As the year turns, we head into the second half of the second decade of the third millennium.
The sweep of time was on my mind as I made my way through the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari over the holidays. Sapiens tracks our evolution as a species from our early days as foragers struggling to survive, to our modern era where we unequivocally dominate our planet. A core idea of the book is that the rise of our species is connected to the creation of beliefs that have brought humans together — willingly and unwillingly — to build cultures, civilizations, nations, and empires.
The role of belief was evident in an encounter I had as my family spent the holidays in Brazil. Two middle-aged men joined our tour group on a trip down the Amazon river in Manaus. One was from Germany and the other from Turkey. Nothing about the experience — the grand meeting of the twin streams of the Amazon, the river dolphin encounter, or the extensive lunch buffet — seemed to quite satisfy the German. He was always ready to point out what could be better.
The Turkish man was quite different. He relished everything. They both were experiencing the very same thing, yet operated with different expectations. The Turkish man who was seated next to me had traveled the world. When I asked him the best places he’d been to, he said that he didn’t have any favorites; he found things to like everywhere. As we made our way down the river, I asked the Turkish man about the situation in Syria and the refugees pouring into his country. He said things were very bad and he chose not to think about it. This too was striking. His ready sense of acceptance made him less ready than the dissatisfied German to change things.
In the book Sapiens, human empires have risen fueled by dissatisfaction and desire for more. Discontent — translated into aggression — trumps docility as humans have conquered, annihilated, and enslaved other peoples. Yet empires have little staying power unless they can bring the conquered into a shared system of belief. This is the role of culture. Empires and cultures that last create identities that unite.
In our modern world, we’re linked in a global web of shared protocols for how we engage together — visas to transit borders, trade and currency systems for exchanging goods, rules for ownership of property, political and legal systems for governance, phone codes and Internet protocols.
Yet many of these systems may soon be headed for upheaval. Some futurists predict that the next decade may be the most volatile yet. Political, economic, environmental systems are being pushed into disequilibrium, accelerated by fast moving technological and demographic forces. The world stands on the precipice of great conflict, as people and worldviews collide. Neither the stance of the discontented German or the accepting Turk is a viable strategy.
Creative leadership offers an alternative. Creative leadership hinges on embracing difference and change. In exploring our identities, we uncover the basis for our unconscious beliefs about ourselves and others. In pondering how we have learned and grown, we chart the contours of change and how to lean into disequilibrium. In both areas, we find that the challenge is truly about changing ourselves. To cross the lines of difference and navigate change, we must dial down our point of view and relax what we believe. We must open ourselves to new ideas and possibilities, tuning in with openness to different voices and different ways so that we might uncover a new way forward. Difficult and yet possible!
Creative leadership is anchored in the belief that personal change and a better world are possible. By engaging change with courage and compassion we transform it. It is not the path of avoidance or discontent but of courageous and compassionate engagement.
So, in greeting the New Year, we must go beyond wishing each other peace and happiness and work intentionally to create positive change in our world — in our families, workplaces, communities, and the wider world. It is an intention I know I must carry into the New Year for myself now more than ever.
A classic adage says that fear knocked, love answered, and there was no one there. This is our perennial human challenge: to embrace change, embody compassion, and work for unity. It is what will enable us to author positive change in our lives in the New Year. It is also what can shape a more promising destiny as a species as we head into an era that may challenge us as never before.