we only received the first image of a black hole in April, 2019.

So, here are some of the components I think we can learn about leadership in times of crisis from my builds on the metaphors in the data surrounding the image of our black hole, M87:

  • The black hole is a not just a giant black abyss, it’s a dense and heavy mass: Often, it may look like we’re just ‘out to lunch/spaced out.’ What we’re actually holding may be so dense and heavy, it can feel easier (in the short term) to ‘space out’ than actually deal (individually and collectively). When we realize it’s not something we can just run away from, we have to deal with a whole lot of ‘matter.’
  • Black holes can let off high speed jets of hot plasma: when we (I) can’t figure out a place to put emotions, like anger, we (I) often let out rage. Probably feels a lot like hot blasts of particles ‘spewing’ all over, to those around us.
  • The black hole is encircled by bright light, created by the friction of some of the matter at the edges: Often times what’s pushing us to the edge (individually and collectively) is the feeling of being triggered — something in our ‘event horizon’ (more black hole metaphor) has caused us to be triggered by even smaller micro-aggressions. (i.e. when a woman is talking in a meeting and a man pulls out his phone — THE PATRIARCHY!!!)
  • The black hole looks like a giant shadow — darkness within and surrounding a circle of light. “Racing at its absolute speed, even light gets dragged down the hole, casting a shadow on the sky.” ~ Janna Levin: We often hold so much of our individual and societal traumas/violence in shadow (structural racism in the United States, for example). We have a hard time talking about the real issues and seeing the hard truths together. Black holes can represent our deepest fears, but they can also represent all that we are keeping in the ‘shadow’ parts of our lives (work, society, personal, etc).

In the work and celebration of seeing the black hole, M87 for the first time:

  • A 200 person global scientific team had to create a telescope as large as planet earth itself with perfectly timed image recording in order to get the image. “Each country, region, group, institute, brought something in-kind, their expertise and their work. Everyone came with their full heart.” Shep Doeleman, Director of the Event Horizon Telescope effort: We keep these things SO deeply in shadow, we actually often can’t even see them. Do you identify with the following feeling? I will intuitively KNOW that something is wrong, but I’ll ignore the feeling until some actual situation hits me in the face so hard I can no longer ignore it. Well, how about the fact that Chennai just ran out of water? Maybe we need a perfectly timed telescope placed across the planet to communicate, see and sense the problems we’re faced with as a global community….
  • A young woman, Katie Bouman, led the team who created the algorithm that enabled the team to get the black hole image. She was congratulated, then harassed online and regardless of it all, redirected the attention to the collaboration of the 200 person team. We are living in a time when we look for a single person at the front to be the hero, the savior, the ‘lone wolf’ as a leader. The reality is, to face our global issues, and even our own sh*t, we need a dedicated community, and a porous, less ego driven version of leadership. (Also, something that needs no metaphor — why are women still dealing with things like this!??!THE PATRIARCHY!!!)
  • The scientists said, upon seeing the image for the first time: “There was great relief to see this but there was also surprise… We saw something so true.: When we are given the opportunity to see a black hole (in our lives, in our work, in society) we are able to work with it in a whole new way. Up until that moment IT is holding power OVER us. Once we see it, and see the truth in it, perhaps it has less power to destroy us.

Scharmer talks about Presencing as a state of operating from the emerging future. It is the blending of the words sensing and presence,

“It signifies a heightened state of attention that allows individuals and groups to shift the inner place from which they function. When that shift happens, people begin to operate from a future space of possibility that they feel wants to emerge.” ~Otto Scharmer, (excerpt from Theory U, Executive Summary)

And Absencing as:

Being disconnected from the environment outside your bubble, and frozen in your past identities and intentions. Absencing is based on a closed mind (not seeing the new), closed heart (not feeling outside of your bubble, no empathy), and a closed will (no capacity to let go of the old and allow the new to take its place). (As described by Scharmer in this interview)

Often, we think Presencing is better or more important than Absencing; that we constantly need to focus only on the good. We think light is better and dark is worse… but sun is heat and it can easily burn.

Presencing is actually:

The power of seeing. It shifts the place of perception. It is an opening to a deeper kind of awareness. After my recent experience in the Presencing Institute Ecosystem Leadership Program, Otto reminded me of Neo/Keanu Reaves in the Matrix — not looking directly at his enemy while in the final fight. The truth is, Presencing, and the type of leadership needed now (in our own lives and in our world) is about not looking at light or dark directly. One can go blind when staring directly at the sun, just as much as we can get completely destroyed in a black hole. What we need now, is to bring what has been hidden in shadow into the light, using the light as a tool for the act of seeing. It requires a soft gaze, an ability to stay centered in the storm and, rather than putting up a wall against what is difficult, it’s about holding a strength in our spine to have softness and vulnerability at the front — just enough energy to ‘stay with’ whatever situation is presenting itself — to have courage to face the fear. Brené Brown calls this Brave Leadership.

What I’ve noticed in the seeing of the black hole, is that the very act of observation changes the result (just a reminder I didn’t really study science formally but find it all fascinating). Coming back to my own anger, shame, humiliation, frustration and fear, I notice that when I can sense and see the emotion (become consciously aware of it) I can actually begin to work with it. By using the light, a sense of openness within myself, to allow myself to feel (rather than judging the feeling as soon as it arrives in my system) I can see the darkest parts. Once I see them, I can begin to tend to them and then start in on the art of integration — I can use that part of myself as a fierce and limitless force for good, a force of love (this is all a daily practice, way easier said than mastered). Arawana Hayashi, an incredible meditation teacher and creator of Social Presencing Theater reminds us that anger is often a sign of our caring — we wouldn’t get so upset if we didn’t have the care for it.

Image of artwork created by Olaf Baldini during the Ecosystem Leadership Program, Nauen, DE, 2019

Now, it’s up to us. It’s time to use this moment of seeing to turn the lens back on our own black holes; to become aware of the places and moments we turn away, and start to turn towards. Recognize that our anger, our fear; they are signs we care so deeply, so that we can (and we must) harness that same energy as a force for good. It’s time to ‘stay with’ and face the fear. So, journaling prompt for the day: what frustrates you the most in your life and work? Your answer may signal what you have energy for and where you might be able to apply that energy to shifting or changing your system (and our world)…

Go team. Be the change.

Image of the black hole started by Antoinette Klatzky and completed including additions from the rest of the Visual Practice team in Ecosystem Leadership Program with Kelvy Bird and John Stubley, Nauen, DE, 2019

Antoinette Klatzky

Written by

Executive Director, Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Host/Co-Producer, Women Together. antoinetteklatzky.com

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