Optimism is a strange animal. On the one hand, it can power us to action and inspire others, whilst on the other it can become vehicle for denial and procrastination. Optimism is an animal to be treated with respect and caution.
There is a lot of the shadow side of optimism around at the moment. As I listened to the news this morning, the comments of the Conservative rebels in yesterday’s vote in the Commons saying they still back Boris, but need him to change chimed with those of companies committing to “net zero” on a clearly expedient, temporary basis. Kicking the can down the road rather than dealing with the evident issue at hand. Optimism as a tactical weapon.
Perhaps the most optimistic industry sector we have is leadership education. We spend over three hundred and fifty billion dollars a year on it, in the hope that a week or two away somewhere pleasant will give managers enough confidence to change the culture they are on a temporary break from. I cannot think of a single leader who is changing our world at the moment who has acquired their capability on a leadership course.
The issues we face are clear, even if not fully understood. We consume too much. We distribute the proceeds from the process of creating what is consumed unfairly, and our accounting systems pay no regard the irreplaceable raw materials we use in doing it. Sustainability is not an aspiration, and the lack of it is smothering us today.
Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to return to optimism. To take individual responsibility, and work with others close to us to make the small differences we can, in the hope that it will be enough.
In the midst of all the fragmentation, blaming, recriminations and other symptoms of the uncertainty we are experiencing, new ideas and opportunities are emerging if we can only see them. Ways of working, collaborating, and changing the way we live, travel and consume, all of which we need to entertain.
Many of them challenge accepted practice and vested interests. That does not mean they can be easily dismissed. Turning people and ideas into enemies is a lazy and counterproductive way of dealing with them. The challenge of leadership today is to find ways of engaging with those people and ideas we do not understand, like or trust. That in turn means we have to try new things, often without the comfort blanket of data, trusting our intuition and senses, and be prepared to learn through serial small failures. All of this, of course, we know – it’s been the stuff of thought leadership for well over a decade, although, of course whilst nice in theory requires courage to try. We’d rather watch.
However, in a world of Covid the sequel, storms in our own temperate climate that knock over the power grid for thousands of people for days, and the forced hurrahs of a COP26 that made lukewarm progress which relies of vague promises more than current action, we can watch no more. “They” may have to change, but so do we. Ouch.
I’ve been reflecting on what that means for me, the work I do, and who I do it with. I have the considerable luxury of being post mortgage with grown up children, so have more flexibility than those who do, and that feels like an obligation. If I don’t experiment with how things work, what right have I to expect it of others?
The challenge of course is that there is no text book, case study, or expert for the times we are in. Plenty of opinion of course, but mainly from observers rather than practitioners. There are no Gurus for now, so we have to do the work to be our own.
Here are my experiments that are going live:
Firstly, to change the balance of what I do. During Covid the first, I. like many others had far more time to learn by reading and talking. It was energising, enjoyable but had limited impact on the things I want to impact – people’s relationships with themselves, their work and the planet. As we started to come out of lockdown, there was a glorious few weeks where the amount of “doing” increased and led to a wonderful learning loop – think, do, assess, reflect, repeat. But that period was very short – in no time at all, the “doing” started dominating and whilst it might make my accountant smile, robbed me of the time to pay enough attention to those who has sustained my learning during the pandemic, and I was headed for the other end of limited impact – too much doing, not enough learning. So, action number one – head back to the “Goldilocks” zone. Block out time in my diary, tame the monster that my automated diary scheduler had become, turn down work that doesn’t offer real learning, and pay attention to my small, precious, valued, community and those clients striving to do what matters – they are all the places from where my motivation and learning flows.
Secondly, focus on what matters to a greater extent than I have been. I love variety and diversity in what I read, and lockdown had been like a retreat. However, If I am to make the impact I feel I can, I will have to concentrate. For me, that means enabling and feeding conversations that matter. Lighting and kindling many small conversational ‘fires” that thrive on purpose, curiosity and experimentation and connect them to each other until we have a blaze,. Trust that blaze to find its own direction.
Thirdly, recognise that the enormous bank of knowledge I have built over fifty years of practice, whilst valuable and comforting, does not contain the answer. I have to learn new things by doing. For me, that means finding ways of working with things I cannot accept, overcome or ignore and which I often do not like or trust. If we are to leave the old behind, and find ways forward, I think there will be a lot of that to be done. There are some great teachers out there, and they need a hand.
It is often said that if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. What Bill Torbert also said, quoted less often, is that if we’re not part of the problem, we can’t be part of the solution. It’s time to recognise that responsibility, engage and step up. More people, more steps, more often. We need to be in the game, not watching it.
Three things is enough. As we approach the Winter Solstice, it’s a reminder to reflect on where we are and that things will change. With us, or without us.
Things that have inspired me this week.
The artistic side of Storm Arwen.
Found via the Hiut Denim newsletter, a wonderful example of the force of nature as the winds turn a wire fence into a thing of beauty.
Shut up and Listen. This Ted talk is one of my all time favourites. Passionate, insightful and funny with a real lesson. An evergreen.
A Failure of Imagination. This truly inspirational ten minute video came via Alan Moore’s wonderful newsletter, and it’s a must watch. A stunning exercise in beautiful simplicity with not an MBA, a business plan, or a growth consultant in sight.
What day is it? the pandemic has disrupted our relationship with the metronome of work that is the week. A great article from Aeon Magazine on the history of our relationship with the seven days.
Covid is not an old person problem. Nassim Nicholas Taleb strikes again. As we get older, we die because we get old. If we allow ourselves to think it’s ok for the old to die of Covid, what about heart disease, diabetes, cancer…… I have a vested interest of course, but it’s an interesting philosophical and moral point.
One of the characteristics of our culture right now is the distinction between the contributors and the hoarders. Under pressure, the contributors create, experiment, try and fail as they look for ways forward, whilst the hoarders gather together as much as they can and wait for winter to pass. Adam Grant describes the case well in “Give and Take“, and others have looked at the situation over centuries and noted the same. However, stand back enough, and we can see the typical pattern as fractal cycles – broadly, create, grow, hoard, decay – and regular, a circular pattern where decay prepares the ground for creativity.
We are alive today in a period where the longer cycle of civilisations – around two hundred and fifty years – is in its final stage of decay. Right now we appear to be in something of a “double bubble” – a downturn in the short term perspective of our economy, contained within the longer-term downturn of our capitalist civilisation. And, no, it’s not your fault any more than gravity is.
The challenge to us is that we know it, and we have a choice to make – whether to focus on hoarding what we can find of what’s left or creating the conditions for the new. I’m sure I am not the only one who is repelled by the sight of hoarders playing in space observing the impact of their hoarding below, even if only for ten minutes. On the other hand, whilst we have created conditions that have rewarded hoarders for a few generations, Thomas Picketty’s observation that return on labour is chronically lower than the return on capital indicates we are at the end of a temporary phenomenon. Just about all the hoarding has been done.
We have to create in such a way we can all thrive on this planet, and I think that is less about fighting over what has been hoarded and more about creating what cannot be – communities, societies, culture, friendship, and yes, love. We cannot hoard relationships.
Hoarding strikes me as such a sterile and myopic activity, grounded in pessimism and hopelessness, yet we have institutionalised it in corporations whose prime reason for existence is to hoard.
Corporations will not create the conditions we need for what is next because it is not their nature.
What will take us there are conversations in small groups about what is important to us and linking those conversations together to weave a better fabric for society. People in groups who share a purpose defined not by accumulation but grounded in creativity and optimism for what we are capable of as humans.
The indications are we don’t have long before it becomes too late, so it’s time to start. Someone close by you is beginning this sort of a conversation if you choose to listen. We all have a voice, and need somewone to listen.