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June 7, 2021
Marilyn Taylor
Tags: leadership
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Leaders are usually associated with speaking and acting, in the best case scenario, helpfully.  But there is a time for a leader not to speak, not to be leaping into action.  Rather, there are times when a leader’s best contribution is simply to be present and to hold space for what is important to emerge.  It is a time to step back without stepping out.  It is about making way for what is not yet known. It requires discernment of one’s ‘right’ relation to an experience of tremendous importance. 

It is this kind of time for settler descendant leaders in Canada in the face of horrifying and heart-breaking discovery of 215 Indigenous children’s unidentified remains in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. This is only the latest and not the last of the moments of truth telling in a largely sorrowful history of relationships between colonizing settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples. 

Health care professionals who attend people who are in service to the dying and their grieving families are primarily ‘holding space’, as are counselors and psychotherapists for their clients who are confronting critical challenges in their lives. Less frequently recognized and discussed are those moments in which people, as members of organizations and communities, are not only personally but collectively confronting a crisis and/or momentous change. 

Recently published Canadian author, Heather Plett (2020), states,

“Holding space is what we do when we walk alongside a person or group on a journey through liminal space. We do this without making them feel inadequate, without trying to fix them, and without trying to impact the outcome. We open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control” (p. 2).

For organizational, community and public leaders, this is an unconventional and complex challenge.  Unlike helping professionals working with individuals, leaders have other critical responsibilities requiring decision and action that impact the quality of the wider environment that impinge on human lives.  ‘Stepping back’ cannot be confused with dropping those commitments yet, at the same time, it is a moment to use one’s authority and credibility to create space for those at the centre of the experience to speak.  It is a palpable acknowledgement of uncertainty and the unexpected and courageous modeling of confidence for others to remain open to that moment.  

The matter of leaders holding space in the context of social privilege and oppression is even more challenging and even more important. This is profoundly the case in response to revelations of the radical mistreatment of Indigenous children in residential schools evidenced by Kamloops discovery of the past week.  Of this, Plett observes: “…It will require of [us] that [we] do [our] own work to recognize and take responsibility for [our] own unearned privileges, unconscious biases, and areas in which [our] defensiveness and fragility get triggered” (see Chapter 23).  She offers 15 considerations for when the opportunity to hold space comes to leaders who are among the socially privileged.  Those that struck me especially are (see Chapter 23):

  • “recognize difference”;
  • “acknowledge your limitations”;
  • “centre the most marginalized”;
  • “challenge the abuse of power”;
  • “invite cultural reflection, ceremony";
  • “don’t be afraid to flounder”;
  • “disrupt the narrative and do things mindfully”;
  • “maintain a heart at peace”;
  • and drawing on Adam Kahane who highlighted a related statement from Martin Luther King, “stand at the intersection of power and love”

Opportunities to hold space on this and related issues may arise for many of us out of conversations in our workplace and/or community settings. Let’s courageously work on becoming ‘space holders’ in these troubled times.  I believe RRU President Philip Steenkamp provided a good model of leading as holding space last week.  See “The way forward is to listen” here.


Kahane, Adam, and Barnum, Jeff (2009) Power and love: A theory and practice of social change. San Franciso, CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Plett, Heather (2020) The art of holding space: A practice of love, liberation, and leadership. Vancouver, BC: Page Two Books

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