Are we being good ancestors?

“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead”, wrote Jonas Salk, the pioneer of the polio vaccine in his book, “Anatomy of Reality”. Using the ability to see ahead as a springboard to transforming the present, is what great leaders do. Salk was right in terming it “self-regulating”; seeing ahead and making changes often goes counter to established beliefs, strategies, and most importantly our sense of self-importance. Self-regulation is a leader’s biggest challenge, especially as one grows more successful because the biggest obstacle now becomes, the need to be right. I remember talking to a CEO who was presiding over a multi-million dollar loss made through some poor decisions. He mentioned how his biggest mistake was his reluctance to step back from what he and his team were doing on order to make changes to their strategy. “The momentum was too powerful and we were convinced we were right“, he said. “We just couldn’t see ahead”.

To see ahead, the leader’s mind has to operate differently. One focus must remain on the task at hand and what we are doing right now in order to fulfill the plan; this is task awareness. However this is not the only one. The second focus is on the environment and all the moving parts that are impacting upon the business at hand. This is situational awareness. A third focus is on what is emerging around the periphery: the weak signals that trickle in from adjacent spaces and that are difficult to pick up because we are not looking for them. This is emergent awareness. And lastly, the focus on oneself: a continuous vigilance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and how one is reacting to the changes in the environment, or to others who may have different points of view. Without the fourth self awareness, we too easily slip into hubris, the Achilles heel of so many leaders.

When all four ways of focusing operate together, the leader’s mind has the capacity to simultaneously perform a seemingly paradoxical procedure of having a point of view and sticking to it, while constantly remaining open to other, multiple points of view. It is precisely this dissonance that allows us to look ahead, pick up subtle cues from the environment, look around corners, and continuously learn, while doing what we must do now to fulfill our obligations to the task at hand. And it is a quality so desperately lacking in those who are charged with leading our organizations, and those that we have elected to political positions of power. We prize cleverness and authority, while what is critical to developing the four-focus state of mind is active humility. While some of us are fortunate to have that quality, most of us have to learn it. The desire to be right, to feel important, and to assume that our version of reality is the sole truth, is an ever-present vortex just waiting to draw us in and consume us. Active humility is the overturning of this evolutionary trap.

Salk asked another profound question once: “are we being good ancestors”? Sixty years since his discovery of the polio vaccine, his question is a reminder for seeing one’s actions and the time we spend on this earth as measured by what we leave behind for the future, rather than what we accumulate for ourselves. That is an all too important distinction.