Have You Ever Seen a Time Like This?

I have never seen a time like this in 25 years of executive coaching and organizational development. I’m hungry to hear from you about any of these three points:  (1) What I think I’m seeing; (2) A working hypothesis about it; and (3) A prescription or two. 

  1. What I think I’m seeing. There is a broad, growing and open conflict between those in (highest) positions of authority and those in the grassroots and the middle (whom I will call “everyday leaders). Are you seeing this? The cries I am hearing from everyday leaders in all the organizations I am working with repeatedly sound like this:
  • You think you understand what we are facing. You say you do, but you don’t.
  • You may say you are listening, but you just do what you’re going to do anyway.
  • You especially don’t “get” diversity, inclusion and injustice.
  • You say you want to em-power, but mostly you want to stay in-power.
  • We don’t trust you to do the right thing.

On the other side of what I perceive to be this very real divide, I hear:

  • I convene them to listen, and then they say I don’t listen. Huh? What do they think we’re doing?
  • Their idea of listening is that we agree with everything they say.
  • Their idea of problem solving and power sharing is that we do whatever they say.

An executive coaching client was palpably relieved when I told him that almost every authorized leader I’m coaching is struggling with this hierarchical conflict.

This crisis has gotten to the point where authorized leaders – whom I have known to be very open and progressive – feel they have no other choice than to “shoot the messenger.” And I know of “everyday leaders” who will quit – sometimes with a generous severance – and then assail the organization and the great mission that once attracted them – even to the point of undermining their funding. In the less extreme situations, and with growing frequency, the two sides look more and more like McConnell and Harry Reid on their worst days. They hear nothing. Engage in no facts and no compromise. Instead, they get more and more sure how about how right they are and how wrong the others are.

Do you see this? Is it as rampant and rough as I am suggesting? 

  1. Why? A working hypothesis. I see two deep social causes. Collectively, we all feel battered and afraid, and all forms of media – from major networks to our one-to-one text messages – play upon, repeat and enlarge our fears).
  • #Covid has been big. Our primal feelings of physical and economic safety have been battered.
  • January 6 and the preposterous #StoptheSteal was big. Our sense that we could solve our problems rationally, civilly and politically is under assault. #Gridlock hardly helps.
  • #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter were huge: the open secret is out and not going away: Basic protections for women and POC don’t exist (from sick, powerful white men) and the justice system is broken.
  • #ClimateChange is big. Talk about powerless? How does one have any power to protect their Oakland home-in-the-woods, Miami apartment, South Dakota ranch? Or their West Virginia coal job or Houston drilling work?

Thus, Everyday leaders – at home, work, churches are, in part, expressing their underlying indignation, pain, and fear. And they don’t want denials and bromides.

The second hypothesis I have is that the 60s/Boomer generation is reaping what we have sown. We said, “Speak truth to power,” because we felt disempowered. I have said for 25 years, “everyday leaders” are leaders just as much as people with positions are. And our chickens have come home to roost. Everyday leaders aren’t backing down.

If you’re with me on point 1 – that hierarchical conflict is huge and growing – do you see a different hypothesis, a different way of looking at the causes?

Prescriptions for our illness.  I have probably gone on too long, so I will return to this point next week. I wonder what you think!!! And I especially wonder if like me you are a boomer, what you think this conflict means for us (who tend to be in authority much of the time)?  And I wonder if you are an everyday leader, what your role is in this: How you can help us, and also how you may have to find adaptive solutions to HOW we manage when the #Problems are big and complex globally, while they are also real locally.

How shall we lead with our best selves?

  • Hi Dan,
    You are spot on! What you are saying is what I’m seeing and feeling these days. As boomer and an authorized leader I resonate with your points. I’m not sure about solutions yet but I see a need for us to begin to work on those. Look forward to seeing your thoughts next week.

  • Here’s what I’ve come to know in my years of leadership. The traits we know and incorporate for good leadership are there to guide us in all types of circumstances. Our influence is far reaching and our actions are within our control. If we get caught up in trying to judge things out of our control, our spirit gets disturbed and that renders us ineffective. The one question I ask myself that keeps me moving forward and having faith in humanity is this “If I was great right now, what would great look like?” The actions that follow open our mind to all.

    • Joyce,
      That’s a very cool question you ask yourself.
      When I crossed over the 60-year mark, I started to reverse the question. I’m trying to go the opposite of Collin’s famous book, i.e., from great to good. Great made me very competitive, scarcity thinking, extremely self-critical. I find that “good,” points me in a simpler direction. I also can’t ever fully eradicate my drive for greatness, lol, but it’s not the key driver for me. By the way, I don’t ask the question as frequently as you seem to, but it might serve me well to do so.

  • Dan, thanks for this thoughtful post. Your thinking makes great sense to me. In my view, we have to return to a paradigm in which “compromise” is not a dirty word and instead is understood as the best way our society can move forward together. That means the authorized leaders are going to have to make some painful concessions — ones that will surely cost them (as well as their constituents, shareholders, etc.) some power and money. And everyday leaders are going to have to be willing to accept that changes are not going to come all at once, but rather incrementally, so that we don’t abandon what is right and good as we strive to make the world better. If people on both sides 1) start from a place of genuine listening backed up by a willingness to follow up with action; 2) work hard to recognize that the other side has value to offer and that the best solutions to challenging problems result from a diversity of ideas and contributions; and 3) make a serious, good faith commitment to compromise, we can make it through this. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, and it is going to take substantial courage from people on all sides.

    • BEAUTIFULLY put, David! I completely agree that listening is the sine qua non in these times. Without it, little will change!

  • Hi Dan, I think you and other good coaches are in a place to bring healing. It’s what we do! Surely, its not the only answer, but the things you write about and do have such great potential to bring something to these situations that no other intervention can. Thank you for the work you do and the thoughtful questions you ask. Its a beginning. P.S. There are still good leaders who are willing and able to listen, hear, and act to make the things better. Maybe, just maybe, that will help.

    • And, Mary Jo, it is both a joy to work with those leaders who as you say, “are willing and able to listen, hear, and act to make things better,” and those people create the possibility of healing (as you put it), as well as innovation, change, ideation, etc.!
      Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Dan always appreciate your thoughts, provoking insight, reflection, and motivation. What I beleive is that basic human nature, which has never been fully defined, nor remotely standardized, and is still not, remains the difficult barrier toward consensus building. The difficulty with group dynamics, it seems, lies in each person not acknowledging which part of human nature within themself needs to change.

    • Dave,
      Thanks for your contribution. You wrote:
      “each person not acknowledging which part of human nature within themself needs to change.”
      More and more I see this as the great divide. For example: With whom will I partner? Whom will I hire? How much energy do I put into this strained relationship?
      If people are not willing to rise to the challenge you propose – not in lip service, but in the genuine willingness to share the discomfort of their imperfections, confusion, and need – then I know there is a major LIMIT on the possibility of growth. I want to hire and partner with people who have this basic willingness to “acknowledge.” If we have that, the sky is the limit. Where I see LX2 partnerships succeed or fail almost always turns on whether people will step back and look at their own behavior. Sadly, some just can’t.

  • A large component of the hierarchy problem is that it is a business. There are “professionals” who specailize in smearing public actors/speakers/ elected officials, other “experts” who get paid to sew doubt on issues like global climate change, and results of elections. As the song goes, You have to be carefully trained to hate. And then there are the people who pay these experts and professionals. Chaos created by these programs leads to control of issues. Others specialize in taking control of the public narrative, as an example, the use of the word “woke” as a pejorative. Lately “Marxism,” is being attached to Democrats. The use of marketing, psychology, and other skills are being used to divided us, issue by issue. There is nothing so far to counter this.

  • Dan, we see what we want to see…and our glasses are tinted with the upbringing and basic values of our family indoctrination, with the prescription being very hard to change. Two phrases that capture what I think lend to our current experiences are Rationalized Entitlement (RE) and Rationalized Acceptance (RA). The Cognitive Dissonance Theory emboldened. It is okay for me (Farmers, Businesses, The Arts, Education, welfare recipients etc.) to receive entitled treatment BUT when the other group (everyone but me) does it is opposed as not right in some way. Then, the media, social platforms, political parties and other countries magnify these differences and put in motion arguments in order to support or minimize their beliefs.

    This creates Rationalized Acceptance from the group’s/individual perspective that the actions of BLM/ANTIFA/Republicans/Democrats/Conservatives/Liberals are OKAY. Policies and/or Practices espoused by any of these groups are supported with rationalized arguments. We are a country split almost evenly on most principles and political philosophies…and it has been this way for centuries. As mentioned above, the media (showmanship for ratings) that allows for instantaneous information and incessant “hyping” of how horrible things are contribute to our current condition.
    This will continue to be a challenge until we realize that generally we are not going to change the other person’s mind…and that is okay. A dose of Civility would also be prescription for change…Dan, having others emulate your efforts at dissecting the argument in a sincere and respectful manner would be a great start for the rest of the country.

    • Steven,
      Thanks for the time and thought you put into this. I fundamentally see what you see: that a growing majority of people see through their own lenses – as you put it, of Entitlement and Acceptance. People under threat – real or perceived – are especially susceptible to band/bond with a group mentality. It gives the semblance of safety, makes one feel correct, and often puts the onus on others to change. It coincidentally diminishes one’s agency – to think creatively, to act productively, to seek compromise – and increases a sense of victimhood.
      I’m curious what you and others see about this in workplaces, as well as in our broader socio-political dialogues.

  • >