Managing Through Absurdity

I began 2020 by asking the question: Can Business Be Philosophical? Little did I know it was going to be a test.

As this very difficult year comes to an end, I’ve been mulling over any learning I can carry forward. I’ve been pondering the fundamental notion of quarantine, a strategy I’ve never before considered as a defense against an invisible assailant. I’ve even taken to religious texts for clues on interpreting the darkness. I’m not finding many answers to my perhaps impossible questions, but I do find myself zeroing in on a direction in thought that has guided me as a coping strategy in traversing shaky ground.

What are we supposed to learn from the year of pandemic? If there is no learning in crisis, then a repeat of the same crisis is inevitable. I don’t believe that because it ends the contest between fatalism and free will. We can’t throw in the towel that easily.

Understand the Malady

Might I suggest we have been living through a period of absurdity?

Covid-19 thus far taking the lives of more than a million and a half people globally and 300,000 Americans is absurdity.

The failure of our government to be in a state of readiness for this crisis is absurdity.

Conflicting policies between federal, state, and municipal restrictions is absurdity.

Misaligned interstate regulations in a nation where we travel freely is absurdity.

Hospitals with ICU wards beyond capacity is absurdity.

Categorical rejection by millions of a protective vaccine is absurdity.

Systemic racism is absurdity.

Failure to acknowledge and address systemic racism is absurdity.

Police brutality directed at people of color is absurdity.

Suffering wildfires and hurricanes while rejecting climate science is absurdity.

A president who lies endlessly for convenience as an alternative matter of style is absurdity.

A soundly defeated political candidate and his followers denying the legitimacy of validated democratic process is absurdity.

That’s a lot of absurdity. It can’t be tucked away in a vault. It can’t be explained away by any retroactive framework. Our ability to move on confidently hangs in the balance.

Maintain Integrity

I wonder, have we arrived exhausted at a place and time where all opinions are due equal consideration? If I say that the moon is made of cheese, is that just another point of view I get to insist is as valid as any other idea? Are we so proud of killing political correctness that we have forgotten the pernicious blurring effect of false equivalency?

Like all of us, this year I had to make a lot of hard decisions. Many of them impacted the lives of others. I worried at length about the easy draw of relativism and situational ethics.

By relativism, I mean the temptation to justify a decision I might not otherwise make because of the material circumstance of contemporary events.

By situational ethics, I mean the ability to justify a twist in the consistent application of values as warranted by endlessly deteriorating real-world conditions.

Neither of these is ever desirable, but faced with absurdity, it is easy to see how one could slide toward an argument that was de facto temporary and expirable.

Don’t Make It Worse

In times of turmoil, we must never cross our own lines of absolute right and wrong, but can we know for certain under extreme duress where those lines begin and end?

I suppose some might think the justification or compromise of authority in our pragmatic world is linked to intention. Is the outcome of a tense judgment call broadly beneficial or narrowly self-serving? If we do something we otherwise wouldn’t for a public purpose, for the greater good, is it okay to bend our own rules? If we don’t do it to benefit ourselves, can it be less highly scrutinized?

Those are all curious frameworks I’m sure many in leadership positions encountered this year. None of it worked for me. I chose instead to steer toward a path I could consider consistent. That was an early lesson in managing through absurdity. When faced with absurdity, the first mandate had to be not to compound the absurdity with more absurdity.

Remain Methodical

I thought I might call this post: “What I learned this year.” Then I decided I didn’t learn it this year. The learning has been cumulative. Socrates suggested that all learning is recollection (Socrates also believed in reincarnation, so of course all learning would be recollection).

This year I have been recalling the battles of previous crises: 9-11; the internet bubble; a corporate hostile takeover; a shareholder war; the CDO financial collapse. These were all instances of absurdity. We know that 2020 is not an isolated collection of discord; it’s recency might just make it feel that way.

Maybe that’s the key learning: absurdity can’t be suppressed. It can at best be navigated. Calm, thoughtful teamwork is a good place to start. Collective learning and brainstorming are usually more exponential in effect than individual edict or hunch.

That doesn’t mean we can allow absurdity to become our norm. Dysfunction has to be called out. Identifying dysfunction is often where healing begins. We will be tossed into absurdity again, and the choice will remain: dig in deeper or dig our way out. We’ve proven conclusively we can do both.

Not long ago I happened upon a streaming performance by Bill Irwin at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. He enacted several passages from one of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s existential masterpiece is about absurdity, about inaction masquerading as action. It is a play of anxiety where nothing happens except for the characters’ recognition of their own circuitous fate. Are Didi and Gogo noble in trying to identify purpose when escape is beyond their ability to see past the proscenium? They may go nowhere, but they never give up hope. The unsettling themes of tedium and uncertainty seem incredibly apt for our times.

Learn to Learn Quickly

Yes, it’s been a hell of a year. Loss, fear, isolation, alienation, pressure, financial inequality, hardball rhetoric, political divisiveness, ceaseless conflict— it’s been a nasty witch’s brew of stress. Are we ready now to embrace empathy?

My ongoing observation in getting past this and getting on to that is that life is too short. I don’t mean that to be cerebral or pithy, but practical. We can’t learn stuff fast enough to put it to work. Just when we start to understand how things work we are old and retiring. If only we could learn it sooner, faster, how much better our work, our interactions, the whole of our lives might be. If only knowledge as recollection could be accelerated to a state of immediacy.

Sadly our journeys aren’t predictable that way. We know what we know when we know it. We can’t reach for answers we don’t have because absurdity comes calling. Our experience emerges and compounds at its own pace. We can no more control the amassing of experience than we can control the unfolding of absurdity.

We must take what we know, apply it the best we can when faced with turmoil, and remain true and consistent to the values we cherish. We will fail often, but the faster we fail, the faster we learn what not to do. That modest confession is my takeaway in managing through this morass.

That’s not absurdity. That’s reality.

I wish you a brilliant, healthy, revitalizing new year of recovery and inspiration.

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Photo: Pixabay

Trust Is Not Negotiable

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust.

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth.

I’m trying to wrap my head around what I thought for fiftysomething years were the basics: If we’re going to climb a mountain together, we have to agree on what mountain we’re climbing, where it is, are there airports nearby to get in and get out, has it been climbed before and under what circumstances—you know, the facts.

We won’t necessarily know the exact temperature at the top, the weather patterns tomorrow or the next day, the precise condition of the trail at every turn, those sorts of variables. There are always unknowns ahead of us that we’ll discover together, but if we can’t start on the same page, how can we possibly agree on plans to address the unknowns?

I find these days truly unsettling, not just because there is a debilitating health crisis before us, but because I don’t have enough trusted information to know what the crisis is and the ability to share in that belief set collegially with a vast majority of the population.

We are confused. We are bombarded with conflicting information. We are scared, anxious, and divided when we need to be informed, building consensus, and united.

How do we address monumental problems when we have little idea what we can believe?

In the age of the Internet, with the ability to share more factual information globally than in all of history, we are mired in noise.

How do we navigate a crisis and ask people to make personal sacrifices—not the least is the temporary surrendering of certain personal liberties—without a unified voice in leadership speaking with sound judgment and reverence for the impact of expert advice?

To me, the deepest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic beyond the tragic loss of human life remains the nagging head fakes that cause me to have no idea what to believe.

Contradictory information is not just a health concern. The unrestricted blending of fact and speculative opinion can undermine our entire economy. If truth blows in the wind, if we have no idea what basic financial information constitutes truth, how can we wisely invest? How can we guide careers? How can we effectively build plans for our future?

Trust and truth are not just about bidirectional knowledge transfer or multi-directional pollutants of critical exchange. Once we accept the notion that lies will be lies and are simply part of the fabric of sharing a planet, we effectively invite opportunism and exploitation as normal behavior. Today there would seem almost nothing that surprises us in lowering our expectations of those whose paths we may cross.

As quickly as the novel coronavirus was becoming a national emergency, some of our fellow citizens took it upon themselves to empty stores shelves of toilet paper, hoarding for themselves rather than caring about the needs of others.

As soon as hand sanitizer became scarce, many sellers of it started price gouging. Even though we have laws about profiteering in crisis, even though it is a purely inhuman act, they did it to extract obscene profits, to hell with the ongoing trust of their customers.

Earlier this month it was revealed that an international criminal operation was filing fraudulent unemployment claims in the United States. Congressionally directed funds meant to help people became the target of a scam. My own company saw one of the first fraudulent claims.

With so many people working from home, phishing and identity theft are on the rise. Credit card fraud is escalating. Fellow human beings see upside in the confusion brought on by the rapid adoption of technologies meant to connect us. Instead they would steal from us.

We are parroting unseemly behavior. We hear lies coming from our foremost leaders. Somehow that becomes permission to follow suit. Self-interest becomes justified and paramount. What we allow we let spread.

Why is all of this bothering me so much, beyond the underlying sickness it unmasks in our global community?

I am a brand builder. The basis of a brand is trust. A brand is a promise. Without trust in a brand, most products become random commodities. The balance of price, quality, and service is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Without brands, we don’t have customers, we have transactions. That is a pure downward spiral in economic viability.

I am also a business leader. When I say leader, I only can apply that descriptor in as much as people choose to follow me. Certainly I can impose hierarchy and insist on the power of authority. If you have ever managed creative people, you know how far that will get you.

If all trust is gone, then I have to assume trust in me is gone. If all truth is gone, I can’t expect anyone to believe anything I say is the truth. A complete lack of credibility in the chain of command is the fastest path to chaos in business I can imagine.

So yeah, it’s personal. If the societal fabric is unwound by manipulation and cynical agendas, my efficacy is also tainted. If you don’t trust my brand, you won’t be my customer. If no one trusts my direction, I can’t do my job and I will have no product to sell.

Is every detail in a company always able to be posted on the side of a cube wall? No, certainly not, there are all kinds of trade secrets and human sensitivities that merit protection. I am not particularly a fan of radical transparency. It sounds much better than it is and I have seldom met colleagues with the pure objectivity to pull it off.

Does it mean there is no way for us to walk down a path of honesty and clarity without a categorical imperative? If you don’t understand that there are shades of grey in decision-making that don’t cross the boundaries of trust, I’m not sure anything I’ve written here will be of value to you.

Integrity is a calling. It is a beckoning aspiration that molds and shapes behavior. Intention matters. Respect matters. Acknowledgment of consequence matters.

If you have shouldered the responsibility of executive leadership or brand stewardship, you know that once integrity is compromised, it is almost impossible to restore faith in a promise of any kind. We teach this to young children, why the smallest lie matters because it makes the next lie possible. Once you’ve lied or cheated and you’ve been caught, no one can ever be certain of your words again.

Am I giving up the fight against the absurd? Hardly. Am I done compromising around the notion of false equivalency? I’ve yet to compromise on values that are sacrosanct and I see no value dancing around an undisciplined contradiction that is empirically wrong.

We can’t let down our guard against emboldened con artists. The disease they spread will never have a cure.

Trust is not negotiable because truth is not negotiable. Talk yourself out of that and you have opted into the source of aimless unwinding.

Trust has to matter to you. Telling and hearing the truth has to matter to you. Commit yourself to demanding more of your own integrity, and one by one we might be able to rebuild our way out of unearned gains and stolen promises.

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Image: Pixabay

Sam and Rosie: An Odd Couple

I can’t defend Samantha Bee because the harsh, offensive language she used this week was wrong. I have been a fan of her show since it launched, but I actually think it has gotten progressively worse as she has allowed her indignation to overcome her humor. My sense for some time is that she is not currently at her best.

Indignation is the call to fight. Humor is the sword that slays dragons.

A strong producer could steer her back on track. I don’t see a lot of evidence she has one, and I think her talent is taking a hit as a result. If she looks to some of her peers and mentors, she’ll see where she may be losing ground on that illusive concept of “crossing the line.” I’d like to see her rebound because she does have a unique, important voice in our nation’s dialogue.

When Roseanne Barr launched her latest damning tweet, I believe she was in an entirely different universe of free expression.

Here are a few points on the false equivalency:

1) There is no equivalency between a random racist tweet and a few unnecessary hateful words deployed in the context of making a point about the morality of separating parents from children. Lenny Bruce pretty much died for this point. Context is inseparable from language.

2) Complain all you want about who should get fired or cancelled, but the two performers have different employers. It’s the employer’s decision to exercise a response to the free speech exercise of an employee or contractor. Had it been the same employer, there might be an opening to hypocrisy, but even then, don’t mistake what happened. These were considered business decisions.

3) If you want to know the true horror of our nation, do a few internet searches and see what some of Roseanne’s supporters are saying about the underlying truth in her remarks. The defensive outcry over an alleged double-standard does little more than fuel the fire of racism as some kind of macabre social norm too many people can easily dismiss as overblown. Racism is institutionalized hatred bolstered on ignorance. Celebrities choosing to fan that flame know what they are doing. To the contrary, you might find a few people defending Samantha’s rotten choice of words, but for reasons of emphasis, not denigration of gender. Again, context matters, particularly as a rallying cry. There are degrees of invective. The hierarchy stems from purpose.

Far be it from me to defend Samantha, but I believe her intention was motivated by a positive force of social criticism. She threw away that timely opportunity with a few poorly chosen words. Roseanne was just being herself, using her humor to irresponsibly reinforce a longstanding platform of inciting the biases of her base.

The two incidents are not the same. Far from it.

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Image: GQ