What is Happening Now
Organizations today are engaged in the pursuit of matching their marketing rhetoric to their brand voice in an attempt to appeal to consumers around political and cultural ideas that they believe are changing.
Celebrations, “months,” movements, are all roiling the American body politic as identity—which has long replaced principles as a guiding North Star in many people’s lives—begins to be the only primary way that institutions can interact with, sell to, and market their goods and services, to individuals.
Read that sentence again. Slowly.
Middle managers in organizations are now challenged to address areas of identity that they previously did not consider even worth thinking about in their workplaces and on their work teams. They are being herded into trainings, seminars, encouraged to read and absorb books with complicated political, philosophical, economic, and cultural underpinnings whose content may not necessarily be relevant to how they live and lead in the world beyond the page.
Some organizations have gone in the opposite direction and have banned all discussion of politics and culture in their organizations, hoping to stem the tide of anger, bitterness, resentment, and dismay that can cloud judgment, impact decision making negatively, and increase political activism at the expense of more bottom-line revenue-generating pursuits.
Whether or not you agree or disagree with the above analysis, this is what is happening inside organizations from scrappy start-ups to sprawling commercial brands, from cultural giants and tastemakers to social media stars and “influencers.” The challenge to business owners and operators is as it has always been: How do we train our people to lead teams and individuals through this time when the personal (identity) is seeping into the public (workplaces) where it was previously considered to be “off-limits?”
What is to be Done?
There are four areas leaders can focus on to develop themselves and to grow their personal toolbox of leadership skills that have nothing to do with chasing cultural fads, changing the color of brand logos, attending politically driven activist development training, or just giving up and staying silent in the face of change.
Competency – No matter what your personal political and cultural principles around the hot button identity topic areas of diversity and inclusion at the moment, leaders have a responsibility to grow in competency. This is so that understanding can be had about language, motivations, ideas, and positions that others may hold. The pursuit and attaining of competency—not agreement—in these areas is the strongest skill leaders can acquire right now.
Critical thinking – The increase in information and the decrease in critical thinking skills, combined with lowered attention spans and a race to the bottom by companies that our society has given permission to capture our data, has created a crisis. Leaders must understand that society isn’t crazy and that individual people aren’t stupid. Everyone everywhere is overwhelmed by the mass of information (much of it conflicting and riddled with bias and lacing clear objectivity) coming at them. Critical thinking skills can be attained through acquiring patience, extending attention spans by reading hard books, and by wrestling with hard ideas. Critical thinking also shortcuts the tendency of leaders to being slaves to ideological arguments that come packaged as objective truth claims.
Insight – Different than critical thinking, insight is the skill that enables leaders to see the whole field of view without being overwhelmed, overmatched, or becoming overwrought. Insight brings patience, encourages planning, engages with questions rather than just assuming answers, and engenders trust from others. Leaders who have insight as part of their leadership character don’t react, they respond, and carefully. They are also able to withstand attacks, answer questions, and defend their positions once a decision has been made.
Wisdom – Due to a lack of historical understanding and the capture of many people by the forces of identity ideologies, wisdom is in short supply. Leaders understand that wisdom is not just the property of sages and men with long beards. Wisdom is the combination of life experience, critical thinking, historical knowledge, interest in others, deep insight, humility, and a desire to pursue Truth, that allows leaders to lead others with empathy and firmness. Leaders with wisdom know that history began more than just ten minutes ago on Twitter and that what we do today in our lives echoes through others’ lives in ways that we cannot begin to comprehend.
What are Leaders to Conclude?
These four areas of competency, critical thinking, insight, and wisdom are under attack as positional leaders in organizations react to the news of the day, rather than preparing to respond to the challenges of tomorrow.
These four areas are in danger of becoming passé as the worst elements of an appeasing mentality creep inexorably into the minds of leaders in various industry verticals.
These four areas, however, are still available for individual, middle-tier leaders to reach out and grab a hold of even as the candle melts up from the bottom, and melts down from the top.