Tzimtzum: Powering Personal And Organizational Growth Through Contraction
When CEOs intentionally contract some of their own power and presence, they enable others to lead and grow as leaders.
The mystical 16th-century Lurianic Kabbalah offers an interesting extension of the traditional Judeo-Christian creation narrative, encapsulated by the Hebrew term “tzimtzum.” If you have not heard the term before but it sounds familiar nonetheless, you might recognize it as the name of the doomed ship in the book and movie Life of Pi. “Tzimtzum” roughly translates into English as “contraction” or “diminution.” In the Kabbalah, it represents the idea that prior to and as a condition for creation, God first had to contract his infinite presence to create space for what he was about to create.
As finite mortals, we might be tempted to think of tzimtzum solely as a divine concept. Yet, it offers an important conceptual framework from which leaders and their organizations can benefit — if they are prepared to make the necessary space. Indeed, they can utilize this framework not only to become better leaders but also to drive greater, more lasting success within their organizations.
Leadership and Management
While organizational leaders are neither divine nor infinite, their presence nevertheless can be expansive and even overwhelming to others around them or in their charge. This kind of mortal omnipresence can take the form of troubling micromanaging or even more troubling domination. Yet, it most often takes a subtler form in which leaders, with all their explicit and implicit power, make it difficult for others to participate meaningfully in leadership and grow as leaders.
A leader can practice tzimtzum by intentionally contracting some of their own power and presence in order to enable others to lead and grow as leaders. This contraction is in fact a prerequisite for individual and organizational growth, as it ensures that a single leader does not become a constraint to others or the organization. By contracting for others, a leader metaphorically creates the space necessary for others to grow. In doing so, they also transcend the very human tendency to focus exclusively on themselves.
Practicing tzimtzum offers a similar safeguard against micromanaging talent. Management, of course, is a critical component of organizational success; but there is a fine line between effective management and too much management. The former drives productivity and efficiency. The latter drives disengagement, turnover, and stagnation. Managers must understand the difference and be prepared to contract their omnipresence – to back off – when necessary to allow their team members to thrive.
A corollary of the above occurs in the context of leadership succession. In order for next-generation leaders to flourish as they transition into key leadership roles, it is of course necessary that they be trained and mentored, including by their predecessors. Yet, those same predecessors must also be willing to withdraw – either gradually or suddenly – in order for their successors ultimately to assume their new roles.
I first learned about tzimtzum from a rabbi who was in the process of retiring from his congregation of over 30 years. I asked him whether he was going to remain involved with the congregation after his retirement and was surprised to learn that he was very intentional about not wanting to be overly involved in the future. Through the metaphor of tzimtzum, he explained that his successor and congregation needed him to withdraw – to contract his powerful presence – to make enough space for his successor and what was next for the congregation.
Tzimtzum also offers a construct for organizational growth and success. Quite frequently, organizations become so focused on what they currently are doing that they fail to adapt, evolve, and innovate into what they should be doing. They become consumed by their past and present ways of thinking and operating and fail to see or make room for new possibilities. They may be fully surrounded by opportunities for which they simply have no room, often without any awareness of their predicament.
In this sense, organizations must also practice tzimtzum. While “contraction” is not a term most organizations can easily embrace, they can instead think about making space for a better future of their own creation. This may involve shutting down unprofitable or counterproductive activities or lines of business; or it may involve moving on from people or customers who are holding back the organization. It might also involve something simpler, such as engaging in periodic retreats or other strategic pauses just to reflect on new possibilities without the distractions of the past or present.
Equally importantly, even when new directions are successfully charted, tzimtzum is again necessary to allow them to be followed without being drawn back to the paths of the past. Consistent with our metaphor, tzimtzum is necessary for creation, but it also is necessary for creation to unfold and become what it is intended to become.
By now, it should be obvious that there is yet another, even more personal, dimension to the power of tzimtzum. While tzimtzum offers a framework for nurturing organizations and their team members, it also offers a framework for personal growth and exploration. Busy leaders often fail to progress personally because, like their organizations, they fail to contract when necessary to expand and create. Leaders must constantly make space in their lives for learning, new ways of doing, and new ways of being. None of these things can happen if they do not contract their own thoughts and actions to make the necessary space in their otherwise cluttered lives.
Perhaps the sinking of the Tzimtzum in Life of Pi represents a contraction in the main character’s life to make room for his new life. The concept need not be so dramatic, however, for organizational leaders. For them, they need only have awareness around and a commitment to the benefits of periodic contraction as necessary to foster greater personal and organizational potential. If they do, tzimtzum might ironically save their own “ships” from sinking one day.