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Edgewalkers: How to Walk on the Leading Edge
Without Falling Off the Cliff

By Judi Neal, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

  • The complexity of today’s world requires people to walk in many different worlds.
  • Edgewalkers are leaders who sense the leading edge and have the courage take action on their vision.
  • It's important to know how not to get too far ahead of the pack.

Introduction

The complexity of the business world today is astounding. Nothing is predictable anymore.  The rules of the game are changing. Just when you think you have figured out how to have a competitive advantage, a competitor develops a new technology. Just when you think you have found the right motivation tool, the values in your workforce seem to shift. Just when you think you have found the right geographic area for the expansion of your internationalization efforts, political turmoil erupts.

Yet some people seem to have an uncanny knack for knowing what's going to happen before it unfolds. They are able to create new rules to the game instead of following the rules that everyone else follows. They are able to plan a strategy that seems absurd to most people at first, and is later called "brilliant" when they are successful. They are a part of an unusual breed of leaders called Edgewalkers.

What is an Edgewalker?

An Edgewalker is someone who walks between two worlds. In ancient cultures, each tribe or village had a shaman or medicine man. This was the person who walked into the invisible world to get information, guidance and healing for members of the tribe. This was one of the most important roles in the village. Without a shaman, the tribe would be at the mercy of the unseen gods and spirits; the vagaries of the cosmos.

It took years of training under an elder to become a shaman, and often there was great personal risk. The shaman had to face his or her own shadow and become pure and selfless, in order to serve the tribe. After a long apprenticeship and many trials, the shaman would be given amazing powers to see into the future, to speak with the spirits so that the tribe would know where the mammoth were, and to get guidance from the invisible world.

Being able to walk between the two worlds was necessary for survival.

Many Worlds

The skill of walking between the worlds has not died out, and is probably even more relevant today. The organizations that will thrive in the 21st century are organizations that embrace and nurture Edgewalkers. These unusual leaders have learned to walk in many different worlds without getting completely caught up in any one of them. They are the bridge-builders between different paradigms.

The leaders who walk on the edge are leaders who can appreciate and work in different cultures. These may be international cultures (such as Mexico or Thailand), functional cultures (such as engineering or marketing), and values cultures (such as humanistic or bottom-line driven). Edgewalkers can have a foot in both worlds and walk the fine line between them. They have a unique set of valuable skills that often go unrecognized or undervalued in organizations.

Edgewalker Talents

There are six talents that are the hallmark of an Edgewalker. A talent is Read through the descriptions below to assess your own strengths and weaknesses as an Edgewalker:

  • Visionary
  • Multi-cultural
  • Intuitive
  • Risk-taking
  • Self-awareness
  • Centered
  1. Edgewalkers begin with visionary skills. All of their other skills are in service of a sense of mission about something that is greater than themselves. They feel called to make a difference in the world. The visionary skills arise out of a strong sense of values and integrity. Often these values are developed through some kind of painful experience or loss, and the Edgewalker becomes committed to helping other people who may be going through similar kinds of experiences. Typically, the Edgewalker has gone through a major personal or career change that requires him or her to develop new skills that were not needed in the former situation. Edgewalkers are the consummate integrators of seemingly unrelated ideas, skills, and fields.
  2. Edgewalkers must have strong multi-cultural skills. They are "bi-lingual" in the sense that they can understand the nuances of different worlds or cultures. They are boundary spanners and translators. Edgewalkers know how to pick up on subtle body cues and language cues that are different from their own. They pay minute attention to people different from themselves and have an open, warm curiosity about people from other cultures. They look for the commonalities more than the differences, and they want to know more about the world of that other person.
  3. Edgewalkers have strong intuitive skills. They are natural futurists. Because they are avid readers, they are constantly integrating information from many sources and looking for underlying themes and patterns. Like the shamans of old, they have learned to pay attention to subtle, perhaps invisible, signs of potential change. They have an uncanny knack for making the right decisions, often taking action that seems counter-intuitive to others. But when asked how they knew what to do in a particular situation, they have difficulty explaining. They respond, "I just knew." Intuitive skills are gained through the practice of "deep listening." When listening to others, Edgewalkers listen as much for the unsaid as the said. They also look for coincidences, patterns or synchronicities that might provide clues to guide them in their decision-making.
  4. Another strong skill that Edgewalkers display is the skill of calculated risk-taking. Edgewalkers have a strong sense of adventure and experimentation. They are always attracted to the next new thing. Like entrepreneurs, Edgewalkers are easily bored with stability and are always attracted to what"s over the horizon. They are constantly asking "What's next?" and trying to figure out how to be a part of it. Because they are able to walk in two worlds, i.e. the world of practicality and the world of creativity, the risks they take to jump into the next new thing are based on information and intuition. Having a clear vision guided by strong values helps the Edgewalker to take risks that might not make sense to others.
  5. The most important Edgewalker skill is the skill of self-awareness. A principle that Edgewalkers understand is that each person is a microcosm of the whole. A leader who is an Edgewalker knows that if a vision or dream or hunger is arising in him or her, it is most likely arising in others. The challenge for the Edgewalker is to find others who have the same passion and to band together to make a difference. Edgewalkers are particularly good at heeding Joseph Campbell's exhortation to "Follow Your Bliss." The leader who is an Edgewalker has a strong sense of being connected to something greater than himself or herself.

These five skills are all skills that can be taught. However, the leaders who tend to learn them the best are leaders who strongly value their own personal development, and who have low control needs.

Placeholders

In contrast to Edgewalkers, who tend to be rare, just about every organization has Placeholders. Tom Brown (1998) defines Placeholders as the people who are holding back organizational progress and innovation. There are the people who see boundaries instead of possibilities, who are focused on the past instead of the future, who use up resources instead of looking at renewal, and who value doing over dreaming. Placeholders are a drag on organizational energy and are usually the ones that clog the organization's arteries with bureaucratic processes. They will tell you why something can't be done and will resist change because "we've always done it that way."

An organization's ability to be successfully is directly related to the proportion of Placeholders to Edgewalkers. Too many Placeholders can suck the life and inspiration out of a few lone Edgewalkers. And since Edgewalkers are risk-takers, they will take all their good ideas and go play in somebody else's sandbox. They don't just sit there quietly and turn into deadwood.

On the other hand, an organization full of Edgewalkers can be completely chaotic. Everyone would be running around implementing new and innovative ways of doing things and would be on to the next project before even finding out if the earlier project was paying off.

Edgewalkers Who Walk the Leading Edge

Tom Aagesonis the former Executive Director of Aid to Artisans (ATA) and now an independent museum consultant. When Tom reached his 50th birthday, he was a highly successful executive at the Mystic Museum in Connecticut, USA. He and his family went on a week's retreat for his birthday while Tom contemplated the rest of his life. He realized that his mission was to do whatever he could to eradicate poverty in the world. That led him to a position as the Executive Director at Aid to Artisans. Aid to Artisans helps artists and craftspeople in third world countries to design and market products that respect their cultures and improve their economic situation. Tom walks between the business world, the artists world, and the world of social justice.

Bill Catucci is the Executive VP and Group Executive for Equifax, Inc. and former CEO of AT&T Canada. Bill has learned to walk between the worlds of bottom-line demands and humanistic management. When Bill first came to work for AT&T Canada, the company was losing a significant amount of money. His first act was to send a check for $75 to the home of every employee, saying that this wasn't much, but that it was a token of appreciation for what they had already contributed to the company, that he looked forward to working with them to turn the company around, and that there would be more where that came from if they were successful. The company was very successful and people were rewarded well. A Placeholder would have figured out how to cut costs instead of spending "frivolously" on each employee.)

John Lumsden is the CEO of Metserve in New Zealand. John is originally from Scotland, served as an executive in Canada for a number of years, and has truly learned how to walk in different cultural worlds. Each month at Metserve, there is an orientation for new employees that begins with a Maori welcoming ceremony. John holds regular "advances" (as opposed to "retreats") for his management team where people spend time reflecting on deeper questions of life and work.

Darwin Gillettis the Executive Director for the Institute for Human Economics. Dar has learned how to walk between the worlds of hard-nosed finance and economics on the one hand, and spirituality and human values on the other hand. Darwin is a former CFO for a manufacturing company in the USA. After a powerful spiritual experience, he had a vision that business leaders would be much more enlightened and successful if they understood the connection between economics and spiritual and humanistic values.

Jennifer Cash-O'Donnell is a Vice-President at AT&T in China. She walks between the worlds of operations and organizational development. She has helped AT&T achieve great business results through a focus on human relationships and team building using the Team Spirit process developed by Barry Heerman. Her success at AT&T Solutions with this team-based program led to her promotion to Vice President in China where she is responsible for ______________. This provides her yet another opportunity to be an Edgewalker.

Fred Banks is a research chemist at Pzifer Research and Development. He loves the sciences and working with technology, but he also has a strong interest in people. He works hard on his interpersonal, team, and leadership skills, and has been advised by career specialists to seek a career in Human Resources. Yet his love of science keeps him in R&D and he is learning to walk between the worlds of technology and people.

Guidelines For Edgewalkers

  1. Write a mission statement and a values statement for the work you want to do in the world.
  2. Read professional material in fields that are unfamiliar to you.
  3. Listen deeply to what people and the world have to say to you.
  4. Trust your inner instincts about ways you can make a difference.
  5. Remember to take time to nurture your inner being and to pay attention to the signs you receive.
  6. Being an Edgewalker can feel very lonely. Connect with other Edgewalkers for support and inspiration.

How Not to Fall Off the Cliff

Edgewalkers, in their enthusiasm for the next new thing, can often get too far ahead of the pack. If this happens, they lose their credibility and the opportunity to influence others to do creative work. It's nice to have someone say "He's a man (or "She's a woman) ahead of his (her) time," but there are few rewards for being too far out there. The most successful Edgewalkers are the ones who can still keep a foot in the world that they came from, and can remember the language and values of this world so that they can be a bridge to the new world of possibility that they see. They see themselves as integrators.

  1. Watch for signs that you may be getting too far out on the edge, and revisit your own professional roots if this seems to happen.
  2. When you have a new idea that you want to implement, make sure to talk to people who are likely to disagree with you or try to block you.
  3. Create relationships with people who provide a good "reality check" for you.
  4. Have patience with people who do not want to move as fast as you do. Take time to build relationships with them and specifically ask for their support.
  5. Cultivate the skill of honoring people who disagree with you, and listen for any pearls of wisdom they may have to offer.
  6. If you feel like you are blocked at every turn by Placeholders, consider finding a different organization to work for, or even going out on your own.

Conclusion

Edgewalkers are the leaders of the future. They are the corporate shamans who walk into the invisible world and bring back wisdom and guidance for their organizations. It is not an easy role to play, but it is one that can make you feel fully alive and one that is essential to the success of your organization.

For More Information

Hock, Dee. 1999. Birth of the chaordic age. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. Moxley, Russ. 2000. Leadership & Spirit: Breathing new vitality and energy into individuals and organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Ray, Paul & Sherry Anderson. 2000. The cultural creatives: How 50 million people are changing the world. New York: Harmony Books

www.mgeneral.com Visit this site to read Tom Brown's Anatomy of Fire, a great guide for Edgewalkers.

www.spiritatwork.com This site has numerous resources for people who "walk between the two worlds."

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, don't go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want, don't go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open, don't go back to sleep.

~Rumi

Judi Neal is the author of The Four Gateways to Spirit at Work and the Executive Director of the Association for Spirit at Work (www.spiritatwork.org). She was formerly a manager at Honeywell and later a management professor at The University of New Haven.

 


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