Space – the final frontier in skilled leadership

Space is the unseen, undervalued currency in organisations. It’s something we pay lip service to – in our calendars, in the momentary pause between stimulus and our response, in the gap which gently urges us to fully feel the barbed emotions that we’d rather circumvent, but must experience if we ever want to learn anything meaningful.

Here’s one woman’s perspective of the concept of ‘space’. Lola Toppin-Casserly is a former participant of Ruku Ao, a collaborative leadership initiative run through Toi Whakaari. Lola shares her journey and struggle to create more space in her life.

Where can you create more space? What one step could you take this week to create more space in your leadership practice? 



Since having children five years ago, I tried to juggle career, family and life. And in doing so, I watched space evaporate from my life. I convinced myself that I was ‘someone’ because I had a career, children, and a husband. But as I ran from one thing to another without space, I began to wonder why on earth I was trying to do it all. My husband and I were exhausted, juggling all the balls we needed to. And what was it all for? Was there a grand purpose to it all? Was I changing the world as a result?

When I realised that the answer to those questions was no, and that I was seemingly stuck under a glass ceiling in my leadership career, I knew that something had to change. The exhaustion and the juggling was not worth it. I wanted to create space in my life – for my son starting school, for me, for my husband, for my daughter.

I had been warmed up to the idea of space, purpose and reflection through my time on Toi Whakaari’s Ruku Ao leadership development initiative in 2015. Through experiential development, it taught me to determine what I stood for and who I wanted to be as a leader. The initiative highlighted to me the importance of reflection in leadership, partly through the way the initiative is run, but also through the time spent at Manutuke marae. At that marae, I experienced ‘space’ for the first time, away from the busyness of routine life.

I wondered: if I created more capacity in my life for space and reflection, what further insights and value would emerge?

Over the past five months I’ve been testing the concept of space. These are the results:

  • Space is critical to my and my family’s wellbeing. When we stop rushing around, we are all happier, calmer, more present and more focused.
  • Space is critical to enabling me to breathe, relax, let go of stress and anxiety and be mindful.
  • When I create space in my life, I feel grounded, centred and connected to my inner wisdom.
  • Space increases my capacity to empathise, listen and connect with others.
  • Space allows me to see things that I hadn’t seen before. I am able to see deeply different perspectives to my own. The world ‘as it is’, inspiration, ideas and a deeper vision are all able to come to the fore.
  • Space helps me realise where my energy would be best applied, such as in places that play to my strengths and in the gaps left by others.
  • When I create space I am able to see how to best apply my leadership, that is where my vision and strengths combine.

Seeing the wonderful results from creating space in my life, I’ve been considering how I can create more of it.

When I say ‘yes’ to all those personal, family and professional social engagements that deny me of crucial rest, and demand rushing from one thing to the other, I deplete space.

When I say ‘no’ more often or build in realistic transition times, and prioritise what is really going to nourish me and provide me with ‘positive flashpoints’, all of a sudden I create, and am able to carry myself with, space. Although space is a psychological concept; we can create it when we don’t yet have it physically.

I’ve also noticed the ways in which space is also a physical concept. We can waste space even when we have it physically. When I took three days off work to recover and ground myself after four weeks of caring for my elderly parents, I filled a whole day with housework! Did this create space for me? Certainly not!

The answer for me, I’ve discovered, is to create the space I need. And that’s about listening more closely to my body and my needs, and getting those needs met – something as women, we’re generally not good at. I’m learning that ‘space’ and how we create it, is different for everyone.



Thanks Lola. 

Are you feeling overworked and overwhelmed as a leader? Here are 3 simple ways to create space:

  1. Schedule it in! It seems obvious, but put half an hour on a regular basis for “thinking time”. Guard it as fiercely as you would a meeting with an important client.
  2. Don’t book back-to-back meetings. Allow at least 15 minutes in between one meeting and the next. Try finishing meetings at “ten to” or start meetings at “ten past”. That ten minutes of space can be a godsend.
  3. Get better at saying no. Read the essential book on this – Essentialism” by Greg McKeown – it’s filled with practical tips on how to create space.


  1. Alice on March 16, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Some room for reflection here. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Norman Chorn on February 20, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Space – to process what’s happening and what it means – is a critical component of insight. The insight process, sometimes called strategic intuition, adds the innovation dimension to leadership. A great read. Thanks.

  3. Heather Haines on February 17, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Great article – some powerful learnings there!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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