Wednesday 11 December 2013

What are you going to do about it?

Years ago, I was hired with the mandate to change the world. Okay, not eliminate hunger and bring about world peace, but change a smaller world, the world of my company. I discovered, believe it or not, that everybody does not necessarily see the need for world peace.

At the time, my arrival was heralded as the second coming. It was all quite amusing as I reminded people that the second coming ended with somebody being crucified. And like the second coming, I discovered that some people prefer the status quo over having their souls saved.

I went to my boss with a problem. I was having a difficult time getting other people to see the benefits of my work and as a consequence, they kept presenting roadblocks to my initiatives. Inertia is a powerful force. Does anybody really like change? My boss listened politely smiling at times during my story when I described a future of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows while my colleagues seemed determined to continue live in the Stone Age trying to create fire by rubbing two sticks together.

At the end of my story, my boss leaned back in his chair, paused a moment to look at me, then said, "So, what are you going to do about it?"

I looked at him perplexed. Me? I was expecting him to kick butt. I was expecting him to force the troglodytes to come out of their caves into the sunshine of the modern age. My boss had the power to tell people what to do; I could only try to persuade them. How do I carry out my mandate if other people want to remain in The Dark Ages and look at me as a blasphemous pain in the ass?

I went back to my desk to mull over a strategy. He who hesitates is lost. But good things come to those who wait. Eventually things did coalesce but in retrospect, this stemmed more from evolution by natural selection than from intelligent design. Sometimes I did manage to persuade but I wonder if more times I failed to do so. People ended up being fired. Departments were reorganised. What once was something of a physical impediment to change ceased to exist. The boulder blocking the entrance to the cave was removed and people came out into the sunlight; sometimes they were dragged but they were out nonetheless.

I've never forgotten the point of all this: What are you going to do about it?

Is life fair? I go through a number of pithy quotations and the consensus of opinion is more along the lines of, "Life is." Life exists; life just is. Life can be what we make it. And life isn't necessarily fair. So, what are you going to do about it?

"The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
-Thucydides (460–395 BC), Greek historian, general (The Peloponnesian War)

I remember watching a video of the 2011 Japanese tsunami in which a couple pointed into a valley where their home used to be. Everything, absolutely everything in their life was gone, swept out to sea. Was it fair? Was it just? The man turned to the camera and said, "We are lucky to be alive."

What are you going to do about it? A tsunami washes away your life. "The weak suffer what they must." It would seem that all of us at one point or another are weak. Who can stand up to a tsunami or a tornado or lightning? But, of course, the point is to apply that concept to other issues such as employment, health, or divorce. Sometimes sh*t happens. There may not be one specific person who can be held accountable; issues can arise out of circumstances. And even if there is a specific person, that doesn't necessarily mean that person can or will be held accountable. It may very well be that they "should not" be held accountable. A tsunami "is". We can't stop it; we can't change its course; we can only try to stay out of its way. Afterwards, we must figure out what we're going to do about it.

The definition of "pithy" is concise and forcefully expressive. Years ago, my boss handed out this pithy statement as an aphorism about job assessment.

"How do you know you're doing a good job? You get to come back to work next Monday."

I am not far away from celebrating my second decade. I have managed to avoid two attempts by other executives to have me fired. I have lost but survived three major confrontations over strategic issues with one manager and two vice-presidents. Despite an organisational realignment and technically a demotion, I have retained my position, but more importantly, my salary. While I have a highfalutin job title, I only have a diluted influence over the major decisions about strategic direction. Where we go and how we get there are now in the hands of my new boss and I do as I'm told. I do, however, get to go back to work next Monday.

I think of a tsunami or a tornado. The correct course of action is to get out of the way. I think about nearly getting fired and getting a divorce. Sometimes the correct course of action is to get out the way. And when the smoke clears, you come down from the hills or you come out of your bunker and you assess the damages. You're still alive. Even if you've lost everything, you can carry on. Now, the question is: What are you going to do about it?


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