Leading from nothing: why “holding space” is your most important leadership skill

Photo credit: National Geographic

Photo credit: National Geographic

“Retreat 3 is a week of learning to lead from nothing.”

I’m part way through a year long Leadership program with the Coaches Training Institute and as I recently headed into Retreat 3, I was thinking; What is going to happen here? What are we going to learn about NOTHING? How do you lead from NOTHING?

And yet here I was. I thought I would be able to connect my experience of facilitating tough conversations and “holding space” for people in dialogue to what I would learn in this retreat. With my work focused on high emotion and conflict I was fairly sure I knew what holding space was and how to do it. Turns out I had a lot more to learn.


The more work I do in creating shifts through dialogue and brave conversations, the more I realize I have so much more to learn. Twenty-five years of experience is a drop in the bucket of what there is to know about the power of this work to change the world.

What is holding space anyway? Why is it a leadership skill? Leaders inspire others to make choices or take actions towards a goal or vision. Leaders works with others to make change happen, whatever kind of change they believe is needed. Leaders empower others to be better.

In order to do that, leaders need enormous self-awareness, authenticity and deep commitment to their beliefs. Leaders need to create from others, to draw from them potential and possibility, and to lean in to others as well, to bring new ideas to life that couldn’t exist without the energy of 2 or more working together. Leading from “nothing” becomes an important skill when it allows leaders to read, understand and work with the energy and possibility in the space around people and issues, and the space within themselves.

To make the concept less nebulous, think about a few tangible examples: reading the tension between people or groups; understanding that there is something that needs to be said that no one has the courage to say; following an urge to ask a question that seems off topic because your intuition tells you there is another issue underlying the one you are talking about with people; seeing the bigger picture and how 1 issue connects to a system and bringing that into focus; and clearing the space inside you so you can be receptive and aware of what is happening with others.

Leading from nothing allows the future to emerge.

In 2015, Heather Plett wrote a blog called “What it means to hold space for people, plus 8 tips on how to do it well”. It’s a beautiful blog about creating a supportive, empathetic, loving place for other human beings to be held and nurtured and cared for, especially in tough situations. I don’t want to repeat and duplicate Heather’s good work, and think we could all aspire to step into the 8 tips she offers. So if you haven’t read her work, start there. I want to build on it. After spending a week in the woods learning to lead from nothing, I offer insights from a “yes, AND…” perspective to the work of holding space, and leading from what you cannot see.

#1 Create a stake and live in it: When you are leading a session/event and interacting with others it’s really important to have something to ground yourself. I like to ask myself 3 questions: What do you believe? What do you bring? What are you in service to? Let’s look at an upcoming situation — I am leading a workshop next week with 60 leaders in the health care field, talking about conflict and controversy with the community. I BELIEVE that when I am courageous and open hearted I can serve others. I BRING my depth of experience. I am IN SERVICE TO their growth as leaders in connecting with and serving their communities. Put it all together and my stake is “When I am courageous and open hearted, I bring my experience in service of stronger connections and better care.” This stake will serve me in creating a space for learning, deep conversation and growth. It’s the reason WHY I’m doing this work. This belief will hold me courageous and committed to the people, the content, and to the space I create. I try to create a stake for every day, every event and every interaction to ground me. When I forget to do it, I can tell right away why I’m blown off course by the winds.

#2 Step into what arises, whatever it is: In my work we talk so often about “naming the elephant” when you can feel the unsaid things stomping around the room that need to come out. Notice the energy in the space between people — what does it feel like? Is it crunchy or smooth? Is tension building or easing? Did the tone or emotion in the room suddenly change? Did you say something and trigger something for someone else? Watch for and be aware of everything that is happening, far beyond what gets said or how people move their bodies. It takes courage to step in when you don’t know or can’t name what is there. Centre yourself, and move forward to whatever arises, knowing you are in service to the group.

#3 Recognize that the space inside of you is as important as the space around you: You need to be clear, open and committed in order to lead from nothing and hold the space for others. That means doing your own work in terms of self-awareness, peacefulness and openness. Whatever it takes to manifest that for yourself, it will need to be a regular practice in order to build the muscles that support you in this work. For me this includes exercise, meditation, journalling and time in nature. The clearer and more open I am, the more able I am to serve. In addition, I’m learning that this practice also helps me recover faster and more fully when I’m thrown off balance by challenges, difficulties or my own reactions to situations.

#4 Open up your senses: Deep awareness of what is in the space is required. Listen with your ears and your heart, see with your eyes and your intuition, feel with your skin and your emotional radar, taste with your imagination and your phsyical reaction to the space. It’s easy to become caught up in the content, issues, details and forget what is most important. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head wondering if you are credible enough, knowledgeable enough or thinking about the next thing you need to accomplish. I’ve taken to spending time in nature listening to the wind blow in the trees, watching the spaces between the leaves, watching the feeling the air move beneath the wings of the birds. Sounds like a lot of “woooohoooo” doesn’t it? What I do know is that doing this has strengthened my awareness and ability to read what is there AND what is coming. It’s helped me serve my team, clients and participants because I am fully aware of and connected to what is in the space around the issues or content we are discussing. Our conversations are richer, more nuanced and results are improving. So go spend an hour staring at some blades of grass and see what changes!

Photo source: outtv.ca

Photo source: outtv.ca

#5 Connect, connect, connect:Leading from nothing and holding the space means a constant checking in with what is happening for the people and in the space to see what is emerging. You can’t check in once at the beginning, or a few times if things get challenging, and think you’re really holding space. It’s more like turning on the lights and leaving them on in the background as you go about your activities. Because the lights are on you can see things you need to see while you’re facilitating the conversation or leading the session or whatver you are doing. If you don’t keep the lights on, things get dim and you only see what is right in front of you. It’s takes a lot of energy to always have the lights on, but the outcomes are brighter, clearer and everyone can see the way forward when you exercise this skill.

#6 Seek awareness of how your leadership impacts the space in intended and unintended ways: You’ve got a stake to ground you, you are centered and open, you are practising awareness and checking in to connect with what is going on, so everything will go well, right? Yes and also no. There is no certainty in how things will go because you are dealing with real, live energy that comes from people, situation and place. You may impact the space in the way you intend. And you may also have unintended impacts — like people tune out, turn off or react negatively. Enhancing your ability to read these impacts, to step into them as they emerge and to seek feedback on what has happened will serve you and others. For example, when I get frustrated that people can’t see what I can see and I try to tell them how to move forward, I lose them instead of making the way clearer. They tune out or react to me being frustrated. That’s an unintended impact, because I’m in service to helping them find the way forward on the issues they are dealing with. However, once I follow the frustration urge and step into that, I’m no longer serving others, instead I’m serving myself, and then I’m thrown off my stake. But if I can say to the group, “I’m feeling frustrated here and I know that means I’m acting forcefully. That’s not my intention. I’m anxious for you to find the right way forward for YOU, rather than follow MY way forward. Lets begin again. What do we need to do to regroup?” then I’ve noticed and named my unintended impact. Every day we have intended impacts, and unintended impacts. The key is in building your awareness, stepping in and beginning again in service to the group.

There is no easy, straight forward path to holding space.

It takes effort, energy and practise to flex your leadership muscles to lead from nothing and hold the space in service of others. We will succeed, and we will also fail and get up and do it again. We are all capable of it. It just takes a commitment to something other than yourself, to creating a positive impact on your world.

Where are you holding space? What are you committed to beyond yourself? What do you want to create in the world?

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