Searching for Rainbows

Scared. Overwhelmed. Angry. Hopeless. These are the words Americans are using to describe their lives. The American Psychological Association reports that 87% of Americans feel the last two years have just been a relentless stream of crises without a break. Covid-19, our democracy in peril, war in Ukraine, inflation, gun violence, climate change, and a Supreme Court apparently determined to re-impose medieval cultural norms have Americans focused on survival rather than hopes and dreams for the first time since the 1930s. According to a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll just 13% of Americans believe the country is on the right track. Just when people think it can’t get any worse, it does. Then, it does again. We seem to be in a self-fulfilling spiral of decline.

As the Stoics suggested hundreds of years ago, the key to any crisis is not the crisis itself; rather, how we respond to the crisis. Thus far, we have responded with an array of coping behaviors; we have put our heads in the sand while pointing in any direction other than ourselves to assign blame. The sale of weighted comfort blankets and drugs and alcohol have been big winners. Denial and self-deception are natural by-products of the Age of Deceit that has persisted in America since the early 2000s. As many analysts point out, the irony is that many factors social scientists use to measure human welfare have never been better. The perils of life—even with the pandemic—are at historical lows. And, we have more than enough wealth sloshing around the country and world to solve every problem we face. The problem is something no government or political party, or corporation, or any of today’s organized religions can fix. The problem is personal. The problem is character.

Take a moment and look again at our list of crises. Of the seven named above, only one—Covid-19—is natural, which is to say not caused by humans. This is good news! This means we can mitigate, and/or eliminate every other crisis that threatens our well-being through the principled application of willpower with existing knowledge and resources. In short, leadership. But we can’t do any of this while hiding inebriated under a blanket, and while expecting others to solve our problems. We need to wake up, sober up, reflect on the values and norms that actually did make America great, and demand more—much more—of ourselves. This begins with better decision-making in all aspects of our lives: personal, professional, and social. Above all, we must set aside deceit in all of its forms in every decision we make. Continuing to fool ourselves is not the path to redemption or renewal. We must put truth back on its pedestal where it belongs.

Let’s stop down for a moment so I can explain the elements of decision-making and illustrate its modalities throughout the last hundred years or so in America. All, so we can understand how we got in the mess we are in today, and to find a path out.

People make decisions—both big and small—by accessing their knowledge and beliefs to inform their choice. That sounds pretty straightforward, almost like, “Duh!” However, as one who has studied this process of decision-making to a degree of ad-nauseum, I found it is anything but simple and predictable, let alone straightforward. The model of rational humans quickly falls apart when trying to understand why people do what they do, which is to say the very concept of rational decision-making is, well, irrational. To some degree, this has always been the case, but today it has become normative.

Knowledge is based on empirical facts and experiential truths. This is the realm of decision inputs we gain through education and experience—as a matter of reason. Collectively, let’s call this the head. Beliefs are based on ideas we accept as truths that are acquired through indoctrination and socialization—as a matter of faith. Collectively, let’s call this the heart.

In early twentieth century America, the head was promoted as the dominant set of decision-making inputs. As we emerged from the post-Civil War era and entered the modern industrial age, people were expected to largely set aside the heart in favor of the head that drove what I have termed the “scientification of everything.” The concept of “rational man” was ascendent. From the invention of modern production lines for the automobile to the widespread mandate of scientific method, we Americans thought we could make everything rational and predictable. Coincidentally, it should be of no surprise that religiosity (a completely faith-based “heart” endeavor), while always present at some level in our society, entered a period of remission in the early twentieth century. It was in the private sphere (where it always is), but less so in the public sphere and, after the Scopes Monkey Trials in the 1920s, nearly vanished from the political sphere.

But the heart doesn’t remain quiet forever. In the second half of the twentieth century, it became apparent that the head could only carry us so far. The concept of “rational man” was incapable of dealing with issues like human and civil rights, and also produced whopper mistakes like the popular “domino theory” that justified getting into the Viet Nam War, as well as scientific breakthroughs like DDT that killed pests, but was also killing us. Head-based decision-making needed to elevate its game. It needed to mature from rational decision-making to a higher level of judgment inasmuch as our scientific head didn’t understand enough of an increasingly complex world to avoid making tragic mistakes. Having tapped out the capacity of the head, we reached again for beliefs, or the heart, to improve our game. Inherited truths, which emanate from cultural beliefs carried from one generation to the next, returned to support this need for higher-level judgment. For roughly three decades, we came as close as we ever have to a truly holistic and balanced approach to decision-making. This produced one of the greatest periods of invention, innovation, and wealth creation in U.S. history. Incidentally, heart-based religiosity came rushing back into all three spheres of influence: private, public, and political.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the scales of decision-making tipped in favor of the heart. Again, unsurprisingly, religiosity (especially more fervent Christian fundamentalism) was at an all time high. This shift collided with another transformational development in technology that proved both a blessing and a curse. This was the dawn of the digital age which, among other things, ushered in much higher levels of productivity resulting in yet higher levels of wealth and affluence. One critically significant negative side-effect of these developments was that the costs of bad decisions were often absorbed into the frothiness of affluence, which created unprecedented slack in the natural system of consequence. Bad decisions went unpunished and the learnings that accompany mistakes were also lost. In hindsight, we were not nearly as smart as we thought—making many poor decisions—without paying the appropriate price. Wealthier does not equal smarter. This is when things really started to go off the rails resulting in the mess—social, economic, and political—we have today.

One might expect that we would adjust our mix of head and heart to meet the decision-making challenges of the day, but without appropriate consequences and the learnings born therefrom, we went in an even more dangerous direction. We set aside knowledge and beliefs—both the head and the heart—in our decision-making and slipped into the realm of greed and delusion. We decided the truth didn’t matter; we entered the Age of Deceit. We started acting like spoiled entitled brats who believed we deserved whatever we wished regardless of any social, economic, political, environmental, or moral consequence. And, we modeled these behaviors for our children and grandchildren.

Today, we look at Millennials and Gen Zs and wonder why they can’t seem to get their act together; why won’t they seize the day and take America to the next level of superpower dominance? But, let’s all stop for a moment and ask ourselves: what have we given them to believe in? Hard work? Personal responsibility? Empathy? Humility? Altruism? Any notion of civics whatsoever? We don’t even teach virtues anymore, let alone model them in our own behaviors. (I know, you and I are exceptions; it’s everyone else who is lame. Big wink.) To make matters worse, we now have a group of leaders at the national level—in government and business and religion—who are some of the most selfish base hucksters of all time. They make the Wizard of Oz, flailing behind his curtain, look like a Rhodes Scholar in a think tank.

I am an ardent advocate of the American Dream. I believe when you consider our traditional American values collectively, their fundamental intention is to assure everyone has the chance to be whatever they want to be. Freedom, equality, liberalism, pluralism—all exist to enable our dreams. However, when we abdicate the truth found in our head and heart—when greed and delusion become fundamental modalities—we destroy confidence in the collection of values and tenets that undergird America. The result? There is no foundation upon which to build one’s dreams. We end up where we are today: feeling disenchanted and forlorn. If we want our children and grandchildren to set the standard for the world to follow, as was the aspiration our parents and grandparents had for us, we need to clean up the mess we have made.

It starts with demanding that the truth returns to the center of our decision-making. And, that the values and tenets that established America are renewed as touchstones in everything we do. Finally, for the Boomers (or older) among us, this should be our final act after which we exit the stage in favor of much younger leaders. Just because modern medicine keeps us churning doesn’t mean we get the last word. Maybe the occasional deep word, but not the last word. It is time for a new generation of leaders to emerge. They won’t be able to rise if we continue to block them. For the first time in our history, the majority of both political parties do not want their frontrunner—Biden or Trump—to run again. Perhaps younger leaders can get a new grip on reality, based in truth, to rebuild America. They will (as we did) make mistakes. And, if they endure consequences they will learn. So, please, Biden, Trump, Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and all the rest of the geriatric class who hold power in Washington D.C., go home. Redemption and renewal—searching for rainbows—is for the young (and honest) in both head and heart.

By |2022-08-02T14:38:20+00:00July 15th, 2022|General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Certainty Trap

In decision making at all levels—personal, business and government—it appears there is one pitfall everyone succumbs to at one time or another: the certainty trap.  Stated simply, the certainty trap occurs when decision makers grant inordinate meaning to apparent ‘knowns’ that are subsequently revealed to have had little or nothing to do with the outcomes produced by the decision.  The effects of the certainty trap on our failures range from marginal opportunity costs to the catastrophic—from a missed business opportunity to waging ill-conceived wars.  The certainty trap yields fatuous decisions, however carefully justified by ‘knowns’.

Although we seldom conduct a post-analysis on our victories (after all it was our brilliance and hard work that produced the triumph!), it also seems logical to assert that the certainty trap is outcome agnostic; whether we are successful or not, the certainty trap may have preceded both our wins and our losses.  The decision itself is dependent on the ‘knowns’ but the outcome may prove to have been quite independent of the same ‘knowns’.  Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld often jousted with reporters over his seemingly magical matrix of knowns and unknowns, focused somewhat fatalistically on those combinations that included ‘unknown’.  But what if the real problem was not with the unknowns, rather it was with the knowns that, in reality, did not matter (or, in Rumsfeld’s case were not actually ‘knowns’ at all)?  More importantly, how do we avoid the trap of granting inordinate weight to factors that are visible and immediate, but ultimately inconsequential?

The first thing to realize is that the certainty trap is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  We need little if any help to fall into it.  After all, upon what are we to base our decisions if not those things that are known?  Here is where the wisdom born from failure can be critical.  While it is natural to point at visible and tangible factors and data to justify our decisions, and equally unnatural to point at the same data and call it into question, doing so may be extraordinarily valuable if the ‘knowns’ are irrelevant (or worse).  It takes an exceptionally confident and wise person to discount the obvious knowns in favor of the possibilities lurking in the unknowns.  It takes confidence born from intelligence and experience and a wide-open mind to make judgments instead of decisions.

And yet, we can observe many ‘unnatural’ judgments that created enormous successes, while there are many more ‘natural’ decisions that resulted in failures.  Steve Jobs made judgments that resulted in the largest and arguably most culturally influential corporation in the world, while Steve Ballmer made decisions that set the incumbent software giant Microsoft on a glide path to mediocrity.  Tesla and SpaceX’s Eton Musk made judgments about the future of travel on roads and in space, while at the same time General Motor’s former CEO, Rick Wagoner, made well-justified decisions that led to GM’s bankruptcy.  President George H.W. Bush made judgments after the collapse of the Soviet Union that prevented chaos in much of the world while his son, President George W. Bush, made decisions after 9/11 resulting in tragic losses of life and treasure and little, if any, meaningful gains.  The outcomes speak for themselves and point to a new rule to observe: worry as much or more about the knowns as the unknowns.

The mindset of the executive who makes judgments vs. those who make decisions is worth exploring.  All the executives listed above are intelligent and well-intentioned human beings.  They vary in experience levels, but that alone does not assure judgment-making over decision-making.  We must look at the cognitive nature of each executive.  Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities?  Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between?  Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions?  Are they deliberative or impulsive?  Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable?  Are they curious, or are they certain? Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity?  These are the questions we should all ask of ourselves and of those we choose as our leaders.  These are the considerations that produce judgments over decisions and protect us all from the certainty trap.

By |2017-05-23T17:32:32+00:00July 31st, 2014|General, Leadership|0 Comments
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