Boomers Leading in a Volatile Time Like This

A month ago I wrote a post entitled, “Have you ever seen a time like this?” and described the intense and pervasive inter-generational conflict I am seeing with all my clients, as well as at Berkeley and in my personal life. I shared data and offered some hypotheses. I held off on offering prescriptions but promised they would come.

Then two things happened. First, I had a crazy bike accident that literally knocked me out. And the concussion knocked me off my game – for weeks. Second, like hitting the asphalt – I hit an intellectual wall on this topic and didn’t see a way around.  I have had one consistent intuition: I can speak to my boomer peeps. I will do that now. But I am choosing not to speak to the younger gens. I’ve asked Laura and Ashton, my co-founders to speak to their younger cohort; they will take up the topic in the coming weeks.

What can we – those largely still in authority – do in response to the insistent cries from the younger generations that we “don’t get it?” Well, get it. Get them. Hard stop.

Really hard stop for me.

This requires huge effort in three directions.

  1. See, own and reject my own group identity. I don’t have to reject the ideas or principles of my Catholicism, patriotism, realism, progressivism, maleness, traditionalism, or even leadership expertise. These ideas and principles largely work for me, because they help me understand the world (that seems increasingly fragmented, dangerous, etc.). But when I have to defend them because they are me, when my ideology(ies) are me, when “my people” and thought systems are perceived to be under attack…what does that do to my mindset in dialogue? It puts me in a mindset that I must defend, because others are attacking me and mine.  This to me is the defining, underlying state of our times. If I must be right – even while I attack “them” for being PC, i.e., thinking they are right – the game is over and lost. We can’t talk about guns, covid, abortion, race, liberty, gender fluidity,  or anything else that’s challenging, because our survival brains require us to defend “our” ideas, people, group identity. The second area of effort follows easily enough:
  2. “Let” people – as if I could prevent them – have their own opinions. And get curious about them. Ask a million caring and curious questions.
  3. Especially as an elder, still in power, I must continually remember that ALL change comes from disruption. Every great leader – in art, science, business, politics and even religion – was a prophet of some kind. If you don’t believe me, tell me an exception. And all systems – and all people in power – innately create order, but that order is never quite right. So, challenge – as an intellectual phenomenon – is a huge good, because it points to blind spots, anomalies, things we’d rather not pay attention to. Listening to challenge is thus an expansive act.

I suspect you feel – as I admit I do – “BUT, BUT, BUT – surely there must be more?” Maybe not. Maybe a lot of us just need to listen – and thus learn – a whole lot more and better.  Don’t ever underestimate great listening! For what it brings to the listener and what it brings to the speaker. Maybe together we can create something better, together.

Let go to lead with your best self.

  • Dan, this column aligns with some research I have underway with the National Issues Forums. We are well aware that we have some difficulty attracting certain voices to the conversations. We actually do have a lot of younger people, because many of our endeavors are in campus/school communities, but I don’t think we have as many intergenerational conversations as we would like. In addition I feel your recommendations related to asking questions and listening apply to other missing voices for us. Sorry about your bicycle accident. Hope you have fully mended. Best, Margaret Holt

  • Dear Dan, Your use of the word power in #3 gives me pause. As an elder myself holding important positions, I never felt I had nor have I used the words “in power” to describe my place among others. I may have more wisdom or responsibility to look after those less fortunate but power? I am curious what you mean by “still in power” or “all people in power” – those to me are scary words. Nancy A.

    • Hi Nancy, thanks so much for taking the time to contribute. By power, I mean many things. For example, as a teacher I have the power to set the agenda which we call a syllabus, I can vary from that syllabus almost at will, I can call on any student, I can treat a student’s comment as useful or not, I can control who gets heard, I can recommend or not. I can invite people to office hours.
      What do you mean when you say it’s scary? I hope is if I have awareness of how often hidden power works, I can be more careful. But maybe I’m missing something big here? Love to hear it.

  • Lots of wisdom here, but I have at least one caveat. If by suggesting all that “disruption” by Trump, means it was justified, No, No Way! Tlhere are times when we MUST not let certain people have theilr own “way”. The Mayor of London had a quote on his wall which seems
    appropriate to all this: “Never THEM, but always Us”. So we all need to listen more. —Howard Meek, Nashville

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