Tom Friedman and that Queasy Feeling

Tom Friedman in The New York Times recently called a book I wrote a “master narrative” for our era. His column neglected to mention I was the book’s co-author. But that’s not why it gave me a sickly feeling.

Friedman sees himself as a great dialectician. He looks around the world, finds apparently opposing forces and ideas and then, with the help of an expert or three, presents a reconciling synthesis that explains events in broader perspective.

That’s why he’s attracted to big, overarching theories like “The Big Shift” and “The Great Disruption,” each of which provides a grand synthesizing narrative, written by experts, that tries to make sense of the world around us.

People create all-singing, all-dancing frameworks in their desire to represent the whole of something, the totality of it. Most ignore or eliminate the exceptions and particulars that don’t fit the model, just as totalitarians imprison or eliminate dissent .

As the person who coined “The Big Shift” and conceived of its underlying Shift Index while at the Center for the Edge (which I co-founded with John Hagel and John Seely Brown in 2007), it stands to reason it would be more than Friedman’s column that was leaving me queasy.

Hagel tells Friedman that society needs to tap into a “huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities, and new market opportunities” by growing the “talent” of every country, company, and individual. In our book we went on to suggest that corporate and other institutions take “scalable learning” as their reason for being: helping workers get better at what they do professionally. But as most grand syntheses do, we omitted something without admitting it: that learning is difficult to achieve, particularly under pressure.

We proposed a solution without providing a way to accomplish it.

Sure, in our book we talk about “going to the edge,” “exposing surfaces,” “sending out beacons,” and other prescriptions. But these amount to hand-waving because no where do we say how to re-map the neuronal networks in which our old behaviors are literally hard-wired. Until we rewire our neurophysiology we simply can’t get there from here. We’re like the cardiac patients the physicians at John Hopkins told to change their behavior or die. Nine out of ten of them couldn’t change, even with their lives on the line. Their behaviors were hard-wired into their nervous systems—right to the grave.

And that’s why—despite the many crises facing humanity and the earth—institutional leaders (and the rest of us) largely stay stuck in the same places, with the same approaches, disputes, “innovations,” and expert commentaries. It doesn’t matter how many smart books get written or how many smart, well-researched (if not fully attributing) columns one writes. People don’t change by learning through their intellect.

This was plain during the forced march of senior executive workshops we undertook promoting the Shift Index. The Index showed that in the last four decades, financial engineering notwithstanding, US corporations have had a devastating decline in performance.

Did we get the attention of our executive audience with these findings? Yes. Did they change anything as a result of our research? No.

As some of them admitted, their P/E ratios were still at fat multiples, so why change?

That’s why I left the Center for the Edge: I realized we were selling consolation. Read our stuff and you can count yourself among the progressives without actually having to do anything differently. You get the change without the change.

Allowing it

It’s by embracing illusions (or by making emotional outbursts ) that people evade reality, at least according to one reading of Aristotelian ethics. The Big Shift (and Tom Friedman’s write up of it) soothes us by suggesting a happy ending awaits thanks to technology’s enabling of new modes of collaboration in which everybody gets better faster. The Shift Index, for its part, consoles with 22 proxy metrics that pretend to represent reality and diminish uncertainty.

Folks like Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, exemplify what an emotional outburst looks like. Since these exist only in relation to the object/people/institutions they oppose, they reinforce the status quo.

Aristotle defined the middle ground between these two extremes as the courage to face up to reality. Today facing up to reality means being willing (and able) to allow complexity and uncertainty to stand as they are without wishing, generalizing, or synthesizing them away. To do so each of us must embody a certain kind of poise and equilibrium—one that withstands the pressure that comes when we truly face the unknown—without collapsing into the need to have an answer.

It used to be that leaders in healthy societies and wisdom traditions were trained to withstand this kind of pressure. They were trained to go into the unknown. Their training put their bodies under great pressure in order to grow their nervous systems.

A new field of possibility

Is it time to redefine the notion of excellence in leadership, along the lines of the ability to face up to reality, rather than projecting the past on the present? Is it time to retrieve past approaches to training leaders to bear up to reality without going instinctive?

The courage to confront reality bestows the most valuable of gifts: the ability to receive and make a truly creative response to difficult circumstances, one that reveals an entirely new field of possibilities, defies common sense, breaks with orthodoxy, and shifts not merely how we think about the world but how we are in the world.

Given this criteria, both the “master narratives” Friedman mentions in his column, including my own, are consoling illusions that reinforce the conventional thinking and behaviors they’re meant to transcend.