by Howard J. Ross, Founder & Chief Learning Officer
We are experiencing a fundamental revolution in how people see their world and how that impacts the nature of organizations, communities, government and leadership. We are just beginning to see what that revolution may mean, and both the possibilities and the dangers it presents.
Tea Party Movement, rising in a flash to dramatically impact the mid-term elections and the way we are being governed. WikiLeaks splashing thousands of secret documents around the world. “Instant rebellions” springing up in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and throughout the Middle East. Facebook hitting its 500 millionth member (approximately 1/13th of the people on the planet are now members!). Tens of thousands of citizens mass in protest of budget cuts in Wisconsin.
Each of these is a distinct event. Yet, in many ways these events are not unlike other protests, uprisings, or even leaks of the past. I am definitely not comparing the protests in Wisconsin to Libya or anything of the sort. But I have long been a believer in systems thinking and I don’t believe much in coincidences. (Coincidences do happen. But far more often things are connected in ways that we don’t see). So, if we look at all of this collectively, could it be telling us something about the world that we are living in? More significantly, can these events tell us about the world that we can anticipate?
There are a number of significant trends that are coalescing in the appearance of all of these activities:
• Collective Stress – created by both the prolonged economic crisis and tension in the world about security. We are feeling this stress in a different way than we have experienced it before. It seems like entire countries (including the U.S.) are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
• Technology – now allows us to transmit information faster, broader, and deeper than ever before. Across our current technology tens of millions of people can be mobilized within days, hours or even minutes. I remember when we were organizing rallies when I was a young social justice activist back in the 60’s, staying up all night printing flyers on an old mimeograph machines and then scouring the community putting them under windshield wipers of cars, in mail boxes or stapled to telephone poles. It took dozens of people hours or days to reach 20-25,000 people. Now in one push of the button, a viral message can be transmitted to the world (“Rally at Tahrir Square at noon!!”) over the Internet, through Facebook, by Twitter or by whatever new communication technology will be invented and be in use by the time this blog is two days old!
• Information – which supported by technology, is disseminated faster and broader, and deeper and, as in the case of WikiLeaks, respecting very few boundaries of privacy or secrecy.
• Globalism – An increasingly greater sense of ourselves as interconnected world citizens, impacted by what’s going on in other places that used to feel much farther away. The whole world is watching. In some cases we welcome that connection, in some cases we try to resist it (as when we attempt to “wall off” our country to immigrants), but either way it looms large in our consciousness.
• Media and Communication – which now constantly blares at us, and, even more significantly pre-sorts the news we see. (Watch the same story covered on MSNBC and FOX and see if you can even recognize them).
• Generational Shifts – that have produced younger people, who are inherently more diverse, more informed, more connected, more independent in their thinking, and more prone to think of themselves as global citizens.
At the nexus of all of these trends we find a world in which people are increasingly less likely to defer to the power of authority figures to tell them what to do. Today people are more likely to instantly react and respond, more likely to find like-minded souls to respond with, and less likely to be “patient” about waiting for change.
What does this say about the organizations and communities of the future? I recently heard it said that things that are top-down driven are slow and dull. Things that are bottom-up driven are fast and exciting. But, of course, exciting can have both a positive and negative side to it. The same energy that can inspire us when it coalesces to create positive change can also create anarchy. Imagine, if we were to shift –- as some have suggested and as is now technologically possible –- to a system in which citizens directly vote on legislation, rather than go through elected officials. An exciting prospect if one believes in “government by the people.” Yet, how informed might they be? How susceptible to the kind of demagoguery we have consistently been seeing? How likely for a majority to dominate a minority?
For those of us in leadership positions, it calls for a significant reinvention of how we go about leading. It requires constantly giving up control and encouraging autonomy. It requires recognizing that the people we are leading may know more, more often, about more things than we ever have experienced. It means that the “command and control” structures of leadership we have been mostly raised to admire must be replaced with more inclusive forms of stewardship, in which the role of the leader is one of facilitation even more than directing. After all, what happens when leaders shove their decisions down the throats of those who are being led? Do we think in this day and age the dissension will just go away? Or will the spark be fanned on a computer discussion group somewhere and pop up on another day, in another way?
We have an opportunity to learn to create a greater sense of Organizational Community within our businesses, schools, community structures, and governmental institutions. A true appreciation of the interconnectedness of the various stakeholder groups that we interact with, and a greater sense of inclusiveness so that all people can contribute to the greater good. More and more people, including some of the clients we’re working with, are proving that these kinds of organizations can thrive, even while others are struggling.
The world will not be “quieting down.” In fact, it is likely to continue to become more chaotic. Those of us who lead organizations and governments will have a hard time letting go of our habitual ways of leading and interacting. Some of us may fall to the wayside. Some of our organizations and governments may do the same.
But those who survive will have to decide how we manage that chaos. Do we fight against it and create upheaval and more conflict, or do we take more of an Aikido approach, creating “chaordic” structures that provide just enough order around the chaos to keep us focused on the needs of the future. How well will we be able to internalize the revolution that is happening outside of us?
It is not too grandiose to say that the fate of humanity may rest in the answer to that question.