Leadership, Impermanence, and Navigating Business Cycles

Article excerpt

Abstract

Impermanence is part of the natural order of the world. When leaders fight against it, they try to control what is uncontrollable; in the process, they miss opportunities to use adversity for the benefit of their organizations. The turn in the business cycle is a good time for leaders to focus on organizational values and purpose.

In Shakespeare's As You Like it, Duke Senior, his throne usurped, has been exiled into the Forest of Arden. Even so, life is not all bad, he allows, "(for) sweet are the uses of adversity." Duke Senior does not say he's glad for adversity; but he prefers to use his adverse circumstances wisely, rather than to spend his life complaining.

Part of the work of a leader is to be comfortable with change. Very few would be surprised if the coming years bring unprecedented changes in the external world. How to respond to rapid change is a challenge all of us and our organizations will face.

All of us have known loss, some more than others. But until very recently, most Americans alive today have known decades of uninterrupted, increasing prosperity. Indeed, in March 2009, The International Monetary Fund reported "that the world economy, reeling from financial crisis, was on track to shrink for the first time in 60 years."1 Most of us have not experienced the full cycle of economic life; like a society that has somehow lengthened summer beyond its normal time, we have forgotten that winter is a normal part of life. Unlike Duke Senior, we have no idea how to make good use our adverse circumstances.

Collectively as a society, we are like aging athletes who demand that the doctor shoot us up with inappropriate remedies to maintain our youth. When an athlete's body is artificially maintained, the inevitable decline is even worse. Some losses are expected in a vibrant, free-market economy. When we demand to be bailed out of our particular losses, we guarantee that we will no longer enjoy the benefits of freedom. And the more we try to stave off loss through artificial means, both the severity and the length of the resulting decline are magnified.

For decades, it has been as if giant grow-lights were placed over America's gardens. Many thought that winter had been abolished by omniscient policy makers. Yet, the signs of change and the signs of rot were there to see amidst the artificial boom. Among those who were blind then, are those who still cannot see today. They think the answer is to get stronger bulbs for the grow-lights; as they do just that, they burn the incipient seeds of spring.

In his fascinating interpretation of "Ecclesiastes," Rami Shapiro translates Solomon's timeless message in Ecclesiastes 1:14: "I have explored all that is done in this world of seemingly separate beings and selves, and behold there is no profit in it. There is nothing but emptiness, im permanence, and the pursuit of control that arises when you do not see the truth."2 The truth inherent in Solomon's wisdom is not nihilist; but rather, it liberates us to lead more effectively in the world. There is nothing that can be made permanent, and our attempt to secure permanence creates suffering as Shapiro notes in his interpretation of Ecclesiastes 2:17:

The truth of impermanence haunted me,

and I soured on life

The suffering of life overwhelmed me

and I sought refuge in depression.

But I could not escape the truth of what I had seen:

all our doing is in quest of sanctuary from impermanence

We seek to think our way to certainty;

to buy our way to security;

to pleasure ourselves to eternity.

But nothing brings us the permanence we crave...

It is not wisdom, wealth, or pleasure that brings us pain,

but the mistaking of those for something they are not,

the use of these to grasp something that is not.

Our quest for permanence is the root of our suffering.3

To escape from i m permanence, our ego counsels magical thinking. …