Archive for April, 2013

Liminality, Learning, and Leadership

I am living in liminal space.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” meaning “threshold.”  Liminality shows up in anthropological, religious, and societal contexts and, for me, conjures up an image of standing on the brink of newness ready to step off a cliff into new, yet-to-be experienced space.

I was first introduced to liminality at my church during Lent. Adrian Cole, the priest at All Saints’ Church in Peterborough NH , spoke about liminal space, the space we all enter when we are in-between how we were before and what we are becoming. The concept started me thinking about learning and leadership and about where I am on my own learning and leadership path.

Those who are close to me know that I have landed on an intriguing topic, a new concept that I’m coining for my PhD dissertation: Rhizomatic Leadership.  Rhizomes—and their wayward ways—are well known to gardeners and landscapers. They are hard to manage; their roots spread perpendicular to the force of gravity and new shoots sprout up from the middle of those root systems, extending the plant in whatever direction nature describes. The root systems of rhizomes are antithetical to a tree’s root system—horizontal vs. vertical, multi-directional vs. unidirectional. Think bamboo, lily of the valley, irises, asparagus, and ginger. Bottom-line: a rhizome is always “in the middle”—an intermezzo—as it grows and extends.

Rhizomes are more than just types of flora, however. According to Delueze and Guattari, who adapted the concept as a revolutionary methodology, rhizomatics allow “for non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” This concept of horizontal and multi-directional growth has now expanding, encompassing myriad disciplines—most notably, modern educational theory where it has been dubbed “rhizomatic learning.”

Perhaps, I thought, people might not only learn this way, but lead this way….

In rhizomatic learning, the belief is that learners come to their learning from diverse experiences and perspectives, that a traditional, linear approach to learning (what some, if not most of us, experienced) does not provide learners with the opportunity to build-upon each other’s learning “in the moment,” flexing and connecting to ideas rather than rote remembering for the purposes of assessment. As Dave Cormier describes in his blog, “I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections I would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.”

For me, life-long learning has always been a quality of the best leaders. Would it not make sense, then, that there would be rhizomatic parallels in leadership? That there could be a belief that leaders come to their ways of leading through similar, non-linear approaches and that, by exercising such a leadership style, would promote innovation, development, growth, and success rhizomatically?

Back to my liminal space.

I am at the brink of pulling together the philosophical concepts of rhizomatic learning as they relate to the way we lead. Nascent questions that are emerging for me are: What types of environments and cultures might we enable that will encourage our employees to make innovative connections, in-the-moment and outside-the-moment, tracing their own imprint on the experience? How can our organizations increase adaptability so that leaders and followers can function as “directions in motion” rather than unidirectional, hierarchical containment? Where have I experienced rhizomatic learning and what influence does it have on future leadership possibilities?

More to follow as I further develop Rhizomatic Leadership. I would be interested in your comments and thoughts as we take this leap together!

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