Creative Tension

Looking out at the breath taking vista from my perch I felt both a sense of awe and no small amount of anxiety. Then came the words from behind me, “Are you ready?” My initial reaction…is there really any such thing as being ready for what I’m about to do? And yet my response came, “Yes.” “Okay, I’m clipping this carabiner to the left side of your harness so you don’t swing too far in that direction (click). And now I’m going to clip this carabiner to the right side of your harness so you don’t swing too far in that direction (click).” All I could think was, “Wait! What? I could swing too far in any direction?!!!” And with that the high ropes safety instructor said, “Just take one step forward and you’ll fly!” My snarky response, “Well, fly or not glad, it won’t be too far to the left or right,” and with that, I took the proverbial leap of faith. 

I have relived that exhilarating brief moment of flight over and over again. And likewise, I have reflected on being held in the tension that kept me from veering too far in one direction or the other. I could not have imagined that experience with tension was among life’s most important moments. 

For every new leader, every organization or community I work with I share with them that a major part of their role is to hold the tension. Imagine you are standing in the exact middle of a long rope (think tug-a-war). One end of the rope is pulling toward history / tradition / culture. The other end of the rope is pulling toward vision / aspiration / innovation. Your job as a leader is to stand in the middle and to hold the tension between the two ends. 

This is what leadership expert Ron Heifetz refers to as, “Holding Environment – at the heart of this strategy is an affirmation of holding differences in creative tension.” 

Holding this tension is not just applicable in leadership roles but frankly in our own personal lives, not the least of which is in those places that have been transformative such as our faith communities. Our histories, traditions, cultures are core to who we are. However if we live too deeply in that place we can soon find ourselves drowning a sea of nostalgia. Likewise, our imaginations, aspirations, dreams are the fuel that propels us forward. At the same time, if we breath too deeply of this air we can quickly lose a sense of our roots. 

In my experience, our healthiest functioning happens when we ground ourselves in the tension between that which has been and that which is to come this is where we find the sweet spot of balancing creative tension. 

“There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus that wants to wallow in the mud.”

Carl Sandburg

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