“Ready or not, the only way through it is by being curious, patient, and honest with ourselves — three of the most important leadership qualities.”
There’s a kind of no-man’s-land we enter once we embark on a journey of change; it is called liminal space. You may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve certainly been there, either physically, emotionally, or metaphorically — or perhaps all of the above. Liminal space is the space between what is and what is next. Physical liminal spaces come in the form of bridges, hallways, and staircases, to name a few. Their sole purpose is to help you transition from point A to point B. Emotional, metaphorical, and even spiritual liminal spaces serve the same purpose and represent the crossing of a new threshold from who you are to who you are becoming. This is something leaders have long felt, but seldom have had a name for. While it may feel good to put a label on this grown-up growth spurt, it doesn’t always feel good to experience it. Liminal space draws us out of what we’ve known, yet it doesn’t quite reveal what’s coming or when. It has a way of shaking us loose from our foundations, forcing us to relinquish control, and teaching us to appreciate the lessons of the “in between.” As a slight control freak who likes to plan and has an affinity for crossing the finish line, you can imagine how uncomfortable this space makes me. There are three distinct moments I have been in liminal space. Though vastly different experiences, the feeling that accompanied the transition that followed was familiar.
The first was when I graduated university and realized that the career trajectory I’d been on my whole life until that point was not one I wanted anymore. The realization blew me entirely off course and I found myself back at square one, needing to figure out what to do next and who I was without that part of my identity. The second precipitated my divorce, which forced me to reevaluate what I wanted in all areas of my life, catapulting me into a wild ride of entrepreneurship. I’m in the midst of the third one now, navigating a new role and piecing together the parts of me and my experience in a way that allows me to amplify my impact. I’ve heard this transitional period be described as “limbo.”
Personally, it feels as if I’m floating through space with nothing to hold onto but the trust that I’ll find my way. I begin to wonder how long it will last, if I’ve missed my exit and if I should’ve packed more snacks. The vastness of this space can feel both paralyzing and liberating, like I’m simultaneously lost and exactly where I’m meant to be. When I fight it or try to rationalize my way out, I spiral further into the abyss. If this sounds like I’m all over the map, it’s because this process is anything but linear. But if this speaks to you, rest assured you’re not alone and not crazy — unless we’re both crazy, but I digress.
Sometimes we’re ready to enter liminality and step into the unknown. This might be driven by a pursuit of greatness, a call to adventure, or a desire to disrupt the status quo. And other times, we trip and fall into this space unexpectedly with no idea how we got there. Ready or not, the only way through it is by being curious, patient, and honest with ourselves.
These are, in my opinion, three of the most important qualities of any leader, for our ability to improve the world is only as strong as our willingness to improve ourselves.
Ways to Lean In
Navigating liminal space will never feel easy because each time you step into it, you are a different version of yourself crossing a new threshold. But I have learned a few ways to lean into liminality with a little more ease:
01. Get Clear on Your Values
Your values serve as an eternal compass. While you may not always know where you are going, you will always know you’re heading in the right direction.
02. Keep Your Ego in Check
Your ego is going to want to defend the thoughts, opinions, decisions, and beliefs of your current self. When you find yourself resisting change, ask yourself if it conflicts with your values or your ego. Most of the time, it’s the latter. Until you outsmart your ego, your ego will always win.
03. Remember that Possibility Propels Change
Uncertainty triggers fear and when we operate from a place of fear, we are often closed to new ideas and experiences. Your growth and the growth of the community you serve will be stifled unless you remain open to possibility and have the courage to do things differently.
04. Know that You Are Not Your Experiences
Liminal space will prompt a great deal of self-reflection. This is not an invitation to fall victim to blame, shame, and guilt. This is an opportunity to learn from your decisions and carry the lessons through to the next chapter of your story.
05. Don’t Rush the Process
Wanting to rush through liminal space defeats the purpose. Trust me, I’ve tried. Take your time and explore what comes through when you actually give yourself space to just be. Without forcing any answers, see what your ideas, emotions, observations, and questions reveal about who you are becoming and what you want for your future.
06. Doing the Internal Work is Hard
Catalyzing change is hard. Leadership is hard. But the world needs people like us — the ones that know it’ll be hard and do it anyway.