What does warriorship look like amongst the super-connected systems of 2020, when the world around us seems more baffling and unpredictable than ever?
There are two aspects of warriorship that increasingly feel like vital aspects of our leadership at this point in history. And yet, they can be the hardest to embrace.
1. “Nobody knows anything” – William Goldman
These words were famously spoken with reference to the process of ‘what works’ when making a movie. But perhaps we can accept that when it comes to life, fate, right and wrong and all that stuff… nobody knows anything.
Sure, we all have beliefs, opinions, moral codes.
But to believe these are ‘ours’ is a mistake – they are a patchwork of our parents, our culture, our experience, our neuroses, our instincts. To mistake this jumble of impulses for anything even approaching ‘the truth’ is a fast-track to self-deception. And it rarely helps us move forward constructively when it comes to conflict with others.
If you’re facing a difficult conversation with a team member who fundamentally disagrees with the course of action you’re taking, will it help you to reiterate how much you know, and how utterly moronic they are to follow a different interpretation of the “facts”?
Perhaps warriorship means letting go of the need to ‘know’ – being willing to accept that at a very fundamental level we know nothing.
And from that place of utter humility, do our best to make sense of the world as we see it, and as others see it, and try to tune into what might be emerging from the chaos.
2. “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them” – Maya Angelou
We can try to control other people, but it never works. We can try to control the world inside of us, but the thoughts and feelings will keep coming, thick and fast. So how can we have an impact? Create results?
They say that when you’re learning to ride a horse, the key is ‘soft hands’. Hold the reins too tightly, and you can hurt your hands and restrict the horse’s movement. Hold them too lightly and the horse will run wild. Soft hands is about holding the reins just lightly enough to be able to influence this creature that is countless times more powerful than the person sat on its back.
Even before COVID turned our lives upside down the idea that ‘change is the new normal’ was so widely expressed as to have become a cliché. Now, as restrictions around travel and social gatherings shift in different parts of the world on a daily basis, it’s becoming clearer than ever how fragile the structures we’ve built our societies around really are, and how unfathomably complex and unpredictable the world really is.
Leadership which revolves around an ability to micro-manage every possible outcome is no longer an option.
Perhaps warriorship means letting go of the need to control the world around and inside of us – rather, just noticing it, and choosing what response will influence things in the direction that is needed in that moment.
There’s an old Yiddish saying – ‘Mann tracht, un Gott lacht’. Man plans and God laughs. If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it’s that we should at the very least hold our plans for the future lightly, if not throw them out of the window altogether.
So what tools might help us to accept, and even embrace, the fact that we might not be in control?
The Story of Systems
If we let go of our need to be in control of everything that’s going on, there’s an alternative framework that might be a bit more useful. We can think of it as a story that might help us navigate through a world that can seem to shift under our feet in an instant, but which we can still influence if we choose to.
Maybe we could call it ‘the story of systems’…
In explaining his thinking about the relationships between all elements in nature, and particularly between people, the British-Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler developed what he called ‘Holon Theory’. The word ‘holon’ is Greek for ‘whole / parts’, meaning literally the whole that is simultaneously a part.
The simplest example is to think of a person. Every person is made up of many constituent elements, systems that integrate to form the whole functioning being: the nervous system, the respiratory system, the digestive system. But each of these systems is also comprised of separate elements – for instance, the nervous system’s brain, spinal column, nerves.
And yet, the brain itself is formed of countless billions of neurons and synapses, communicating constantly via unimaginably tiny neurotransmitters. And each of these elements is formed from molecules, from atoms, down to the tiniest subatomic particle – all working in harmony to create the person standing before you.
And this person is themselves part of many systems – a family, a work team, a community. These systems are part of something greater, and then something greater still – we could end at the point at which we consider the ‘world system’, but even then some would propose that, until we can prove otherwise, we should consider ourselves part of systems that we cannot even conceive of as yet.
The key here is that everything is interconnected. Imagine an infinite number of concentric circles, a movement in one causing ripples that are felt in every other one to some degree. In such a way individuals or small groups of individuals can effect tremendous change for better or worse, influencing the collective consciousness of massive systems.
Ripples in Cyberspace
In June we talked about the call to courageous action that we see represented in this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. All over the world people of all ages and colours took to the streets to call out police brutality and systemic racism.
The ostensible catalyst for the protests was the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. But this horrific crime only became a trigger for action because it was caught on camera and found its way onto the screens of countless millions of phones and laptops around the world.
Some who saw what happened were moved to put down their devices and take to the streets. Some began the often-painful process of reflecting on their own role in supporting the infrastructures of racism. Others took to the streets to form their own counter-protests or gathered online to rail against ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice warriors’, and sometimes to hurl toxic racist abuse.
A life was taken in Minneapolis. The ripples of that event were felt all over the world. And in responding in whatever way they did many millions of people caused their own ripples, and the world was changed – for better or worse, depending on your perspective.
So, even though we cannot possibly control what is happening, it’s critical to remember that every action we take as leaders has an impact.
It has never been more important to be conscious about the way in which we choose to influence and be influenced by the world.
This is how things have always been – we are part of systems that influence us and that we influence in turn. But in the age of social media that process has been amplified exponentially. The internet gives us access to every fact and opinion that exists. The world sits in our laps and on our phones, influencing us and waiting to be influenced in every moment. It has never been more important to be conscious about the way in which we choose to influence and be influenced by the world.
As global leaders we have a responsibility to take a holistic view – to be informed by the bigger picture whilst also being conscious of the impact of our actions, however small they might seem.
On its current trajectory the world is only going to get more complex, more connected, and more chaotic.
The question for us as people and as leaders is, how do we choose to show up?
How do we find those moments when we can influence the systems we are part of and use those moments in a way that is in service of those systems?
When is the moment for a kind word, and when is the moment to fight? When is the moment to stand up, and when is the moment to sit back and wait?
The answers to these questions may not be in the intellect, where most of us have been conditioned to search. There is a deeper wisdom that comes from slowing down and just listening.
From that place of stillness and non-attachment the answer will unfold.