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The first paid employment I ever had was in Southern Germany during the height of the Cold War. There, I worked as an agent for an American organization that sold American made cars to American soldiers. My success, as an agent, led to the company, approaching me and asking me if I wanted to become a manager. I was curious, so I asked, well, what does that involve exactly? They said, “Well, you got a new company car”. Well, that’s good. “You get an expense account”. Good. “And you got a corner office”. What was not to like. I said, anything else? And they said, “Oh, by the way, you will get a territory with some people to lead and manage”. “How difficult could that be?” I thought to myself.
It’s pretty systematic in organizations that the emphasis is very much on the reward, and little care is given in organizations to the actual responsibilities of leaders and managers towards their people and how to do that. Businesses are particularly ill-equipped to give people this facility and this skill, assuming that somehow people who are good technically, like I was as a salesperson, are miraculously going to understand how best to lead people and manage them.
This was true in peace time. In ordinary times. But this lack is now coming home to roost. And it was brought home to me recently by a leader who approached me in desperation and asked me the question, “Ian, how do you show strength to lead others when you’re having difficulty leading yourself?”
And this is at the heart at this moment of what is exercising leaders and making life extremely difficult. Because it’s the lot that we have as a leader, is that responsibility in the middle, to manage others whilst we’re trying to manage ourselves. Leaders are defacto the frontline, white collar workers of the peace today. At a time when, if I refer back to what I mentioned last week, the CEO forum that we hosted where 9 out of 10 CEOs, when asked the question, what their biggest struggle was at this moment in time and the thing that was keeping them awake at night, it wasn’t to do with revenue figures or profitability or market share or digitalization or supply chain. It was to do with the fact that, in 9 out of 10 cases, my people are struggling and I don’t know how to help.
It’s been interesting to observe the struggle that people as humans have experienced throughout the last 11 months in the lockdown. In lockdown number 1, whilst there was total chaos and shock, there was some level of novelty that people experienced, which created a form of solidarity.
The second lockdown was characterized by hope. There was a vaccine on the horizon. They were getting approval. Christmas was coming. And we were all promised parole and time off for good behavior.
Lockdown number 3 has a completely different recipe. It’s characterized where people’s spirit seems to be broken because instead of an end, there now seems to be no end. And there’s no end of complications. Various strains. Mutations. Complications with rollouts of the vaccine.
In my direct experience with our clients, people are in a worse place now than they’ve ever been since the start of the pandemic. The chaos that’s descended through the pandemic has been disruptive and the impact of it to date has been mostly witnessed externally. So the external impact has manifested itself in two ways. First, through the economy. And second, through our own autonomy.
So these are consequences that we’ve suffered. But they’re mostly external and material up until now. Everything from wondering about our job security, all the way through to, what does remote working look like and how do we homeschool the kids? What’s been apparent more recently, since the third lockdown and the struggle that I’ve just mentioned, is that the disruption and the impact has gone from being an external impact to increasingly, the longer this goes on, becoming an internal or an existential impact. And what I mean by that is people more and more are surfacing the idea that they’re struggling. And struggling for meaning.
If I look at the old world, the old world was set up to provide the ultimate distraction from having to think about meaning. The old world was characterized by distraction in many, many different forms. We traveled relentlessly. We built wardrobes. We populated our driveways with new Teslas and cars. We entertained like the end of days. Put all these distractions together and I’m reminded of the Brene Brown observation at the time. Which said that we are a culture of people who’s bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us. We were relentlessly busy.
Interestingly, through my years of working with corporate organizations and leaders, one of the most common types I encounter are what I call the Successful Empties. These are people who on the outside appear to have everything. They have the career, they have the achievements, they have the portfolio, they have the trappings. On the outside. But on the inside, it’s accompanied by an existential vacuum. And the more they strive to achieve more, the more empty they feel inside. And very often when I’m coaching with executives, this comes out because people are more honest there. And the catch cry normally is, I feel empty inside because I don’t know what’s it all for.
Growing up my generation weren’t particularly encouraged to seek meaning in life. Nope. That job was outsourced to popular religion. But the newer generations, from the millennials forward, have purpose and meaning very much on their personal menu. A John Hopkins university study recently discovered that 78% of their students rated purpose and meaning to be the most important thing in their life and career.
In fact, it’s one of the greatest difficulties and challenges that older leaders find trying to manage the younger generation, is their lack of understanding around the importance of purpose and meaning, because it was never part of their context originally.
Resilience is probably the most important thing that we need to cultivate. And there’s a very direct connection between resilience and meaning. Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” based on his experience as a Holocaust survivor said that the most resilient people in his experience during the Holocaust were those who were most successful at finding meaning even in an environment as hopeless as a concentration camp. He himself found meaning through his ability to help others with his training as a psychiatrist and as a physician.
Finding meaning, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s not like finding your keys. It’s not something that you go in pursuit of and all of a sudden, tada, you find it looking underneath the couch. It’s certainly not the idea of Douglas Adams in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. The quest of finding the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Which by the way is 42.
Paradoxically, meaning is something that you discover or you uncover when you are least looking for it. Apparently, you need to let it happen by not caring about it. You don’t aim at success or meaning because the more you aim, the more you’ll miss it. Meaning, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue. Meaning becomes a side effect of pursuing other goals. So this is not to say don’t set goals. But the goal is not to find meaning. Meaning comes from pursuing the goal. It just ensues.
So where do you look for this, and how would you start? Well there are three areas where you can discover clues to what this might be like, because meaning for everybody is different.
The first area is to explore your own talents and your own passions. What is it you’re good at? What is it you enjoy? What is it you feel strongly about? The second area to explore is to engage in something that provides something that is greater than you. And the third is simply to be present because we can only live one moment at the time.
And perhaps the greatest gift you could give as a leader to your people right now, who are struggling with meaning amongst other things, is just simply to be present with them in their struggle.
And who knows, it might even help you with yours.
One thing is for sure, it’s a long way from the corner office in Heidelberg.
Until next time, stay sane, stay safe, stay connected.
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