So welcome to the final episode of 2021. Do you ever notice when you get to the natural end of a period, that you’re prompted to look back to where it all began? And I can remember when I started the very first episode of Leadership in Chaos from self-isolation, way back in March 2020, one of the things that many people asked me was, well, why did you start a podcast about chaos when it’s all going to be over by the summer? And then when it wasn’t over by the summer, I had some people that by September came back and said, well, by the time we go back to school and we’re back to normal, again, it’ll all be over, so why start a podcast about chaos?
This began to prompt the idea of the desire, belief, almost necessity we have for things to be normal. This desire is reinforced by where we were, at precisely this time last year as a global society. We believed we’d be back to normal by 2021. At the start of December last year, mid-December, we believed it’s all over. We have done our penance with the pandemic. 2020 was the annus horribilis that we can safely put behind us, and in the new year, we’d be back to the New Normal. Yet here we are, another year on, with case numbers rising exponentially, restrictions being imposed across the globe, with a form or a feeling of Groundhog day-ja vu. And instead of having the comfort of all the answers, we’ve just got even more questions.
And even just before Omicron catapulted us back into a new state of chaos, the conversation was all centering around the return to office. Once again, the narrative was underpinned by this idea of a return to a New Normal. From a leadership perspective, this unquestioning, idealizing of the promised land of a New Normal, is one of the most unhelpful and misrepresentative tropes, for all that it is one of the most natural and human conditions. I say natural and human, because it is at the core of our most primal human fears, that of the loss of control and counter balancing that by the need for certainty. So this striving constantly for the New Normal is nothing more than an unconscious psychological device to provide us with, and keep us sane.
However, the flaw is, that built into it is the assumption that things will be normal. And here’s the news, things will never be normal. In fact, Things have never been normal. This desire and expectation for normal is not just a pandemic thing. One of the most common remarks that I’ve heard consistently, over the past 30 years of dealing with leaders and leadership, is something that goes like the following. I can’t wait for this project to be over, or this merger to be over, or this transformation to be over, so that we can get back to some sense of normality. And in each and every case where I heard a remark like that, they all had one thing in common. Normal never happened. Because what’s normal is change. And change is always associated with chaos. And then it’s only a matter of whether it’s a small C chaos, or like in the current pandemic or COVID, it’s a capital C.
Now BC, or before COVID, all the talk was about a VUCA world, VUCA standing for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. But VUCA itself, wasn’t new. In fact, it dates back to the mid-1980s and was used by the U S military academy, to describe the circumstances and the conditions that prevailed during the Cold War. Prior to that, again, I can remember in our political environment in Ireland, we had an era which was called the GUBU era, which stood for grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. Just another acronym lovers method of reflecting the chaos.
You see in summary, normal or what we mean by normal, which is some calm level of stability that normal never happens. It’s just an illusory crock of gold, that never appears at the end of the rainbow, and it’s there to make our present discomfort feel somehow bearable. So ground zero for leaders today is accepting that chaos, or abnormal, is the constant condition we need to operate in, and get qualified in operating in, and skilled at operating in, is the fundamental assumption we need to start with as leaders today. And the reason that’s hard to reconcile for us, is that it goes against our unconscious primal fears and needs, and moreover, it makes us feel uncomfortable. So as CrossFit neatly summarized in their slogan, we need to, as leaders get comfortable with uncomfortable.
One useful guide for the mindset required for this is recorded in Jim Collins’ work around good to great. Specifically, he identified that all leaders who mobilized their enterprises from good to great, had in common that they had to endure, encounter, and deal with great adversity along the way. Ironically, the adversity was critical to their success in the long run. As Douglas Malloch’s poem records, good timber does not grow with ease, the stronger winds, the stronger trees.
There were two things that characterized the leaders who overcame adversity in terms of how they approached it. The first was an unwavering belief that they would, in the end, prevail. But significantly, they didn’t just take refuge in that unwavering belief. In addition to that, they accepted and dealt with the brutal facts of the reality that they were facing in the present.
This duality, which is apparently paradoxical, is sometimes labeled the Stockdale Paradox. And the name refers to an Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military officer who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, and was tortured systematically over an eight year period between 1965 and 1973. He had no rights as a prisoner, there was no release date, and there was no certainty as to whether he would ever or even survive or see his family again. His book on the subject, In Love and War, is a very harrowing read. It’s depressing enough, even when you know the end of the story. His answer to the question subsequently, of how he survived, is very telling. He said, I never doubted, not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into a defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.
The key about this is how he treated the present. He didn’t treat the present with woe or pity or resignation. He used the present to understand what he could learn from it, and how he might then be able to use that for better effect, at a future time. When he was asked further, the question, who didn’t make it out, his response is, oh, that’s easy, the optimists. The optimists, they’re the ones who said, we’re going to make it out by Christmas, and Christmas would come and Christmas would go. And then they’d say, we’ll be out by Easter, and Easter would come and go. And then Thanksgiving. And then if not then, it would be Christmas again. They died of a broken heart.
So in short, believe that you will prevail in the end, in spite of the circumstances, but confront however brutal and however difficult the current circumstances are, because, in the chaos there’s gold in the dirt.
It only remains for me to say, that’s it for 2021. Thank you so much for following the podcast, it’s greatly appreciated. If you’d like to find me, connect with me on LinkedIn or check out the website, which is flowukandireland.com. In the meantime, wishing you a safe, sane and connected Christmas and New Year and we’ll resume hostilities again when we come back to the new abnormal of 2022.
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