Mayvin Director James Traeger explores how, paradoxically, Digital Leadership may help people move away from a binary perspective to a more human, complex and inquisitive worldview.
‘It was the best of times it was the worst of times’. So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set at the time of the French Revolution, in Paris and London. At that time, people may well have felt that that regicidal era foretold the end of the world. People’s anxiety speaks loudest in times of upheaval. Yet looking back, yes there was violence, there was tumult and fear, but this was also a time of unprecedented creativity and opportunity. It isn’t coincidental that this was also when the Industrial Revolution had its inception. Dickens’ epithet captures this creative uproar.
Constructing stories of the 'good old days'
And so to now. Our world can go either way, depending on how we call it. Either we can construct a story of living in a time of unprecedented technological development and social creativity or we are standing on the edge of an abyss. For some, it could be either. For most of us, it is kind of both. Yet we look back on ages past and think they were golden times. The hit TV series, Stranger Things, despite being a horror story, makes the 1980s look like a time of playful exuberance and reasonably good music. That’s how I remember them as a teenager. But they were also a time when we came as close to nuclear conflagration as we did in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Have you heard of Stanislav Petrov? Did you know that in 1983 this Russian missile silo commander saved the world? When his automated systems detected strong sunshine on the caps of the American missile silos, they decided it was an all-out U.S. first strike and his protocols demanded that he launch a counter strike immediately. His refusal to do so, based on his intuition that this was an error (despite the heightened international tension that persisted) saved us all. He died in relative obscurity in St Petersburg in May 2017. I was 18 in 1983. I remember the fun and playful spirit of the time, and I remember the pervasive sense of dread too. We are still here, thanks to Petrov. Nostalgia for the 1980s suggests that we tend to look back selectively.
Organisational history repeating itself
And so to organisational life. (You knew it was coming). I would suggest this same nostalgic habit is not just inaccurate; it is positively unhelpful. When people hear about a new project or cycle of change, they roll their eyes and say “here we go again, we’ve seen it all before,” as if the world has gone mad. They face the current challenges with a mixture of anxiety and fatigue. It is an unprepossessing place to start. And yet, of course we’ve seen it all before because that’s what the world does. It repeats cycles. We don’t greet a new spring with “Here we go again, what’s the point of growing all this stuff, it’s only going to die off in a few months? It all seems so pointless!” (Well perhaps some people do). Perhaps leaders have a healthy share of the responsibility. If they introduce a new deal as “the definitive answer to all our problems”, then it is no wonder that people stifle a yawn. If on the other hand, they argue that the world around us has changed once again, and we have to respond to that, and that “what we are proposing isn’t a panacea but we’d like to talk about how we can work to respond to this together…”. And of course, the worse kind of leadership says the latter but means the former. That’s what really triggers people's gag reflex, and a yearning for the time once, way back, when things seemed more settled. It’s all too common, this power play, this systemic stimulus, and response.
Digital Leadership: a way of being that reflects the times we are in
At Mayvin we’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about ‘Digital Leadership’. This doesn’t necessarily mean leading with an app, although being reasonably technologically adept may be a small part of it. It means more a style of feeling, thinking and being as a leader (at whatever position we find ourselves in the network) that reflects the times we are in, rather than analogue thinking that sees change as project-manageable from the top. It suggests a significantly different attitude towards most things, a reflexivity about our own habits, and perhaps a different attitude towards society and history as well. It’s about taking responsibility, wherever we are, for the way we see things and the way we act, including the way we make sense of what is happening right around us, and also for not having a clue, right now, what on earth is going on. But having a go at something anyway. Poignantly, Dickens’ first line continues: ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’.
Paradoxically, a digital worldview may eschew a binary perspective. It may be less obsessed with the end of the world, and recognise things may be a bit more complex. It could be time to ask some questions, inquiring and working with others to make sense in the here and now. Perhaps that is the kind of leadership that Stanislav Petrov showed?