Have You Ever Seen a Time Like This?

Have You Ever Seen a Time Like This?

June 7, 2021 News


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 I 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: Hhow 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?

About the author

Dan Mulhern: Dan Mulhern is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of leadership and organizational culture.

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