We are living in a time like no other. We struggle to understand the behavior of leaders who have forfeited integrity for self-interest and courage for conformity.
We look for hope. We find confusion and despair.
Meg Wheatley, author of “Who Do We Choose to Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity” presents a troubling scenario for our consideration. She suggests that we may be a nation in decline. Referencing the work of Sir John Glubb, who studied the rise and fall of 13 civilizations, she summarizes the stages of development and decline reflected in the behaviors of the culture. In all 13 civilizations, the stage preceding the final stage is the “The Age of Intellect.” Wheatley writes, “The belief takes hold that problems can be solved by mental cleverness rather than selfless service and courage…Civil conflict increases even as the empire is under dire threat. Instead of banding together to preserve the nation, internal political factions seek to destroy one another.”
Do these words reflect the experience we have today?
In client organizations, we have heard repeated stories of CEOs willing to entertain conversations with leaders who meet with the CEO in order to criticize their peers. That behavior cascades into the organization. We know of leaders undermining the efforts of another in order to elevate themselves. That behavior cascades into the organization. We have heard stories of decisions that have been made to eliminate jobs as a way of “right-sizing” without consideration to the disruption and loss in people’s lives. As long as people are considered human capital rather than human beings, those decisions and behaviors become easier for leaders to make. That behavior cascades into the organization.
Trust and cooperation are eroding. The volume of noise is rising as more and more people in communities and organizations live in fear and mistrust.
We must name our reality. We cannot be lulled into believing that what we are experiencing is an acceptable new normal.
Howard Zinn, historian, says, “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a victory.”
Each of us is faced with the enormity of the challenge. Each of us must have the courage to live in defiance of all that is bad around us. We must listen to what that means for us. We must ask: “What difference can I make where I am? Whom do I choose to be?”
There are times when it (the world as it is) seems all too big. The temptation is to shut down, to walk away, to keep silent.
Wheatley invites us to create “islands of sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas.” She is convinced that “whatever the problem, community is the answer. Humans can get through anything, as long as we’re in it together.” We are invited to become warriors of the human spirit, warriors of courage and compassion. It will require a willingness to move out of our comfort zones, to go to the edge to welcome an unknown future.
We may be moving toward the last stage of our existence as we know it.
Even so, we can decide what our “islands of sanity” will be like. We can live with integrity, compassion and courage. We can build community to welcome a new civilization. We can believe in one another. We can listen to one another. We can find common ground.
Thomas Merton, Catholic monk, author and activist, says, “Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.”
What will it be for us? Will we respond with courage? Will we break the silence? Will we expect more humanity from ourselves and our leaders?
Will we become the leaders we have been waiting for?