Leaders produce change. That is their primary function.
Harvard professor John Kotter’s blunt apothegm never fails to unsettle the compliant and complacent custodians of corporate culture in the business world today. The terms they use to describe themselves and the people they employ – creative, dynamic, proactive – are in reality cant words no longer capable of concealing the disengagement and dysfunction that plague the modern workplace.
There is an urgent need to not simply embrace change, but to take charge of it, and management failure in this regard is a major factor in the rapidly worsening socio-political and economic crises assailing the western world. Change is happening (and this should be emphasized) for better or for worse, whether we like it or not. As a philosopher of science Stanley Jaki told us “Change means future. There is no future unless there is change.” And what shape that future takes depends on the actions political and business leaders take.
In Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s celebrated novel The Leopard, Tancredi tells his uncle, Don Fabrizio: “If we want things to stay the same, a lot of things are going to have to change.” This paradox of the human condition was as true of Sicily in the Risorgimento as it was of Athens in the time of Plato, France in 1789, the pre-Civil War US, and as it is of our world today, riven with contradictions that we lack the will to eradicate.
What is it that we want to stay the same? And what are the many things that will have to change for that to happen?
The answer to the first question is pretty straightforward, though it immediately throws up complications. The standards deemed essential by most people in the modern West are security and convenience, the life of ease, symbolized by airplanes and automobiles, I-phones and Internet, concupiscence and consumerism.
But the life of ease established by liberal democracy and capitalism is under siege, and indeed has been since the moment its ascendency seemed unassailable at the end of the Cold War when Francis Fukuyama could confidently proclaim “the end of history”. In fact, the tragicomic record of the relentless ebb and flow of change that we call history was debunking Fukuyama’s thesis before his keyboard had cooled down.
Globalisation, mass migration, the technology behemoth, and environmental degradation, as well as an accumulation of ancient antagonisms, have all provoked new dynamics for nations to contend with, creating the perfect storm right at the time when western society is least able to weather it. Struck senseless by moral decrepitude, the West has misconstrued globalization, mishandled migration, misused technology, mismanaged the environment, and proved incapable of promoting justice and peace in dealing with the ancient antagonisms. The financial and economic woes, social dysfunction, political impasse, and burgeoning spectre of violence that assail the contemporary West should come as no surprise to anyone.
In the business world, the torrent of change has been no less bewildering: the emergence of mercurial markets, the protean morphing of technology, corporate re-modeling, esoteric new financial products, and serial financial scandals, stumbling government policy responses, and the very meaning of work shifting in profoundly unsettling ways.
Any politician saying this would be unelectable, but the reality is that wanting the life of ease to stay the same as it is now is to deny the practical requirements for its existence in the first place – discernment, hard work, sacrifice, thrift, and virtue. Trapped in the bubble of the eternal present, society today is blissfully unaware that the life of ease was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of God-fearing, hard-working, honour-bound people, prepared to sacrifice their well-being for that of their families, communities, and nations. That spirit of heroic endeavour has been cast aside, while the insatiable lust for its fruits is encouraged at every turn. We nurture barbarism and then lament the vandalisation of our society.
This is why the sincere business leader, like his or her counterpart in politics if there is such a thing, faces a challenge of existential proportions. A culture that had the moral fibre to create the life of ease has been succeeded by one that has no understanding of the effort required to sustain and extend it, one that sees leisure as mindless self-gratification instead of what wiser generations knew it to be: the expansion of knowledge, the building of character, and selfless service to the community.
This brings us to the things that will have to change if we want things to stay the same. As already suggested, this will involve restoring some essential foundations that the West thought it could do without. It is simple logic that change to anything requires something to remain constant, otherwise, the process becomes substitution instead of change. The modern West, intoxicated by its technological success, believed it could remake the whole world, and threw out most of the moral and intellectual capital that had underwritten its astonishing material achievements.
People supposed that science and reason would enable society to come up with new ethical ‘values’ more in line with the brave new world. But what nation or corporation has ever come up with new values that somehow trump the traditional insistence on essential qualities like integrity, loyalty, justice, perseverance, and service? And what successful nation or corporation has turned its back on its own moral and intellectual heritage in a vain attempt to build wisdom from scratch by dint of its own ingenuity?
The constant stream of immigrants, legal or otherwise, into western nations is testimony to not only the material well-being the West offers but also the political liberty and social welfare that are hallmarks of western society. Ironically, the sustainability of all three attractions is under threat, not from immigration, but rather from a cultural deceit few people today are inclined to confront.
Symptoms of this cultural deceit are legion, but consider just a few egregious examples: a polarizing political system in which adversaries lie and demonise one another instead of seeking truth and the good of the nation; the suffocation of honest public debate by a political correctness that encourages self-gratification, promiscuity, and family breakdown; and massive increases in the funding of underperforming state schools without anyone questioning the content of the curriculum that actually explains the generations of failure.
In relation to the world of business, the deceit is seen in things like companies shackled by short-termism and the tyranny of the quarterly dividend disinclined to invest in people and communities; HR departments being busier and more influential than ever, doing what shouldn’t need doing if leadership was meeting its responsibilities; and the fractious and frenetic busyness that characterizes the Third Millennium workplace persistently failing to translate into greater productivity.
And those are some of the things that will have to change if we want things to stay the same.
The reality that business and political leaders in the western world refuse to acknowledge is that the source of the leadership crisis is not a lack of technical mastery, but a self-seeking cultural disposition. They have all the knowledge they could possibly need to ensure effective leadership but lack the will to deploy that knowledge and all their very considerable technical resources, for anything other than narrow, selfish, corporate or partisan agendas.
Of course, the ever-optimistic technocratic utopians will protest that science and technology are in charge of change and that progress remains inevitable. However, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, “Change is scientific; progress is ethical; change is indubitable; progress is a matter of controversy.”