A Tale of Two Extremes
Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery-Bertrand Russell
When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, little did he realize, that in a true Dickensian sense, it feels like the times today are the best of times and the worst of times.
Ironically, the worst of times are the greatest teachers. This is because we value light only when we are terrified of darkness i.e. We realize the value of something only after we lose it.
Therefore, moderation which implies a balance and not the absence of anything may not be a powerful teacher. Rather, extreme divisions are needed to teach us the value of unity.
For the leader, being on the field with his or her constituents can prove invaluable in understanding the plight of the people.
Do Grownups Act Like Children All the Time?
The answer is not all the time. Yes, a simple answer but beneath this simple answer lies certain trigger points that promote childlike behavior. For instance, as adults, it takes us a while to get angry as we have learnt restraint but if the right buttons are pushed, we can be worse than children.
Children tend to operate from an emotional mindset rather than a logical one.
This learning is key for any leader today. If a leader doesn’t understand the psychology of the masses or misreads the most important problems facing his followers, his campaign is most likely to fail.
The concept of the underdog rarely fails to motivate. As children, if superheroes are infallible, it becomes business as usual but a story becomes inspirational if superheroes face a stronger enemy and are pounded to a pulp before rising up again and ultimately winning the challenge.
Think of Rocky Balboa. It’s not the fact that he doesn’t fall down that impresses the audience but it’s the fact that as long as he has some semblance of consciousness left, he keeps coming back for more until the opposition is frustrated.
From time immemorial, the story of David vs Goliath or Achilles becomes relatable because the heroes are vulnerable and have their own weaknesses.
Perfection, balance or moderation ceases to inspire.
An Epic Called ‘The Mahabharata’
The Mahabharata is the worlds longest poem which is almost ten times the Iliad and Odyssey. It has 200,000 verses and 1.8 million words. The Mahabharata has many extreme themes that have prompted debates across the world especially on dharmayudha or the just war.
It is a story of an epic battle between 5 brothers known as the ‘Pandavas’ and 100 brothers known as the ‘Kauravas’. It is a fight between brothers and teachers vs their pupils, nephews vs their uncles and family vs family.
The Pandavas, although considered the just ones employed certain unjust tactics albeit for the greater good. There are many such conflicts within the Mahabharata that use extremes to pursue and teach the value of moderation.
Managing Large Teams
The Myers — Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an introspective self-report questionnaire designed to indicate psychological preferences in how people perceive the world around them and make decisions.
MBTI can be used as an input to creating a balanced team (ironically out of extremes). It is a team made up of extremely different personalities in the hopes that the sum will be more balanced than its parts.
Lessons from the US Army
I have always admired General Stanley McChrystal who retired from the US army as a four star general after more than 34 years of service. His book ‘Team of Teams’ is truly inspirational and a New York Times bestseller.
General McChrystal’s last assignment was in Afghanistan leading the counter insurgency efforts of the US and coalition forces. In an interview with Forbes, the General described that the true challenge of organizations is to become adaptable:
To become adaptable, you need to scale the magic of a small team. Think of how your immediate team operates in a crisis — you all come together, probably camping out in the same room, sharing information and working together around the clock, exchanging ideas and truly collaborating on a solution. Everyone knows what’s going on and everyone knows and trusts each other. Now picture that working at the organizational level, with different teams coming together to tackle their biggest challenges — a team of teams.
Again, mimicking Crisis to break silos can be a very powerful tool to lead a large organization.
While this article doesn’t attempt to explain the complete range of human psychology, it stresses the importance of emotional knowledge which allows you to empathize and to use that empathy in decision making.
For a leader, It is important to understand the ‘zeitgeist’ of the moment i.e.
What pains are your constituents grappling with the most? and,
Do you think status quo is the answer (which rarely is for a new leader)?
The fallacy that some leaders make is to simply look at numbers and do not leave their ivory tower to talk to employees or people on the field.
Data may just provide historical trends but talking to people ‘Yourself and not relying on surveys and opinion polls alone’ is the right approach.
Many people do not answer surveys and opinion polls truthfully but if a senior leader spares time daily to talk to the employees on the field, he or she might not need surveys to begin with.
The question to ask is not whether a decision is right wing or left wing but whether a decision is right or wrong by the people that face the issues on a daily basis?
While everyone seems to pursue balance, balance can be as elusive as perfection. The pursuit of balance is good but realize that being pedantic about it can be counterproductive.
Use extremes to your advantage and moderation will seem within reach.