September Thought Piece – How to not Walk into a Hole

For our second online leadership forum we hosted a global conversation between leaders who wanted to explore their journeys in light of ongoing challenges emerging in 2020.

Many thanks to our participants, who were senior leaders from a range of backgrounds, including: creative consultancy, leadership development, comms, PR, and HR.

We held the discussion in one large group, from which the following five core themes emerged. Each theme is illustrated by abridged, anonymised verbatim.

We took a different tack for September and framed the discussion with a quote from Nik Gowring and Chris Langdon’s 2018 book, Thinking the Unthinkable: “This is not just an era of change; it is ‘increasingly a change of era.’”

The authors argue that leaders are increasingly caught up in pressures that they cannot see clearly, and so the below the surface forces becomes unthinkable – until crisis looms, by which time it’s often too late to avoid it.  

The Covid pandemic hit hard, but there has also been an upside

All participants’ businesses had been impacted by Covid, to one degree or another. One leader in comms likened the impact to ‘being thrown off a merry-go-round and having to deal with a series of explosions’ as contracts were postponed or cancelled. Similarly, the founder of a travel PR business recalled,

‘Everything we’d built up over 10 years came crashing down, it was like a bottomless pit.’

Like much of the wider population, however, participants found that business began to level out, and some began to appreciate an upside to lockdown, such as being ‘less manic’, less time consumed with travel, and more time to reflect on work and the state of the world.

What they found with reflection was not always comforting.

The pandemic has exposed some serious underlying social tensions

For a leadership consultant based in America, lockdown led to conflicting feelings about her country. On the one hand, respect, and on the other, increasing fears about its leadership and direction. A UK-based leader in creative consultancy spoke of the wider global leaning toward populist political leaders who were perceived to be ‘pulling everything apart.’ A leader in financial PR, meanwhile found,

‘I’m worried about the state of the world. During Covid, social fault lines have come more plainly into view – race in America, economics in the UK. There’s no good ideas on left or right, they’re all reductive.’

Remembering similar feelings of despair when President Reagan invaded Afghanistan, the leadership consultant recalled her scientist father’s response in a letter at the time:

“Totalitarianism is against a fundamental fact of biology, molecules mutate and divide, forever dooming the attempt of dogmatists to impose monolithic viewpoints on mankind.”’

This long view of modern geopolitics prompted a leader who was until recently the director of HR for a global media group to muse that,

‘‘Jellyfish have survived for 200 million years, and they don’t have a brain. We do – perhaps that’s our problem.’

There was, of course, a serious point here. The human mind is complex, and often in conflict with itself. Over thousands of years of social evolution we have developed checks and balances – for good or ill – that have mediated and structured this complexity. Referencing the quote that we began the forum with, several leaders thought the speed of change now is so fast, that it’s not clear anymore what an era actually is.

Change is now so rapid, can we really distinguish one era from another?

One veteran of marketing thought that he had seen at least three eras come and go in the last thirty years (digitisation, social media and geopolitical re-alignment). In particular, his concern was that tech has shaped social development, not human needs, and the two are increasingly out of sync.

There was a widespread concern that social media is not a forum for ‘reasoned debate.’ For example, this from a financial PR perspective:

‘Social Media is humanity unvarnished. If you don’t name the fears, how do you have a conversation? It’s McCarthyism, there’s a Salem vibe. How is that a healthy environment for people to become architects of their future?

At the same time, the power of social media to connect people was seen as a huge positive, for example, the social mobilisation that led to The Arab Spring, action on climate change, and responses to the Covid pandemic. These competing views were seen by participants as being consistent with a ‘schizophrenic response’ to ‘change of era’.

How do we work productively with contradictory thoughts?

One participant characterised the ‘schizophrenic’ response as a draw to either ‘apocalyptic thinking’ or ‘naïve optimism.’ Another participant recognised a similar split in herself, informed by, on the one hand, her holocaust survivor mother’s experiences, and on the other, the optimistic store her scientist father placed in rationalism.

For another participant, the challenge was to balance idealism with the realpolitik of proving for others.

‘Working in an industry that hasn’t been known for progressive thinking, my concern is that I’m complicit. But then I have competing challenges: a family to support. I just find myself increasingly angry.’

Most participants observed a similar oppositional pairing in, for example, contemporaries relishing the upsides of lockdown, such as a cut in carbon emissions, at the same time as longing for overseas travel. There was some scepticism that the appetite to engage with climate change will be eroded by falling back on old habits. 

Bridging these examples of contradictory thoughts through dialogue was seen as essential. ‘Listening more’ to opposing perspectives was seen as important, as well as going forward with ‘collaboration, caring and compassion’ in mind.  

As leaders, we need to be open about vulnerability and support each other

After trying her ‘absolute best’ to look after her team during the furlough process, one business founder realised that she had to ‘let go of the outcome’ and look after herself. Another participant thought that leaders in SMEs are particularly under pressure and isolated, because ‘everyone’s looking to them for the answer, and they don’t have one – they have many.’

The general consensus was that leaders needed to show their vulnerability more, and, ironically, home working had forced this in one respect, because staff and clients could see into leaders’ homes during meetings, with all the personal ephemera that leaders might ordinarily try to conceal: pets, children, domestic clutter.

One participant, who had recently moved from a senior position in marketing to found a consultancy with three partners, had co-created a monthly, structured space in which vulnerability could be aired – a measure that several other participants applauded.

However, while revealing vulnerability was seen as a progression from top down leadership, there was also a concern about how leaders could be both more vulnerable with staff and retain authority.

Comment

It was satisfying to see the conversation that we started in August develop with new participants. Back then, one participant noted that this pandemic is an unfolding story that we’re all caught up in, but which it is too early to make sense of yet. In this continued discussion, I find myself wondering if what we were touching on in September – in particular, how to work more productively with contradictory thoughts – represents some of the deep material that will drive that story through the many inevitable twists and turns that are to come. Let me borrow from the mechanics of story for a moment in order to unpack that thought. Bear with me…

One way of looking at a story is that it describes a protagonist’s pursuit of a goal, which can only be reached by overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These obstacles are both external (such as enemies, love rivals, or monsters) and internal, (such as lack of confidence, or the ghosts of trauma). In attempting to overcome these obstacles, the protagonist becomes aware that what drives them is not singular, but split. On the one hand, there is their relentless determination to achieve their goal at all costs, (let’s call this the ego’s desire). On the other, obstacles to realising that desire surface deep emotional conflict, such as the need to collaborate with opponents, or moral compromise (let’s call these unconscious needs).

According to the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (and taking a liberty for a moment by melding him with the depth psychologist, Carl Jung), a happy (or in Aristotle’s language, comedy) ending, occurs when the protagonist learns to bridge the gap between their ego’s desire and their unconscious need in time to bring about the integration of the two. This integration then serves the good of their immediate, and sometimes wider, world: family, friends, community. A tragic ending on the other hand, is when the protagonist comes to this realisation too late, and their immediate and/or wider world suffers as a result. 

Now map that lens back onto your own life. It is a fundamental reality of being human that we experience a split between (largely conscious) ego desires and (largely unconscious) emotional needs. One highly effective way that we deal with that split is to project the uncomfortable, or ‘bad’ aspects of it onto others. Take social media as an example. When we make monsters of others in ‘unreasoned debate’ (as noted above), what we are failing to do is communicate with our own internal monsters.

Wherever this current unfolding story is taking us, leaders are like the hypothetical protagonist above. They can either facilitate dialogue between contradictory forces in their personal and professional lives for the good of their immediate world and/or wider world, or they can ignore them, in which case the tragedy is felt, potentially, far and wide.

Returning to the unfolding story notion, one participant in September, a leader in HR, noted,

I feel like we’re all in a film. The audience can see where the hole is and we’re all walking towards it.’

Organisations often lack structured spaces where leaders and their teams can productively engage in a meaningful dialogue between these split desires and needs. As change of era blurs from one to another at accelerating speed, I would argue that leaders have a crucial role to play in uncovering the hole that we collectively risk walking into.   

Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment 6th October, 2020