Following my previous articles about Ukraine, and the inspiring, personalist, vision of Oleksiy Arestovych—Adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Victor Zelensky—I am working on an op-ed piece regarding the future, the leadership risks Ukraine faces, and how that impacts geopolitics—particularly the Sino-Russia-US hegemony.
However, I recently found myself thinking ‘that’s all interesting, but how useful is it for you, a reader of my work, in your work, and in your leadership?’ Although the op-ed piece is a work in progress, it has me thinking about the tension between competing powers, the tension between underlying ideas, and how the solution lies in a ‘third way.’
The tension between competing powers
First, then: the tension between powers. Ukraine finds itself as something of the meat in a superpower sandwich, caught between an invading Russia who wants to project its power to defend itself against what it considers US imperialism (in the guise of NATO), and a creeping NATO wanting to project its power to defend itself against an expansionist Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian people are fighting for liberty, and the right to determine their own future, said Arestovych, in remarks to the TWIN Global annual gathering which I attended in Miami. The brutality inflicted on the Ukrainian people lacks any moral justification.
The same thing, albeit on a much lesser scale, occurs in business and leadership: competing demands on your time, strategic dilemmas, seemingly intractable problems. One I often get involved in is the CEO managing the tension between members of her executive. Everyone thinks they need more resources, have better insight, more urgent priorities, and can’t quite understand why the CEO does not simply take their advice. One CEO said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that his main job was to ‘stop his execs killing one another’. While perhaps overly dramatic, the truth this conveys is that high-functioning executives can steamroll others, with little understanding of the impact of their actions. Every CEO is aware of the struggle to keep the egos on their team in balance, and find a third way forward.
The tension between competing ideas
Second, Arestovych revealed that conflict is seeded in an idea, and that deep suffering ensues when those ideas become established in a culture. He observed that the ideas of John Locke (1632-1704), an empiricist who is commonly referred to as the father of liberalism, and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of *Leviathan* and proponent of social contract theory, laid the groundwork for distrust and conflict between citizens and government, and fostered an egotistical selfishness in individuals who turned to their own satisfaction at the expense of others. He says this ultimately released an ‘evil’ in humans that led to 150 years of bloody massacres in the name of progress, of deep conflict within and between nations as wildly differing views of society, and the relationship between society and its citizens, took hold and battled for supremacy. Ultimately this manifests as a conflict between totalitarianism and democracy.
This manifests at work in conflicting views, that are grounded in conflicting, but hidden, ideas. For example, the current debate about working from home is not simply a weighing of the evidence for and against. It represents a grappling with an underlying idea about what constitutes work, and, within that, what constitutes performance. Some people consider work that thing you do in the office, and so work from home is a misnomer. For these people, performance means turning up and doing your work. Others consider work that thing you do when your attention is directed toward your role and its responsibilities, regardless of the location in which you are doing that attending. . For these people, performance means turning in your work. Consider your leadership: are you asking people to turn up for work or turn in great work?
Finding resolution in a third way
How do we resolve these seemingly intractable dilemmas, whether at country, company or community levels?
Martin Shaw, the English mythologist, recounts an Irish legend about choosing a leader:
to become a sovereign you had two wild horses attached to your chariot, setting out in different directions. Your task was to create, between the warring directives of each, a third movement, forged from the tension of both wills. If you could thrive under that discord, stay upright in the unknowing, make play from the tension, then you had the capacity to be a sovereign. And it wasn’t just a case of bullying the horses but making a kind of alchemical covenant between the two: you rode the counterweight and something new was birthed. That requires patience and a certain amount of discomfort.
Notice that the warrior does not defeat, or even diminish, one or the other, but rather holds them in tension while generating a third option. You can imagine why such a person has the potential for leadership, since leadership often involves satisfying warring parties, each of whom thinks their agenda, their need for resources, their perspective, is better than anyone else on the team.
Roger Martin, former Dean of Rotman School of Management, and one of the world’s leading strategic thinkers, makes a similar point in his book The opposable mind. In this Martin argues that the great leaders are able to simultaneously hold two opposing views in their mind, and generate a third way that learns from both. He calls this ‘integrative’ thinking, which requires openness to others, a certain amount of empathy, and considerable humility. Innovation often involves a third way between competing models. Quest Hotels, for example, created a high quality ‘home away from home’ apartment model for frequent business travellers, who were over staying in luxury hotels with over-priced, over-Michellened menus, but who did not want to stay in budget hotels with 1970’s curtains and heart-attack inducing breakfast buffets.
Myths and legends can help you find a third way
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who passed away earlier this year, led a peace movement known as the ‘third way’: a movement that did not take sides with the North or the South, but with people . I wrote previously that Arestovych expressed a desire for Ukraine to be the ‘freest country in the world’, a country where people care about each other, and ask what they can do for others, rather than what others can do for them. He maintains this ideal—of care for others—is both the key to survival in the current conflict with Russia, and the foundation for the future, to the post-war reconstruction. We can see here not a choice between East and West, but a choice for the people of Ukraine. That choice alone creates a different set of decisions.
Using myths in management
Last week I conducted a two day offsite for a client, using Shaw’s myth as a foundation for discussion among the eight executives on the leadership team. We get together four times a year for a couple of days so I can help them stand back and look at the bigger picture: the river of life rather than the weeds of distraction. It’s an opportunity to talk about what matters, rather than day to day matters.
Starting with reflecting on a story from literature does two things: first, it creates a break from the demands of the diary and the to-do list. It says we are shifting to another gear, and are giving ourselves permission to think and engage a bit differently. Second, it opens a door to another world, a way of thinking differently, and—most importantly—a way of listening differently. Everyone thinks they are an expert on business matters. Everyone thinks they are a novice on myth, legend, and metaphor, and so we don’t compete, we get curious.
From reflecting on the myth we were then able to grapple with ‘stuff that really matters’, in a new and different way, because we are in a new and different place, and from that generate new insights and new actions. It’s a powerful process.
Here’s how you can do this:
Print copies of Shaw’s quote above and give one to everyone. Have someone read it aloud. Pause, let it sink in. Read it again … Read it three times, and then ask people to capture their own thoughts, and possible actions, using pen and paper. Writing with a pen slows the brain to thinking pace, and engages the whole body in a way that high speed typing does not. And it eliminates the pinging message that says ‘you’ve got a distraction’. Then, send everyone away in pairs to listen, for 10 minutes each, to the other, about what they wrote.
Most offsites start with writing a list of what needs to be discussed, agreed, and decided. This causes the conversation to narrow, the agenda to be contained, and ideas to be constrained. The moment you start creating lists you are into conflict, disagreement and taking sides, as listeners quietly decide where they stand on an issue. On the other hand, talking about a story enables new perspectives to enter.
The Irish legend enables us to grasp the value of understanding alternatives. It reveals the solution is not in defeat but in breakthrough, not in competition but collaboration. It gives you a model for finding a third way, and recognising that tension and discomfort are normal and ok.
Try this kind of approach next time you run an offsite. You will be surprised by what happens. Let me know If you want a worksheet for how to run a session like this for your team and I will send it through.