Is your context for leadership big enough?

I can’t hold myself back any more.

We need a larger – much larger – context for leadership than most of us are embracing right now.  It’s time to step up.

It’s possible that, in your role as a leader, you are the one who has been telling up-and-coming leaders that they need to think more strategically.  It’s possible that you are that up-and-coming leader, grappling to understand what “more strategically” even means.  Let’s face it, the day-to-day demands of your job keep you busy enough, without having to “think strategically” – even if you could understand WTF this phrase even means.

In 2016, it needs to mean more – much more – than it has ever meant before.

Seeing the earth from the moon

Recently, I came across a short film, The Overview Effect, which explores the experiences of five astronauts who got to see the earth from space.  These men and women describe the experience of awe they had on seeing the earth from afar and the paradoxical effect of both being at a distance from it and feeling totally connected with it – a part of the larger whole.  From this distance, they were able to transcend knowledge and to experience things they had previously known – though only at an intellectual level – are true.

From this distance, the astronauts were able to perceive both the beauty and the fragility of the planet.  I think of this as pure potential which is also at great risk.  The impact of clearing forests to cultivate crops, for example, are not only visible – they become clear.  As one interviewee put it, from this distance, it was clear that if the earth becomes sick, we all become sick.

On earth, we know this at an intellectual level and yet somehow remain separate from it.  And as long as we maintain this sense of separation, the earth’s future – our future – is at risk.

Our future:  an apocalyptic vision

Many commentators believe we are at risk: if we continue in the direction we are heading now, we face a dark and difficult future.

It’s pretty clear – as much as anyone might try to mask it – that we continue to live through major economic challenges and that, in fact, we’re not yet done.  Chris Martenson and his colleagues at Peak Prosperity, for example, continue to point to a further economic crisis, as they did in a recent blog posting, entitled Get Ready… Change Is Upon Us.  In February of this year, George Friedman gave one view of the emerging global situation, pointing to a fundamental shift in power from Europe to the US.  For me, the thought of a new era in which the US, under President D. J. Trump, is in power – well, it’s not a comforting thought to say the least.  In addition, Tobias Stone in the Huffington Post offers a truly apocalyptic view of the times we are in – pointing to a turning point in history, and a profoundly difficult one at that.

Why does it matter?

Why do we need to embrace a larger world view?

Even in the best of times, our ability to step back from our immediate concerns and view them in a larger context provides the basis for effectively assessing our situation, weighing the importance (or not) of the decisions that face us, making decisions and taking action.  Often, we see this in terms of stress management – to be able to do this is to be able to fulfil our goals whilst minimising the weight on our shoulders that comes with our responsibilities as leaders.

But our decision-making is also far-reaching in its impact.  It goes beyond our immediate well-being or that of our staff.  It goes beyond the well-being of our customers or even that of our shareholders.  Ultimately, the decisions we make contribute to the health of our planet or they undermine it.

If we have in our sights the impact of our decisions on the planet, we have some hope of shaping a future that serves life.  This is a future that is bigger than our next pay-rise or promotion and bigger than our next project deadline.  At the same time, many commentators are pointing to issues, at global level, that we are barely beginning to acknowledge, let alone to address.  Some hope that we can address them now, to avert disaster.  Some fear it is already too late.

As leaders, to do anything other than take these issues into account is to fiddle while Rome burns.

Current narratives – a wholly inadequate response

I wonder, how is your organisation responding to the issues outlined by Martenson, Friedman and Stone?

Please don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I don’t see progress in the world.  Nor is my daily life in any way miserable – I am blessed, truly blessed.  I hope you are, too.  Counting my blessings – in my case, keeping a gratitude diary – is part of my ongoing practice.  Even as I write this, I find myself connecting with heartfelt feelings of gratitude for everything that is in my life.

At the same time, there is a larger picture.

In my work with clients across multiple organisations, I see a narrative that is old, tired and untrue.  At best, it points to the cyclical nature of the economy, recognises that we have been in a down-turn, cleans out old wood and carries on as though everything has been sorted.  At worst, it imagines that nothing needed to be sorted in the first place or maybe – as a substitute for something as bold as a statement about what is or isn’t true – ignores a larger picture in favour of getting on with this month’s project or this year’s.

It hardly needs saying that our politicians aren’t doing much – no, any – better.

Measures of good health in the world

How do we begin to assess the health of our leadership approach?  I offer some thoughts below:

Are we pursuing life-serving goals?  How does your organisation support life on earth? Does it frame goals within the context of the health of our planet or of people, animals and habitats?  One of these goals relates to the distribution of wealth, such that people can meet their most fundamental needs – for food, water and shelter, for example, and to live in relative safety.  Yet research tells us that our resources are increasingly concentrated amongst the world’s most wealthy – only recently the charity Oxfam highlighted how the world’s 62 wealthiest people own the same as half the world’s population.  Take a moment to reflect on your goals or that of your organisation and how clearly they are designed to serve life.

Do we value all life equally?  In America, the current conflict between Native Americans and commercial interests over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline point to continuing systemic discrimination against particular groups of people.  This has also been highlighted in 2016 by the Black Lives Matter movement.  The current rise of the right in countries around the world suggest that as much as minority populations are asking for their needs to be given equal weight, majority white populations resist the implications of true equality.

Perhaps more profoundly – much more profoundly – this unknown speaker suggests, in a short video posted on Facebook, that the narrative of white versus people of colour “us and them” has a history and a purpose which distracts – deliberately – from the real issues that underpin the way the world works today.  This is the context in which I ask, to what extent does your organisation serve black and minority ethnic populations  including your staff, your customers and groups of people who are not within your immediate purview?

Are we looking after tomorrow as well as today?  How does your organisation act to conserve the planet for future generations?  Culturally, traditional native American thinking emphasises the importance of this goal and, as a result, indigenous tribes have long been campaigners on environmental issues.  At the time of writing, their continuing action to protect water supplies from pollution by a proposed oil pipeline illustrates how fiercely our quest for wealth is colliding with the protection of our planet for current and future generations.  Initial reactions to Donald Trump’s recent election highlight the likely impact on climate protection – see recent comments by Noam Chomsky, for example.

For some, climate change seems distant and somewhat unreal yet its effects are already visible if we choose to observe what’s going on in the world.  The history of the war in Syria – described by Al Jazeera as the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far – points to severe drought as a prompt for migration from the countryside into cities, prompting growing poverty and social unrest.  As a leader, you know whether sustainability is about multiple bins for the disposal of rubbish or whether it permeates your organisation’s vision, mission and values – climate, yes, but also education, prosperity, dignity and more.

Do we work within frameworks that support life, both now and in future?  There is a much larger question, which is about the frameworks in which we operate.   I am thinking not only of your organisation’s policies and systems (though this might be a good place to start) but also beyond this to legal frameworks, trade agreements and more.

Let’s take the economy, for example.  In 1992, James Carville, campaign manager to Bill Clinton in his successful bid to replace George H. W. Bush as president, coined the phrase “The economy, stupid”.  As long as you get the economy right, everything else will follow.

Clearly, we are not getting the economy right.

It’s clear that the world economy went through a significant downturn in 2008.  More fundamentally, George Friedman points to the fact that economics as it is currently conceived and designed doesn’t work, a topic that exercises Bernard Lietaer, author of a number of books on money.  Here’s Lietaer talking about Why Money Needs To Change Now.

The economy is just one example of the frameworks that govern us and you may say, “but we don’t create these frameworks”, which brings me to my next question:

Are we proactive in shaping our frameworks with clear, life-serving goals in mind?  Are you and others in your organisation playing a role in influencing the context within which you operate, such that the frameworks that guide you also support you in doing business in ways which serve life?

This is the point at which, as a leader, you begin truly to step up.  In this context, power is no longer something you seek to gain as proof that you are capable, worthy of the next pay-rise, successful or otherwise “okay”.  No, in this context, power is something you receive with humility and seek to exercise with the greater good in mind.  I am not talking about mindless self-sacrifice or corporate martyrdom.  Instead, I am talking about the mindful recognition that you are the guardian of the resources at your disposal and about a curiosity to define goals which maximise your opportunity to serve.  Sometimes, this is about doing what you can in a given context.  For the mindful, it is also about questioning whether you are in the right place – the right job, organisation or broader context – to do what you feel called to do.

If you’ve read this far… phew!  You have read!  And my own sense is that more – much more – needs to be written.

For now, though, I want to end with a question:  what next?

Perhaps you want to step back and ask yourself, how big is my “bigger picture”, and is it big enough?  Perhaps you want to allocate regular time to do your own research.  Perhaps you want to reflect on the questions above or to leave a comment below.

I hope so.  Our future depends on the sum of our contributions.

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