Clever but Hollow

At a workshop with the top management of a well-known Fortune 500 bank, I made the following proposition to the CEO and his team: if they were to quit their current roles and be given capital enough to start a new bank, would the new bank resemble the one they were leading? The answer was a unanimous negative. My next question was even more provocative: why were they working for an organization they did not believe in? They stayed silent.

We have a problem. So many of our institutions and organizations are plainly ineffective and increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing world. They were conceived and built in an era when fundamental assumptions of stability, uniformity, obedience, and conformity were the norm. The same organizations are now struggling with new values of transparency and mass collaboration. Many of them are simply not equipped to address the complex problems that are typical of the 21st century. On top of that, our traditional leadership models are largely based on routines of command and control that make sense only when the people you lead or the people that you serve have no point of view. In an age in which information is already a commodity, how many of your employees and customers can be characterized as people with no point of view?

An IBM study of more than 1500 CEO’s from all over the world in 2014 revealed that their greatest concern was that we do not have the leaders or the organizations to solve complex global problems. These problems by definition are complex and global because of their sheer scale and because they emerge out of interconnections and interdependencies that are longer controlled by any individual or institution. While climate change is an example of a complex global problem at the macro level, they also manifest at the business level through disruptions that suddenly appear from an adjacent technological space. The Apple watch may well be poised to disrupt the health industry but the way most pharmaceutical companies are organized, it will be an uphill task to respond to the disruption when it comes.

The only way to tackle complex, global problems is by working across networks of constituents, many of whom are outside our span of control. It takes passion and energy. It takes insight, not information. It needs empathy to see the problem through others’ eyes. It needs mindfulness of the old habits that tie us down. It needs creativity to untangle the problem. It takes great courage to stand up for what is right. And it takes enormous compassion. The problem is that we are producing hordes of seemingly clever people with degrees, but very few who can think creatively.

There is something seriously wrong about a society in which some of the most important jobs – like educating children and young adults – are the most underpaid. We churn out cookie cutter graduates, all too eager to fit in and play the game. Eventually, we give up our lives for careers in a Faustian bargain, and if we do finally see the light, it is too late. We are clever but hollow, like in T.S. Eliot’s poem, with “our dried voices, when we whisper together … quiet and meaningless, as wind in dry grass.”


Sudhanshu Palsule