- 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 to take action on their vision.
- It’s important not to get too far ahead of the pack; walking on the edge only succeeds when others are motivated to follow.
- Walking on the leading edge is frequently the only way to succeed. Innovation, risk, and an ability to push beyond comfort zones can often be decisive.
The complexity of the business world today is astounding. Nothing is predictable. The rules of the game are changing. Just when you think you’ve figured out how to have a competitive advantage, a competitor develops a new technology. Just when you think you’ve found the right motivation tool, the values in your workforce seem to shift. Just when you think you’ve found the right geographical area for the expansion of your internationalisation efforts, political turmoil erupts.
Yet some people seem to have an uncanny knack for knowing what’s going to happen before it unfolds. They’re able to create new rules for the game instead of following the rules everyone else follows. They’re able to plan a strategy that seems absurd to most people at first, and is later called brilliant when it’s successful. They are a part of an unusual breed of leaders called edgewalkers.
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 unseen gods and spirits, the vagaries of the cosmos. The skill of walking between the worlds hasn’t died out, in fact it’s even more relevant today. Organisations that will thrive in the 21st century will embrace and nurture edgewalkers. Because of their unique skills, they are the bridge-builders linking and facilitating different approaches, strategies, and techniques.
Walking on the Leading Edge
Five key skills form the hallmark of an edgewalker:
- visionary consciousness
- multi-cultural responsiveness
- intuitive sensitivity
- risk-taking confidence
1. Visionary Consciousness
Edgewalkers begin with visionary consciousness. All their other skills are in service of a sense of mission about something 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 edgewalkers have gone through a major personal or career change that requires them to develop new skills that were never needed previously. Edgewalkers are the consummate integrators of seemingly unrelated ideas, skills, and fields.
2. Multi-Cultural Responsiveness
Edgewalkers must have strong multi-cultural responsiveness. They’re bilingual in the sense that they can understand the nuances of different worlds or cultures. They span conventional boundaries and act as translators. Edgewalkers know how to pick up on subtle 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 commonalities more than differences, and they want to know more about the worlds of others.
3. Intuitive Sensitivity
Edgewalkers have strong intuitive sensitivity. They’re natural futurists. Because they’re avid readers they are constantly integrating information from many sources and looking for underlying themes and patterns. Like the shamans of old they’ve learned to pay attention to subtle, perhaps invisible, signs of potential change. They have an uncanny knack of making the right decisions, often taking action that seems counterintuitive to others. But when asked how they knew what to do in a particular situation, they have difficulty explaining. They reply, 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. Risk-Taking Confidence
Another strong skill that edgewalkers display is the skill of calculated risk-taking confidence. Edgewalkers have a strong sense of adventure and experimentation. They’re always attracted to the next new thing. Like entrepreneurs, edgewalkers are easily bored with stability and are attracted to what’s over the horizon. They’re constantly asking what’s next and trying to figure out how to be part of it. Because they’re able to walk in two worlds, 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.
The most important edgewalker skill is that of self-awareness. A principle that edgewalkers understand is that each person is a microcosm of the whole. Leaders who are edgewalkers know that if they’re experiencing a vision or dream or hunger, it’s most likely arising in others as well. The challenge for the edgewalker is to find others who have the same passion and to work together to make a difference. Leaders who are edgewalkers have a strong sense of being connected to something greater than themselves.
These five skills can be taught. However, the leaders who tend to learn best strongly value their own personal development and have low control needs.
Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
Edgewalkers 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 you’re ahead of your time, but there are few rewards for being too far out there. The most successful edgewalkers can remain in the real world and can remember established language and values so they can be a bridge to new ideas. For this reason, you should:
- Watch for signs that you may be getting too far out on the edge; if this seems to be happening, revisit your own past experience, current priorities and future aspirations.
- When you have a new idea that you want to implement, talk to people who are likely to disagree with you or try to block you.
- Create relationships with people who may provide a good reality check.
- Have patience with people who don’t want to move as fast as you do; take time to build relationships with them and specifically ask for their support.
- Cultivate the skill of honouring people who disagree with you; listen for any pearls of wisdom they have to offer.
- Be very aware of your highest values and have a strong commitment to integrity. Even if you get too far out on the edge, you will know you are doing it for the right reasons.
- If you feel blocked at every turn by people committed to the status quo, consider finding a different organisation to work for, or even going out on your own. Being an edgewalker can feel very lonely. Connect with other edgewalkers for support and inspiration.
There are many interesting examples of people that successfully walk the leading edge.
Tom Aageson, is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Museum Foundation. When Tom turned 50 he was a highly successful executive at the Mystic Museum in Connecticut. For his birthday he went on a week’s retreat to contemplate the rest of his life. He realised 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, which helps artists and craftspeople in developing countries to design and market products that respect their cultures and improve their economic situation.
Bill Catucci, is the leader of Regulatory Data Corp. and former CEO of AT&T Canada. 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 cheque for $75 to the home of every employee, saying that this wasn’t much, but it was a token of appreciation for what they had already contributed to the company, he looked forward to working with them to turn the company around, and there would be more where that came from if they were successful. He turned AT&T Canada from a company losing $1 million a day into a winner – and inspired his people as part of that. Then he turned around Equifax, raising the value of the company by over $3 billion during a time when the stock market was stagnant.
John Lumsden, is the CEO of Metserve in New Zealand. John is originally from Scotland and served as an executive in Canada for a number of years; he’s truly learned how to walk in different cultural worlds. On the first day of every professional meteorological training course for new employees that begins with a Maori welcoming ceremony focusing on Tawhiri-Matea, the God of the Winds.. John holds regular ‘advances’ (as opposed to retreats) for his management team, at which people spend time reflecting on deeper questions of life and work. They aim to have a lean and meaningful organization, lean to be competitive, meaningful for services for the users as well as for the environment for the employees.
Jennifer Cash O’Donnell, is director of organisational strategy and professional development for AT&T’s Asia-Pacific group in China. Walking between the worlds of operations and organisational development, she helps AT&T achieve great results through a focus on human relationships and team-building, using Barry Heerman’s Team Spirit process. Her success at AT&T Solutions with this team-based programme led to her promotion to the directorship in Asia. This provides her with yet another opportunity to be an edgewalker.
Making It Happen
- Write mission and values statements for the work you want to do in the world.
- Read professional material in fields that are unfamiliar to you.
- Listen carefully to what people and the world have to say.
- Trust your instincts about ways you can make a difference.
- Remember to take time to nurture your inner being and to pay attention to the signs you receive.
- Master practicality and common sense, as well as commanding the creative and visionary skills.
- Bring creative skills to scientific problems.
- Learn a new artistic skill or deepen your involvement in the arts.
- Involve others in your ideas, recognising different approaches and perspectives.
Edgewalkers are the leaders of the future. They are the corporate shamans who bring wisdom and guidance for their organisations. It’s not an easy role to play, but it’s one that’s essential to the success of your organisation—and one that can make you feel fully alive.
The Best Sources of Help
Hock, Dee. Birth of the Chaordic Age. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler, 1999.
Moxley, Russ S. Leadership & Spirit: Breathing New Vitality and Energy into Individuals and Organizations. Chichester: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Ray, Paul H., and Sherry Ruth Anderson. The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World. New York: Harmony, 2000.
This site has numerous resources for people who ‘walk between the two worlds’.
This site has information and resources directly relevant to readers of Edgewalkers by Judi Neal
This site has information on the consulting, writing and other work by Judi Neal.
Judith Neal is the executive director of the Association for Spirit at Work, which offers networking, publications, research, courses, and consultancy to individuals and organisations seeking a greater integration of spirituality and work. Before this, Judi spent some years as manager of organisational development at Honeywell, after which she ran her own consultancy firm, Neal and Associates, and became management professor at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.