“lim•in•al” (1) of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; (2) occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. From the Latin limen/liminis: threshold, doorway.
You may not have thought of it this way, but we are living in liminal times. The word and the concept are most frequently encountered in sociology and anthropology, following the famous 1909 book by the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, Rites of Passage; he used it to refer to socio-cultural transitions like puberty, adolescence, and marriage. But I’ll steal it for its application to Law Land today, and particularly to leadership.
The concept applies to organizations in periods of transition, in the boundary zone between one type of relatively stable, ordered existence, and another. These are periods of intense uncertainty, disruption, and lack of clarity about why the past had to be abandoned and what the future could possibly look like. Fortunately for us, we can learn from the history of corporations that have gone through similar periods of transition. And since “History is written by the victors” (Churchill, 1949), we’ll stick with corporations that came out successfully on the other side.
For this excursion I will draw on the recent Harvard Business Review article which serves as a splendid introduction to the concept.
Now, no one can tell you exactly what to do—and I’m not about to try, certainly not in a fact vacuum—but we can have a conversation here about how to behave: How to lead.
When Lou Gerstner stepped into his leadership role at IBM in 1993—”parachuted in to salvage a beleaguered organization”—the company had lost its market-leading position, had no future product pipeline to speak of, was demoralized and rudderless, and basically had no mojo. Gerstner is remembered famously by many and fondly by yours truly, for this performance:
When he arrived at IBM , Gerstner said to a press conference in July 1993, after his first 100 days, ‘There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision [. . . ] What IBM needs right now is a series of very tough-minded, market driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses – strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value.’
He was roundly ridiculed at the time for (imaginary) sins ranging from not thinking strategically to piling on to a bunch of already-demoralized people, but I thought he was showing tough and somewhat subtle love at the same time, and time proved him right. When he was later (much later) questioned about this, he pointed out that the critical phrase everyone ignored in terms of IBM not needing a vision was “right now.” First he had to stop the bleeding, the internal blame-shifting and name-calling,
Of course IBM needed a long-term vision; and Gerstner knew well that was a critical priority for him. He delivered in a big way, as IBM transitioned from hardware to software and services, and gained yet another lease on life.
So what was “the vision thing?” What is an organization’s “vision?”
It’s a foundational philosophy that stands behind every decision the organization makes. A sense of purpose that supersedes short-term thinking or opportunistic decision-making. It cannot be about making money. Here in fact is what Gerstner really meant:
Fixing IBM was all about execution. We had to stop looking for people to blame, stop tweaking the internal structure and systems. I wanted no excuses. I wanted no long-term projects that people could wait for that would somehow produce a magic turnaround. I wanted – IBM needed – an enormous sense of urgency.
And in liminal times, that is surely your first job as leader.
But then what?