Turning? as in exposing other sides; shifting. Or, as the new scientists say, dissipating! Moving to higher levels of energy, complexity, and organization. Reorganizing. Reassembling. Creating or recreating.
There’s the time, for example, in South Africa, when an old shop steward – ready to retire – got up in front of a group of managers and workers as part of a change process, and said, “I never thought an old man could feel so important to the future.” A parallel in the United States? A local union executive close to retirement who committed to “creating a new relationship between labor and management” in one of the oldest corporations in the country – knowing that he was swimming uphill and that his time was running out.
Or, the many times when a courageous woman in a huge corporation, a woman with very little formal power, position, or academic background, found the energy to stand for her beliefs and cause – and refound it , refound it, refound it, despite barriers that would have stopped a Mack truck.
And, the steady, centered leadership of a female executive in the 70’s, as she raised the functional excellence standards of one of the world’s leading corporations – did it with discipline, constancy, universal fairness, and a commitment to being a leadership role model and sponsor for women with and after her. For her, as for most people with elan, there were no models, no assurances. There was just conviction, vision, and raw power of heart and muscle that going against the forces requires.
I think, too, of a dear friend who overcame learning disabilities and grew into a voice that calls and echoes throughout the world on platforms with the likes of Peter Drucker. He helps set new standards of service in corporations and agencies everywhere. His personal presence and integrity are an elan that lights fires and hope wherever he goes.
Then, there are the so many examples of missed elan. We all crave it – the feeling of and being in flow. But, there are many ways to be led astray! Think of the Engineering executive at a big aerospace company. At 7:00 in the evening he is putting on his coat, feeling drained. “I’ve been here since 6:00 am, he tells me, “and I haven’t gotten a thing done!!”
“Tell me about your day,” I say. And he tells his story. “I started out getting ready for some budget discussions. Then, there was that long and testy meeting with Manufacturing – we just can’t get our designs to be produced right. Without lunch, I spent three hours in performance discussions with my teams. And, we’re getting ready to propose a whole new organization structure for next year. I just didn’t get a thing done today!!”
For many people, his situation was a chance for elan. But not for this executive. There was just no real soul connection for him. He’d spent 13 hours at work and felt he accomplished nothing. Of course, he’d been doing managerial or leadership work all day. But, for him, this was not valued work. His internal valuing system just didn’t recognize it. He would have felt much better and more whole if he’d been designing an airplane or a fuel cell. Then, his normal elan would have flowed. Instead, he ended a long and demanding day feeling drained and insignificant.
Elan is, after all, a very personal thing. It is about the connection of energy and soul to life and work. It is about expansiveness and synergy. It’s about being in a state where the equivalent of massive chemical and physical changes can occur, where fires can spark from two cold pieces of wood. Or, where unnoticed people suddenly explode to life – move into the light and heat -- because a new insight occurs. Or they shift their internal thermostat to notice forces that are new. (Think of our Engineering executive changing his internal evaluation system to support his managerial rather than his bench engineer role!)
The Chairman of one of the world’s most controversial and (today) respected utilities sparked elan, for example, when he admitted to his top 50 executives that he had learned and changed in the last five years of massive change in the corporation. This seemingly insignificant and obvious comment, coming from the chief patriarch of the corporation, unleashed a tsunami of energy. Why? The top role model acknowledged that it was okay to learn and grow. For many executives, the unwritten rule is “look omnipotent, for the need to change is an admission of weakness and failure. So, look perfect and in control at all times.” Now, we all know this is impossible. We are all human. And, the need to learn is accelerating. No one can be on top of everything. We all know it, yet buy into perfection models. Leaders isolate themselves or stay involved in everything, and the rest of us gossip about the fact they really don’t know it all.
Think of the elan that is released when we stop buying into the fiction of perfection. We can be ourselves. We can learn, take risks and fail, and openly and consciously take our learnings into the future. The energy explosion is profound.
On the next page, read about finding elan personally, in your own life.
Patricia McLagan founded McLagan International. She has been changing and improving organizations since 1969, and has signifigant expertise and experience in human resources practices.