Shifting the currents

Posted on August 23, 2011


Extracts from an interview with Brian Bacon published in Fieldnotes, November 2004, Issue 7

Amidst the growing sense of angst and hopelessness we can feel everywhere today, there is an accelerating recognition of the need to find a better way and somehow become part of it. Almost every other day we hear stories about freak hurricanes and other natural disasters, and top scientists are now saying, yes, this is about global warming.

People are wondering who is going to turn the tide. Where are the new leaders?

People are appalled but feel hopeless and doubt their leader’s ability to do much about it. We are right to be appalled by acts of terrorism, but we shouldn’t be surprised when there are such colossal imbalances in our society—when 1.3 billion people have no access to fresh water, 3 billion have no access to sanitation, 2 billion people have no access to electricity, and 24,000 people die every day from starvation.

The social trends are alarming. A UK government report released last June shows that the number of people in their 30s suffering from depression has doubled since 1987, from 1 in 14 to 1 in 7 today. Worldwide suicide rates have risen 60 percent in the last 45 years. Here in the developed world we feel good that the economy appears to be growing, but what can you say about a world where the three wealthiest individuals on the planet—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Theo Albrecht—together have personal wealth greater than the combined GDP of the poorest 48 nations, comprising 2.5 billion people?

Meanwhile, within our communities the role of work in a person’s life has never been more significant, and never less satisfying. It is significant because of the needs and expectations that have been built up through television, which is telling us that we can have whatever we want. “You’ll have a great education and everything’s going be great.” Our society tells us we can have everything, do anything. We’ve got so many choices. We can go anywhere, do anything we want, be everything we want to be. Technology makes everything possible. There are no limits anymore. In a world of massive choices, we’ve got endless opportunities for pleasure but very few opportunities for joy.

In 300 BC Epicurus talked about the three fundamentals of happiness: a sense of belonging in a community of friends, freedom and the feeling that the choices and decisions of one’s life are in one’s own hands, and time to reflect about the meaning and direction of one’s life.

Those fundamentals are just not accessible when we are working and living the way we are. As a consequence, there is a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and emptiness. People just have a dry existence. They seek meaning by going shopping, and they avoid having meaningful conversations by going to a movie or renting a video. We’re afraid that if we talk about things that are meaningful and moving, it might create conflict, so we don’t go there any longer. And we don’t have time to reflect and process our feelings and fears.

All of this is affecting our communities and our societies, and it’s particularly affecting our workplaces. We only have to look at the statistics.

According to a recentGalluppoll, 64 percent of employees say they are depressed, anxious, and wished they worked elsewhere. Seventy-four percent of workers are disengaged clock watchers who can’t wait to go home.

People are working harder, longer, and getting less out of it. Their bosses are struggling as well. The average length of tenure of a CEO is 4.6 years. Twenty-two European CEOs were fired in 2003. A recent EU study shows that 45 percent of top management are currently looking for a new position. Executives are getting burned out, pissed off, and fired.

I talk about this context because my interest is in the role a leader plays in shifting the currents. The currents, the trends of global societies, are moving, very disturbingly, in a direction that is leading us towards destruction. And those currents will only be turned around through the influence of leaders. It will happen when individuals wake up, see the direction we’re heading in, and realize, “The way that I’m living my life is unsatisfactory. Even though this is what society tells me I should be doing, I’m just not going to do it anymore. I’m going to do something different with my life; I’m going to do something more authentic.”…[Read more…]