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Crisis and Complexity

“In quiet and untroubled times, it seems to every administrator that it is only by his efforts that the whole population under his rule is kept going, and in this consciousness of being indispensable every administrator finds the chief reward of his labor and efforts. While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Sound familiar?

You aren’t crazy. The world is changing... and in a way that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.

In a private briefing from a family wealth advisor to family-business consultants, the very sober, steady, and experienced advisor said the following:

“I am the least hyperbolic person you will ever meet. I spend much of my time helping my clients to calm down, stay focused, and not make dramatic changes. However, I will say this. Ten years from now when we look back on this period from the vantage point of 2033, our world will look as different as it did in the years that divided the industrial revolution from the agrarian period. Core features of our lives and the current way we do business will be completely transformed.”

He couldn’t tell us precisely what to expect – except perhaps, the unexpected.

How do we prepare as leaders of businesses and families for potentially life-altering change without knowing exactly the direction of those changes? Here’s a few tips.

As Tolstoy says above, accept that our sphere of direct influence (those things over which we exercise meaningful control) is likely far smaller than it appeared during the prior period of calm.

That little sphere, no matter how small, is where we need to devote the lion's share of time, talent, treasure, and sacrifice. This can be jarring, but also liberating as our egos right-size to reality. As Pat Lencioni says in his book The Ideal Team Player, humility is perhaps the most important quality in a great leader (and it doesn't hurt to be "hungry" and smart as well).

We will do ourselves no favors by continuing to act as if we control the raging sea. We don’t. We’re not God, and thankfully don’t have to be. The real God already has that job covered. It’s actually not what those we serve need from us.

What people do need is the installation of hope – not that everything will be ok, but that whatever comes we’ll face it together and not alone (maybe everyone’s biggest fear). That’s leadership.

Second, know that the changes afoot might be unprecedented in our lifetimes, but they are not unprecedented in history. In the excellent book The Fourth Turning, generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, make a decisive case that the history of the United States follows a pretty darn regular cycle that repeats every 80-100 years or so. Each cycle has four parts: a “high”, an “awakening”, an “unravelling”, and finally (you guessed it) a “crisis”. If you put stock in Strauss and Howe’s theory, we’re now at the end of a cycle and… it’s crisis time. So, over the course of any long human lifetime, we’d all experience each of the four phases but only once and at different ages depending on where in the cycle we were born.

The role of our generation, the current seasoned leadership in place in business and beyond, is to see the others through this period of crisis. As a group, that will be our single most important contribution to history.

Whatever else seems uncertain, that is our job. That’s an important thing to know in any crisis. We have a mission.

Our peers from the last period of crisis would be people like WWII generals Eisenhower and Bradley, presidents FDR and Hoover, Popes Pious XI and XII – not bad company to be in. This was the established generation that led the teenaged and 20-something “greatest generation” (GIs and Rosy the Riveters) through to VE and VJ Day, and the resulting “high” period of the 1950’s and early 60’s.

However, even those luminous figures were carried along by events much more than they shaped them. Their true contribution was getting the incoming next generation to the other side. Whatever they thought their greatest life task would be before that period of crisis, the sea of history had its own plans.

Crisis periods typically include a clash of great powers, economic reordering, and a renegotiation of the social contract. The complete features of the current period of crisis are still taking shape and it would be a mistake to make too many prognostications. However, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to see that we are moving from a unipolar world dominated by a lone hyper-power (the US) who gets to make all the rules and call most of the shots, to a multi-polar world with new and rising powers muscling their way to the big kids’ table. Add to this a debt-based financial system that cannot continue as it is forever and social/cultural unrest at home... Well, you get the point.

Crises are always marked by these things. They feel unique to us, but not to history. This has happened before, and we will get through it. Take heart, after the storm comes the sun.

Finally, in the very loosely quoted words of my friend, consultant, and complexity theorist John Pourdehnad: When crisis and complexity converge – don’t waste energy trying to control it, just make sure you have what you need to “go for a ride”.

It won’t be boring, and we get to go together.

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