My marvelous, practical visionary of a brother sent me a literal definition of shapeshifter in an email recently, reminding me that I may have glossed over some aspects of the original myth in order to make my point about flexibility and transformation. After the definition, he noted — “I think I saw this on Star Trek! 🙂 Is that kind of what you do?”
Here’s the definition: “Shapeshifter is a generic and generalized term applied to a lifeform that alters its form to assume various different appearances. The degree of physical transformation varies between different species. Some humanoid shapeshifters assume a different humanoid shape at the cellular level, while others can shift from non-humanoid to humanoid as well. Some lifeforms have a non-corporeal energy form and can transform into different physical forms.”
Well, it’s almost what I believe shapeshifter leaders do. But not quite…
Mythically, the shapeshifter can literally become something or someone else — disguising their true nature and gaining access to unusual places and relationships. Take Odo, our most modern shapeshifter, security officer on the TV show, Deep Space Nine. Odo combines the best qualities of humanity — loyal, loving, honest, driven to please — with the best qualities of the shapeshifters — curious, flexible, empathic and, most important, expressing himself in a literally fluid and shifting identity.
If you are a Deep Space Nine fan, you’ll know that the Star Trek shapeshifters also have mythically evil qualities — they coldly manipulate others, waging covert war in order to protect themselves and their world. They don’t trust the “solids,” and they have given the “solids” no reason to trust them! But Odo changes all that because of his respect for the values of the “solids” — his core of integrity, if you will. He’s a great example of the power of shapeshifter leadership.
Practically, human beings can only physically change the clothes we wear. There are even limits to changing our physical shape — we can lose or gain weight, get in shape or fall out of it, but we always still look like ourselves. Our shapeshifting gifts aren’t about physical transformation, no matter what the plastic surgeons promise!
Our shapeshifting abilities come from our clever minds, our open hearts and our expansive souls. When mind, heart and spirit work together with integrity, the ego lets go of the shoulds and oughts and musts that limit our identity. We don’t have to hold on to one story, one way of being, one kind of relationship. We can live in integrity with the values we hold dear without growing unnecessarily “solid” in our self-expression.
We can shapeshift because we bring our whole network of selves into any given situation, and that makes us better listeners, better connectors, better friends, better parents, better teachers, better managers — better leaders. Every human challenge has many possible solutions, but when we’re too “solid,” we expect the world to conform to the limited solutions we can see, instead of having the flexibility, empathy and freedom to see the many solutions we might create by shifting our roles, expectations and actions.
We have a lot to learn from the sci fi hero, Odo, who is always himself even when he empathically shifts into another form, another perspective. The difference between the ethical shapeshifter (Odo) and the manipulative shapeshifter (a dangerous spy) is the same difference between an ethical leader and a manipulative leader. The shapeshifter skill is not bad in and of itself.
By the way, we can say the same of charisma, collaboration, authenticity or any other leadership quality! Whatever skill or quality we try to gain as leaders, we only succeed in achieving excellence when we are integrated — that is, in integrity within ourselves and with the world. Arguably, that is the leader’s personal journey into maturity, unique to each of us, but measured by our success or failure in the leadership relationships we create.
With shapeshifter leadership, I’m advocating for an expanded self, with multiple roles and empathic, situational intelligence. This integrated perspective allows leaders to see solutions that change human responses and organizational structures, preserving resources and responding to a changing world.
Staying “solid” may feel safe, but it is perhaps the most dangerous response to the environmental, economic and social crises we face today.