Escape Velocity

The 50th anniversary of landing on the moon took me to thoughts about escape velocity. For earth, a little over 11km/s, or Mach 33, or several times the velocity of a high powered rifle bullet. The energy needed to escape the pull of the familiar.

We are currently trapped in a numbers driven economic system, largely detached from considering it’s externalities – the unintended consequences of the headlong push for growth. Our escape velocity will be determined by what we value.

We have allowed ourselves to become limited by the gravity of an orthodoxy that may well kill us unless we escape its pull.

There are however signs, and not just from the likes of Extinction Rebellion. People closer to the centre of the current orthodoxy. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, is making a stand. So too is the head of Moore Stephens speaking at The European Court of Auditors – not a body I have previously associated with radical action.

Good though this is, it seems unlikely that this is where the leadership we need will come from. They have little to risk.

The real impetus, the energy needed for escape velocity will come from those who do have something to risk. Those who will do differently, from the outset. Who will view value as more than numbers.

Smaller businesses, individuals without the security of an established career.

Those for whom the risk of standing out is real.

Which is most of us.

Build your own Paradigm

Our lives and businesses are defined by periods that appear relatively certain, intespersed with short periods of relative chaos from which emerges a “new normal”, until the next element of relative chaos.

I have felt that on a number of fronts, we are in a such a period of real chaos right now. It’s not “bad” (although it feels bad as we transition from “old normal” to “new normal”). The pain only stops when we adjust our expectations and actions to embrace the emerging new normal.

There was an excellent piece on Linkedin by Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital on the financial aspects of this. He has long based his investment strategy on these changes, or “paradigm shifts”.

A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. A collection of personal experience, unconscious biases, heuristics, and groupthink that we accept as truth for a while.

All the indications are we’re coming to an end of the last one.

It’s not only finance of course. Coming to terms with inconvenient truths, such as climate change, demographics, globalisation, artificial intelligence and suchlike is a big load to bear. These changes are as unwelcome and threatening as they are real. All of them imply significant changes to the way we live and work, some of them existential.

So what to do?

Get your retaliation in first. Not by following populists whose stock in trade is to deny and blame, and who present a charismatic (but lazy) “solution” to sort it out and go back to the old normal.

Move ahead of the curve; build your own paradigm:

  • We can argue all day about the reality of climate change, but if we think in bets it’s far more likely to be real than not, and the downsides to acting as though it is real is limited. Act accordingly. That way, we’ll still be here if we find out it’s wrong.
  • Our current wealth model is unsustainable. We need those with the wealth (social, financial, economic, technical) to lead, not defend, and the rest of us not to blame them for being wealthy. It’s not as though they were that clever, it is the “Matthew Principle” systems we have created. We need to find better systems.
  • Look for and recognise the opportunities that reside in a different paradigm. We have phenomenal tools to create a more sustainable world based on generative mindsets. It does not have to be a fight.
  • Take responsibility. We are where we are. Don’t wait to be rescued. Make a choice about what you do, who you work with, why it’s worthwhile. Use the power of being a wise follower.
  • Accept that periodic fads are just that. It used to be business process engineering, then lean sigma, and the latest one that seems to be biting the dust is agile. For a while, these things are useful, but they are never the truth and have limited life spans.

Your imagination and humanity are not fads. They are the engine of what we might create.

Time to bring them into play.

Following

Maybe, in times of uncertainty and rapid change, following is the most important thing we can do.

Following is a choice. By accepting and commiting to a leader’s premise, we are defining ourselves. Our values, our hopes, our aspirations. By following we become personally accountable for the outcomes .

A leader cannot be a leader without followers.

Both “leading” and “following” imply movement. From here, to there. Joint effort to an agreed destination for a specific purpose.

Following infers risk. It’s not often the Generals that lie bleeding on the battlefield.

So, perhaps we have three options.

  • To Lead. In pursuit of something we believe in , to commit ourselves and face the dangers. The Hero’s Journey.
  • To Follow. To make a conscious decision to back the vision and capability of a leader, putting yourself on the line by making your decision.
  • Fatalism. To do nothing, in the belief that you can do nothing, and that what will be will be.

Each is a conscious choice. When we decide to do something, to say yes to something, no to something, or take a time out, we are making decisions and defining ourselves.

Each time we put a cross on a ballot paper, take a job offer, follow somebody on social media, or watch and do nothing we are defining who we are to others, and of course ourselves.

Who we follow is a serious decision, with consequences. Take it seriously.

We are all accountable.