The challenges that leaders and organizations face today are interconnected. They are not a set of problems. It is a system of economic, technological, societal and cultural challenges – all conjoined and hence complex. As a result, it is time to view surprises as the new normal, and steady state as the exception. The difference over the past decade is the increasing speed with which leaders need to address multiple challenges – often simultaneously.
The major transformational shifts that we face in terms of a growing world population, changing demographics in developed/developing countries, globalization, growing inequality, digitalization, The Internet of Things, 3D-printing, the rise of machines and automation of jobs, big data, radical transparency and the move from profiteering to purpose driven organizations based on shared values, are merely ongoing technological, environmental and social processes. However, when it comes to changing our perception of normal and understanding of the world, the effect cannot be underestimated.
Shifting vantage point
We find ourselves at a stage between The Industrial Age and The Network Age, which is hardly breaking news to anyone; but recent years have accelerated the interconnected shifts. So why is it that we as human beings continue to pursue strategies that we know are wrong? Why is it that we fail to change our course?
Charles Dickens offers some insight into that question. In 1859, he wrote A Tale of Two Cities to describe a period of turmoil in London and Paris.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
These words illustrate a crumbling elitist hierarchy. Louis XVI and other leaders at the time chose to ignore the many signs of widespread discontent around them and refused to see that fundamental change was on its way. The result was one of the most significant shifts in history: The French Revolution. It is worth remembering that Dickens wrote his book 70 years after social and political upheaval in France began. This illustrates that we often struggle to see progression in the moment because we lack the benefit of hindsight as major shifts unfold in society.
According to historian Thomas Kuhn, the change of a system is ultimately caused by the accumulation of anomalies – observations that cannot be explained by the prevailing paradigm of beliefs and mindsets. As anomalies increase in number and severity, the need for an alternative worldview becomes clearer, and eventually a new paradigm is developed that can solve more problems than the old one.
The closest comparison to the present change would be the Renaissance and Enlightenment collectively viewed as a period of transition from The Middle Ages and all that this entailed in terms of challenging existing knowledge, sciences and mankind’s self-perception manifested in its beliefs and values. It was an ‘in-between’ time with many regarding the rise of individualism, the new economic reality of states and the decline of feudal power as a paradigm shift.
Today, we find ourselves in similar ‘in-between’ times – a liminal state – between two major patterns of socioeconomic reality. The term liminality describes a state of transformation with huge implications for culture, community, identity and values. It is a stage of ambiguity and disorientation that precedes a breakthrough to a new way of thinking. During liminal periods, social hierarchies are often reconfigured, continuity of traditional habits becomes uncertain, and future outcomes – once taken for granted – are questioned. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid situation that eventually enables new ways of thinking, learning, doing and being to become established.
A state of being
When life is changing and constantly in motion there is less stability to hold onto. When our worldview and what we hold to be true is challenged, we experience a sense of personal disorientation similar to a culture shock, the effect of unfamiliar life and radically different social environments, now, however, in an ongoing perpetual cycle of changing realities. We are under such constant bombardment that no illusion allows our mind to rest; instead, we are in a constant state of raised awareness. In Buddhism the term Dukkha describes that state of being. Dukkha is the pain you experience when you cannot figure out how to let go of what is no more. It is usually translated into English as “suffering” but it also means temporary, limited and imperfect.
Exercising good leadership requires human knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, it requires that you know yourself. Soren Kierkegaard described how important self-insight is in order to rise to the occasion as a human being. He emphasized that we must look inward in order to see outward, change obsolete strategies and make better decisions. This is a conscious process that requires contemplation, peace and a more focused attention than what we are seeing today, when we often find ourselves in a state of high intensity, which consumes the lives of many leaders.
The choice is yours
In the film The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is presented with a choice by a mysterious character called Morpheus. Morpheus offers Neo two pills – a red pill and a blue pill.
The red pill will answer the question: ‘What is the Matrix?’ The blue pill will allow for Neo’s life simply to carry on as before.
The question of which pill to take illustrates the personal aspect of the decision – whether to live on in ignorance or whether to lead what Aristotle referred to as ‘the examined life.’ The question then is not about pills, but rather about what they represent.
The blue pill represents the status quo. It will leave us as we are, in a life full of habits and things we believe we know. The red pill on the other hand represents an unknown quantity and the pursuit of trying to understand the world we live in. It symbolizes risk, doubt, questioning and, ultimately, enlightenment.
The scene in The Matrix illustrates the difficult choice that business leaders face nowadays. Do you acknowledge the new reality and adapt to it? Or do you choose to carry on with the same mindset, skills, behavior and organizational culture, knowing that it will potentially damage your future existence?
Enlightenment never comes cheap. The same applies to the transition from The Industrial Age to The Network Age. But one thing is certain: We live in a time that offers great opportunities for reinvention.
The question is whether you take the blue pill or the red pill?
Kenneth Mikkelsen is a leadership advisor, speaker and writer. He is Director of FutureShifts and currently writing a book about the need for expert generalists in modern organizations with Richard Martin. Follow him on Twitter @LeadershipABC.