Early in the year, I set out to advocate some steps towards a happier New Year – and as this year is unfolding, it is certainly presenting us with experiences that can take us out of our comfort zone, so this still seems relevant. First, I’d like you to note that if you are reading this, you are likely to be better equipped to deal with ambiguity and complexity than most people around you. How is that? Well, it has a lot to do with your brain…
Brains like stable environments; and while change is its everyday business, it is not something the brain is particularly fond of. Grossly simplified, the basic interest of brains is energy efficiency: 90% of the processes our brain is constantly busy with are about keeping a stable internal environment. All this is completely independent of our control, and requires zero input from “us”, i.e. our prefrontal cortex. The biochemistry gets pretty complex, but you get the idea.
There has been a lot of talk recently about how “being out of our comfort zone” is actually a good thing. In reality, this state is the very thing our brain is working to avoid – which is why it will revert to its “old ways of doing things” when it is off-balance, if given half a chance. For the simple reason that it costs more energy, brains don’t like change. Time after time, they look for the most effective, energy-saving way of operating – which happens to be what they already know.
There is, however, one powerful and under-appreciated exception: we can outsmart this natural and very useful mechanism simply by connecting to a higher idea(l): a self-concept, an aspiration of who we want to be, values, or goals. In short: as brains go, meaning beats efficiency. People who feel in charge of their lives tend to have that higher ideal, and most of those tend to be leaders, if not necessarily in business. Only people who have in practice connected events and personal experiences to bigger goals (or better still, to their individual ambitions) can help others tone down their feelings of losing balance, and keep making an impact. It requires some translating, and before that, some hard thinking (plus having noticed things about other people in the first place!) but none of this will come as a surprise to leaders.
Having a personal ideal to live up to, and working on projects in which these ideals can materialize is a powerful antidote to experiencing feelings of helplessness and anxiety. But when we are in panic mode, we lose all sight of our long-term, deeper ambitions, and crude, caveman-esque instincts take over. This is when we need to actively reconnect with the “deeper fibers” to regain our balance, so that we can start operating rationally again. This is a practice that requires exactly that: practice, i.e. repetition.
Now “balanced” just like “centred” may not sound a very sexy ambition in view of current lingo of innovation, complexity, disruption etc. Yet the centre is no longer the boring, comfortable place for beige-clad people. It is the place between all chairs; and it is a little harder to be the voice of reason that carries responsibility, than producing ready-made opinions and slogans. As comedian Dieter Nuhr puts it: “Now that the bullying mainstream is gathering at the edges, perhaps rational people have to meet in the centre: The place where things are not so simple, because from there, one can see both sides and has to make careful evaluations. If more people embraced this extra effort in 2017, it could become a better year.”
While what we have in our part of the world is pretty good, and definitely by comparison to other parts of the world, it is also in need of a major overhaul. We somehow know that what our times ask from the systems – and expectations! – we have created cannot be achieved by fine-tuning. This is true almost regardless of whatever system we (dare to) look into: education, healthcare, pensions… to mention just a few that we are all aware of. We have a chance to renew our commitment to some fundamental tenets, and find out if we are willing to embrace systemic change. This means facing our insecurities, controversial debate, tough negotiations and ultimately, real decisions (not all of them “both-and”, but real “either-or” 🙂).
This would be greatly aided by higher level of debate, and a political class that was more interested in taking a lead and actively shaping the future, instead of merely administering and problem solving (which sounds better than trouble shooting or fire-fighting, but is just the same…). What we observe in debates today is what happens when a scarcity mind-set takes over: simplistic, conflict-oriented binary mine-yours, us-them thinking, with a fear-driven, “caveman” disqualification of “them”. This isn’t what will allow us to successfully address the challenges of our times. We need to replace these narratives with alternatives aligned with the natural complex world in which we live.
But it’s difficult to let go of the comfortable “more of everything, if possible for everyone but certainly for us, thank you” that seems to have become our default expectation… Especially since this tenet is related to economic growth, but at 8 bn people, hardly a sustainable model for the whole world. What we have and treasure today (and the next generation, for lack of comparison, often doesn’t even “get”) are not our birth-rights – the social contract that brought wealth and peace to Western Europe for over three generations is an amazing and complex accomplishment, and it is upon us to pass on the message that it might be time to “entitlement mode” for “engagement mode”, and actually contribute to what we want to see in the world.
Just a little bit, and close to “home” already makes a difference, so tone down expectations. While the world out there felt safe, and things were working just fine, nothing required our constant attention and personal involvement. Yet failing to actually engage in activities together with others to make our world a better place makes us prone to losing the precious social fabric and cohesion that people need to feel “part of something bigger” – not just at work, where people need to understand their personal contribution in order to perform at their best, but also in local, communal and national politics. This is even more true of even more abstract entities.
Yes, we have come to take a lot for granted: that freedom came “free”, or that we no longer needed protective systems like unions, government regulations, or even quality standards because they limited our freedom… As a society, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, people who, often at great risk and always effort, have built the systems we benefit from today. And now, we need to do a better job at starting deeper conversations, especially in our closest circles, and address the deep disruptions of our times. Once we allow the masks of human decency to fall, and have no supporting values to renew standards, human dealings look sordid. Below that veneer, things haven’t changed much since the Thirty Years’ War…
This is what personal leadership is about; holding up the mirror can be uncomfortable, and takes courage, but it’s our actions, as Albert Schweitzer famously observed, that inspire others: “Leading by example isn’t the most important way of influencing others. It’s the only one.” Over the years, I’ve met my share of people who were deeply ashamed of some of the things they did or supported, or just turned a blind eye to. On the other hand, those who decide to face adversity and stand up to bad things, pay the price for not giving up on the demands on their self-realisation. The alternative to paying that price – of standing up for their values, beliefs, and interests – is numbing our feelings (3 minutes of Brené Brown). Numbing is great for consumption, because people “reward themselves” by throwing money at needs that aren’t real. So no doubt about it, guilt and shame can be excellent drivers of the economy – much better ones than personal growth.
German philosopher Richard David Precht, who doubles up as an engaging, erudite talk host, interviewed Martin Schulz, the up-and-coming social democratic pretender to the German chancellorship a few months back. He made the excellent point that abstract entities like the EU naturally fail to create opportunities for people to experience self-efficacy in connection with Europe. Let’s come back to how our brains work: while we never completely forget the stuff we don’t access, access (what we call memories, and they drive our feelings and behaviour) is strengthened by emotional connotations. So whenever we associate something with emotions, positive or negative – “reason” won’t cut it – we dramatically increase the probability of its future recall. So how about creating some strong memories of achieving things together! Cohesion isn’t lost overnight, yet it can be mended overnight, one step at a time. It just takes intention and focus to create these experiences (or else, watch expert people manipulators hijack this natural tendency). The interview is thought-provoking, regardless of your political affiliation.
Coming back to what leadership means for normal behaviour in everyday situations. It’s simply this: Before you act, you can step back and think: “Is what I’m about to do a reflection of who I am, and who I want to be?” We all get easily distracted, but we can choose to stop a moment and remember that whenever we act, we are exercising choice about what we send into this world, whether we like it or not. Why not practice some joy and gratitude? Be in awe of all those amazing things we can still experience each and every day – right where we are now…!