In the past three parts of this article (links below), I discussed what personal leadership is about. Holding up the mirror to our own behaviour can take 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 (see these 3 minutes of the famous talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown). Numbing is great for consumption, because people reward themselves by throwing money at needs that aren’t real. No doubt about it, guilt and shame are much better drivers of the economy than personal growth.
German philosopher Richard David Precht, who doubles up as an engaging, erudite talk host, interviewed the up-and-coming social democratic pretender to the German chancellorship, Schulz, a few months back. He made the excellent point that abstract entities like the EU fail to create opportunities for people to experience self-efficacy in connection with it.
Drawing the line to how our brains work: while we never completely forget the stuff we don’t access, access (what we call memories) is strengthened by emotional connotation. So whenever we associate something with emotions, positive or negative – and no, “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). This interview (in German) is thought-provoking, regardless of your political affiliation.
To close, let me come back to what leadership means for normal behaviour in everyday situations. Perhaps it's simply this: Before we act, step back and think: “Is what I’m about to do a reflection of who I am, and who I want to be?” If you find this question too self-centred, you can try a harder one: “Is what I am doing conducive to producing a world I’d like my children and grandchildren to live in?” We all get easily distracted, but we can choose to stop a moment and remember that whenever we act, we are exercising choice, whether we like it or not. So why not practice some joy and gratitude, and be in awe of all those small wonders we experience every day?
This is difficult to combine with the comfortable “more of everything, if possible for everyone but certainly for us, thank you” expectation that seems to have become our default mode… Especially since this tenet is related to economic growth, but at 8 bn people, hardly a sustainable model for the 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 the growing number of European Union countries for generations is an amazing and complex accomplishment, and it is upon us to pass on the message that it might be time to replace “entitlement mode” for “engagement mode”, and contribute more to what we want to see in the world. Just a little bit, and close to “home” already makes a difference, so it is quite OK to down one’s 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 truer of even more abstract entities.
I often feel that we have come to take too much for granted: that freedom is “free”, or that we no longer need protective systems like unions, government regulations, or even quality standards because they limit our freedom. We are voluntarily throwing away extraordinary achievements of the bourgeois society: for example by giving up courtesy, mutual respect, and nuanced expression in discourse – for the sake of “grabbing attention”. We are already so surrounded (and exhausted) by attention grabbers that we need special spaces to re-focus and calm down. Adults can somehow cope, and take steps like meditation or mindfulness practices, while children have a harder time… thus the prevalence of ADHS…
As a society, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, people who, often at great risk and always effort, have built the systems and the liberal-democratic order we enjoy and benefit from today. I believe that we can do a much better job at starting deeper conversations, in our closest circles and then beyond, about the society we want to create. This is no time for doom and gloom: technical advances are offering exciting possibilities as well as disturbing outcomes, if we just let the genie out of the bottle, instead of using them to shape our vision of a better society...
One thing is for sure: we cannot address the disruptions of our times that are around the corner by idealizing the past. There is an abundance of parties out there in many countries who mask their cluelessness about the future by glorifying a relatively recent past – but that’s just not how things – or people – work… yes, it might win an election, if the political opponent comes across as similarly clueless, or corrupt – but at what cost to society!
I wish you an engaged and engaging rest of the year, and that you can find ways to make a difference!
This is the final part of my Happy New Year Series. If you like these thoughts, you can find the previous three articles at these links:
Annette is a reflection partner for leaders, managers, and business owners - people who create contexts for others, and are committed to leading by example. She writes in her new blog at www.anedge4u.com, and regularly publishes on Linkedin.