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I learned a new word over the disorienting pause that now passes for a weekend.
Liminality describes the space between two states of being. In anthropology, it is the middle stage of a rite of passage—you’re no longer exactly who you were, but you’re not yet what you’re going to become. Societies explicitly mark the big ones—birth, puberty, marriage, death—with ceremonies.
But being stuck in the middle is confusing stuff.
It was folklorist and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) who first observed the power in rites of passage, a chance for humans to wrap their arms around moments of transition and great uncertainty—and in some cases, process the loss of what was and embrace the promise that has not yet been realized.
While the rituals may differ, he believed the awareness of the liminal to be universal.
“These are the constants of social life, to which have been added particular and temporary events such as pregnancy, illnesses, dangers, journeys, etc.,” he wrote in The Rites of Passage, published posthumously in English in 1960. “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross.”
This point of view helps makes some sense of corona-denialism, and offers some emotional context to the deep anguish people are experiencing over real-world cancelled events like funerals and end-of-school trips and proms, or now-virtual events—graduations, weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, and baptisms. Even small daily rites, like coffee talks after staff meetings or pre-happy hour make-up refreshes, are sorely missed.
As I was turning myself into an amateur anthropologist this weekend, it occurred to me that the leaders who will emerge as powerful voices during this difficult time will speak to the liminal tension we’re all feeling, and acknowledge that most of us will be in a new place when this is all over.
That’s one of the many things that hit my ear when I watched Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson’s video message to employees, posted to the Marriott International Twitter account last Thursday. It was remarkable for many reasons.
Like many chief executives, the company he runs is now in a tough spot. So, he went there.
In the video simply titled, “A Message from Arne,” he begins with the truth. “This is the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together,” he says. The 92-year-old company has seen many things, but “COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than September 11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.”
Sorenson, who had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, is bald now. He said that his team was concerned that his new appearance would alarm people. “Let me just say new look was exactly what was expected as a result of my medical treatments,” he says, owning the liminal truth.
He begins by acknowledging anyone dealing with coronavirus as a patient, parent, family member, or friend, before he addresses the reality of their shared situation.
The company is in the thick of the middle of the bad news. With hotels shuttered and employees and travelers quarantined, their share price is currently down more than 50% from its February 2020 high of $150. In most markets, business is running 75% below normal levels, he said, and there will be more global hotel closings and/or service reductions to come.
Sorenson announced that he is suspending his own salary and that of Executive Chairman Bill Marriott for the rest of 2020; salaries of senior executives will be reduced by 50%. Temporary 60-90-day furloughs for many employees will begin immediately, along with other cost-cutting measures.
While the current news is grim, his message was not: Plain-spoken, honest, transparent, detailed, tone-appropriate, and empathetic—all the things that help people feel less out of control.
Listening to it again, Sorenson’s message was clearly an example of authentic leadership. But it also felt as if he fully understood that we are collectively in the middle of a vast transition, a painful place to be with no ritual playbook to guide the way. He ended by holding space for the new, and perhaps more grateful, world that we are poised to become.
“I know that we as a global community will come through to the other side, and when we do, our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again,” he said, visibly emotional. “When that great day comes, we will be there to welcome them, with the warmth and care we are known for the world over.”
Below we are focusing on some examples of great leadership, some big, some small, from people who peered into the liminal abyss and took a stand.
What are you seeing in your world? Hit us back and we’ll amplify.