In the wake of the last week’s New York Times article detailing the Russian theft of our democratic sovereignty, the SEC’s lawsuit against Elon Musk, and Kavanaugh’s hearing, it’s hard not to be especially mordant about leadership of any kind.
The public, across the entire political spectrum, is beginning to question and argue about the qualities that equate to leadership. Should a person with a dubious moral compass be selected to lead? Scratch the surface of almost any heated headline, and it is leadership that is ultimately in question. What is leadership? What qualifies good leadership? How do we know? What postures as so-called leadership is often just what grabs media attention. Additionally, its overuse as a generic term in place of words like management or administration has rendered it impotent. Many are jaded about the very word itself, and for good reason.
‘Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom,’ writes Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Distinguished Chair in Leadership at the University of Calgary. ‘Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use,’ he continues. ‘Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.’
The decline of a society could be measured, perhaps, not only by the increasing number of animals of the endangered species list, or the melting of icebergs, but by the increasing number of words that have become meaningless. What makes a word meaningless? Overuse, inaccurate use, abuse, misuse. Words like democracy, sacred, love, friend, beautiful, and awesome are examples of words that have gone to seed.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that the decline of a language has political and economic causes. “It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer,” he says. “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader,” he continues. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”
The very mention of the word leadership can spike the nervous systems of many, and induce cynical eye rolling in others—symptoms of a word become meaningless. Following Orwell’s line of thought, this begs a question: what effect is the meaninglessness of leadership having on us as a society?
When I was a teenager, my stepfather had a book that he kept on the bookshelves of our family room. It was entitled Why Sons of Bitches Succeed and Nice Guys Fail in a Small Business. This is an example of the misuse of the definition of leadership pervasive in our culture. Many are taught that to lead you had to not care. Actually…to lead you had to be cold, hard, removed and calculating, dishonest…even a jerk.
Where did these twisted rules come from? Theories abound from military influences, to the patriarchy, to various social influences such as the Great Depression, both World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Gen. George S. Patton became the first military leader officially tagged as being a jerk (and worse), by both his men and his superiors. By all accounts, this was well deserved. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he could also be a prima donna, a martinet, and on occasion extremely abusive.
Does a leader have to be a jerk? If you just start checking off the leaders in the wake of Patton, one would think so. Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman, Sam Zell, Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Richard Fuld, Mark Hurd, Jeffrey Skilling. And in a class all his own is Donald Trump.
But maybe these folks merely reveal our collective confusion about leadership, and do not truly represent it.
“Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it,” aptly writes Geoffrey Nunberg in The Washington Post.
Yet we are fascinated by jerks. While lots of C-suites abound with good, kind, compassionate, dignified and masterful leaders, it’s the nasty ones we remember. “Year in and year out, candidates for the A-word made up about half of Barbara Walters’ list of Most Fascinating People,” continues Nunberg. “And the spectacle of people acting like jerks to one another has become a reliable business model for reality TV, talk radio and ‘news’.”
Given the allure and skew towards ‘not true leadership’, where do we go to find and learn real leadership? What oracle can save leadership from its extinction? How about nature…Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.
Toby Herzlich is the Founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation. Her organization applies nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success to leadership, social change, and organizational innovation. According to Herzlich and her colleagues, nature gives powerful and practical insights into leading our organizations so that they operate more like ecosystems. And I agree.
It just so happens that the oldest, most successful leadership system today is the horse herd. Fifty-five-million years of remarkable leadership makes horses the most successful mammal on earth. Perhaps we can look towards their model, to learn how to retrieve leadership from the brink.
Why have they thrived? There are several evolutionary reasons, but for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on one of them—their leadership culture.
Besides the basic survival needs of food, shelter and water, the herd is organized around five core pillars: safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom. The leader, therefore, is chosen based on his or her ability to maintain these five pillars within the herd system, in care of the whole.
Counter to conventional folklore about herd leadership, horse bands are governed by the opposite of what seems to intrigue Barbara Walters. This servant leadership position is usually assumed by a mare, or a team of mares. In domestic settings, where there may be herds with few to no mares, leadership is sometimes assumed by a gelding and / or mare.
Remember too that the females take care of the young…in this case, the foals. So if you think about this for a moment, it makes sense that the mares wield the scepter. Because they know how to not only take care of the adult members of the band, but the babies too. This isn’t sexism here, it’s just true. So of course nature would design it that the leader would be the one who could best ensure the survival of its young, its very legacy.
Like our colorfully jerk leaders in the public arena, gladiator stallions have received a lot of attention because they are flamboyant and dramatic. Leadership qualities have been attributed to their dominant and brutish ways. But they are not the leaders of the herd. They have a specific role to play in specific circumstances, however it’s not in overseeing the daily governance. In fact, the lead mare or mares will see to it that a badly behaving stallion is exiled from the herd until he can participate inside the clan with good manners.
A similar scenario played out in our initial encounters with First Nations Peoples. Often we assumed the war chiefs were the tribal chieftains of their associated tribe, and engaged with them politically accordingly. We were wrong. Interesting how we associate war with leadership.
How exactly does a lead horse govern, and keep those five pillars intact? Through two superpowers: care and presence. Care is that genuine desire to attend to the needs of others. Synonymous with love, care is unconditional love with responsibility. And presence, is the ability to be wholly here in this present moment, in this limitless sense of totality here and now. Presence enables care to be acutely responsive to the moment, in each moment. Without presence, care can be inaccurate, or ill-timed. Without care, presence can remain abstract.
Through this elegant ecosystem of safety, peace, connection, joy and freedom—maintained by care and presence—a natural and dynamic democracy ensues. The other herd members are constantly, moment by moment, testing their leader’s ability—does she still care? Is she still present? If for some reason, due to illness, wounding or age, she should show up less than present, or not able to care, a new leader would take her place. But not with a clashing of hooves and gnashing of teeth. Instead, with an acceptance of giving and receiving care. Out of care for the outgoing leadership (who now needs care), and care for the whole herd, a new horse assumes authority.
Let’s pause here. Imagine—just for a moment—if we were to select our leaders based on these principles. Imagine if our schools, our government, our financial institutions, our Fortune 500s, selected leaders based on their ability to be caring and profoundly present, to serve safety, connection, peace, joy and freedom – for the whole.
What a different world it might be.
It’s not such a far reach. Take for example New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently used her debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly to directly challenge the view of the world outlined by Trump in his speech there just a few days earlier in September. Accompanied by her three-month-old baby, she called for a different world order – one that puts “kindness” ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. “We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them,” she said.
A senior executive client of ours is currently amidst his own metamorphosis—transforming from a dominant, tough commander, to a powerfully present servant leader. Make no mistake…this is a journey that requires enormous integrity and courage. After one particularly poignant call, a penny dropped for him. ‘You know,’ he said in relief, ‘All these hard-nosed attributes I had…they were learned. I learned them from books, and other leaders, and business school. So I can unlearn it. But caring? Caring is something I’ve known how to do since I was just a small kid. Caring is something I just am!’
Yes, so this kind of caring leadership is not so elusive – endorsed by 55 million years of success. You don’t need to drag yourself through endless webinars or read a hundred best sellers on the subject (even if they existed). You need only, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ Care and presence is your intrinsic true nature. It’s simply just a matter of leaning in (to it).
It’s been two months since I’ve written an article, and the reason why begged to become a topic—overwhelm. It occurred to me one morning last week (while I was busy apologetically responding to several early July – yes, July – emails), that I had indeed succumb to the collective cultural cry of I’m really sorry; I’ve been slammed…
‘I’m so tired of apologizing,’ sighed a friend recently in her final defeat-by-inbox. I dramatically rolled my eyes in solidarity, while scrolling through all the text messages I had yet to respond to.
In 2015, the average American was receiving 88 business emails per day, according to the market research firm Radicati, and it shows no sign of slowing. In 2015, the number of worldwide email users will be nearly 2.6 billion. By the end of 2019, the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion.
That’s a lot more potential emails in your inbox that you get to handle. Not to mention mushrooming use of texting, posting, iMessaging, Facetiming, Skyping, pinning, WhatsApp-ing, and Zooming. My heart rate goes up just writing about it.
The hydra of overwhelm has become a constant in 21st century life. No matter how many life hacks one implements to chop off its head, another hundred emerge.
We are all trying to beat time. Jam more into less. In 2012 Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the cover story in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The most disturbing account was the one about an overworked mother of three who ‘organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.’
Perhaps the most startling statistics come from the front lines of the frenzy – the upper class C-suite white males. Hand delivered to the top of society by their privilege, they have become the veritable canaries in the coal mine. In 2015, the age adjusted suicide rate in white men was almost four times as high as that of white women. And the suicide rate for white males aged 40 to 65 was more than twice the rate of suicide in the general American population.
Depression in the C-suite has gained attention in Silicon Valley lately, where ever-growing expectations and capital for promising startups can overwhelm anyone. One study found nearly 50% of entrepreneurs reported having a mental health condition.
Recently, the almighty outspoken and brash Elon Musk broke down, confessing exhaustion and the ‘most difficult and painful year of his career’. Inside an hour long interview with the New York Times, he ‘choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model’.
Even young children are overwhelmed. Overscheduled and seldom unplugged, the average American grade-schooler spends seven hours a day in class, often without any recess, and over two hours a day on smartphones or tablets on social media. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Theories about this vary, but overwhelm is a constant in the narratives.
What is overwhelm exactly? It’s when a finite resource – time – collides with an infinite demand – things to do. When you think of it that way, it’s quite simple. We have a limited number of hours in each of our lifetimes. But we have an infinite number of things, and possibilities of things, to do. So to strive for the end of the abrasive rub between the finite and the infinite, is futile. You may as well try to stop the sun from coming up.
This is why trying to hack your overwhelm mostly misses the mark. These life hacks imply that you have more power over the physics of time, space, and the collective consciousness than you actually do. While I geek out as much as anyone on some of the really good books on innovative time and project management (David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and The Power of Full Engagement by Loehr and Schwartz being two of my personal favorites), it’s important to understand what’s really going on here.
“The problem of overwhelm is much bigger than you,” writes Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time. The problem is systemic, and cultural. For example, while time saving innovations have emerged such as flexible work schedules and virtual workspaces, they are overlapped with longstanding outmoded expectations such as ‘face-to-face’ meetings and the idea that longer work hours equate to excellence. This creates the perfect conditions for overload at an organizational level.
Schulte continues, “It all comes down to systems change: What if instead of expecting workers to ‘fix’ themselves on their own, we designed work environments that led everyone to make better choices?” Pointing out that humans are very influenced by social norms, she suggests organizations take responsibility for overwhelm by making it uncool to be overworked.
“How do you shift social norms, so that overwork goes from being virtuous to being shameful?” she quotes Dan Connolly, a senior associate with ideas42. “Can management, at a senior level, begin to treat long work hours as a sign of failure—the result of poor planning, or poor management—rather than a necessary or toughening experience?”
Mandatory vacation days, technology that bans work after 5 pm, and required hobbies are all part of this new thinking.
So, on one level it may seem like a relief to know that your overwhelm is not proof that you are broken in some way. In fact, overwhelm is a natural response to unnatural circumstances. But on another level, you may be asking, ‘there must be something I can do?’
Go ahead and enjoy any of the time saving, chaos diminishing life hacks that you may have. But here’s another idea. And it’s not a hack.
The anecdote to overwhelm is not more done, or less to do, or more time (there is only so much of that, remember?). And it’s not Adderall or caffine, or Zoloft. The anecdote is trust.
The other day I was in a conversation with my son. He’s an actor, living in L.A., doing the real work of acting. If anyone understands overwhelm it’s Dakota. Just imagine it…every audition has the potential to give him work. And every missed audition could mean the difference between success or failure. Rational thinking would suggest that the more auditions he does, the more potential he creates for himself. It’s a perfect overwhelm generator. Do more. Do more. Do more. Or else.
We were talking about the effects of overwork, and how corrosive it was to creativity. Caught inside the headlock of not wanting to miss out on anything, lest it risk our very survival, and needing to nourish a different rhythm in our lives, we were brought to the threshold of a simple truth. So, in his characteristically direct way of speaking he said, “You know mom, at some point, you just have to trust.”
Trust is a complete sentence. But for anyone wanting longhand, here it is: trust that which is orchestrating this entire machine. Whatever force – call it God, call it consciousness, call it whatever—that life energy that is conspiring events, moving the tides, animating all the hands that send you emails—is in charge. Let it handle the events. You do not have to toil behind the curtain, trying to make all the magic happen. And trust that if you relinquish some control, you will not get lost. You will not starve. You will not end up adorning rags on Hollywood Boulevard pushing a shopping cart talking to yourself.
Dakota’s words dropped into my heart with such gravity. The next day I discovered myself to be less rushed, less determined to make it to the end of my to-do list. If the behemoth of modern life really is much bigger than me and my insignificant strategies, then I can hand it over to a life-force much bigger than me too. I can surrender. I can push all my emails aside to write this blog. I can delay that important proposal to follow a quieter, yet truer calling.
Curiously I began to notice something positive. I was more present on phone calls to clients; I prioritized better; I became more efficient; I followed more leads, and the big surprise? The following week became our best financially in the history of EQUUS.
Perhaps overwhelm is here to cook us, to crush us in its relentless crucible that keeps us up at night, and set us free. “Surrender!” she screams with her foot on our neck, while we carry on pretending we are beyond mortal. For me, I’ve decided to kneel at her feet. To stop. To leave my desk on a Wednesday morning, grab one of my horses from the paddock and take a wild gallop down the arroyo. To flip the proverbial bird at my to-do list.
EQUUS Faculty are hand-selected based on their unique gifts, genius and mastery. Each faculty member was recruited based on several factors: training / background and education, character and depth, and a unique purpose. We are profoundly proud of our EQUUS Faculty. They enable EQUUS to precisely and expertly respond to each and every client that comes our way.