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Earlier this month I had the joy of contributing to the wondrous Purpose Conference 2023. My role was that of a wizard-philosopher; peppering the context with provocations so that we might arrive at more meaningful conversations (and insights beyond the default).
It’s taken me longer to write to you than I had hoped, as I have been grappling with the juxtaposition of joyous time with purpose-driven business leaders* at this wondrous event whilst also enduring a horrid six weeks of doom scrolling.
* Quite a few of whom are subscribers, hi!
I’d see direct footage of the results of a US-made hellfire missile fired by Israel into refugee camps and hospitals: the diagonally decapitated head of a child, brains literally spilling out. I’d also see parents grieving over children trapped in rubble, trying desperately to dig with their bare hands. I’d see children having to drink contaminated water from puddles. I’d see soldiers shooting directly at civilians*, torturing captives, planting flags on beaches and celebrating their ‘conquest’. And so on. All right before bed.
* Note: this is from on-the-ground footage, directly uploaded by civilians and journalists within the occupied territiories.
(This is not a recipe for quality sleep.)
Then, within minutes of waking, I’d be back on the phone: comparing notes with Kim as to the horrors that occurred whilst we slept. We’d then also witness the media propaganda machine apply it’s spin to the atrocities of the night before. A day-delayed distortion of facts, contorted to fit The Narrative.
Sometimes, in a bout of outrage and despair, I would turn to posting on social media—utilising what minuscule (yet non-zero) influence I have to bring attention to this.
Yet every time I have done so I have regretted it, because my wording has been heated and imprecise, and because it just seems that my strong (and alas: not gentle) condemnation of these atrocities just seems to summon trolls come to defend them; to tone police and diminish/deflect/deceive or otherwise attempt to defame/discredit/smear.
My goal is mostly to convince other folk with influence to speak up for basic human rights. To do something—anything—other than ignore it, defend it, or to wring their hands and say “it’s complex”.
One of the common criticisms I have heard—almost always by otherwise reasonable-seeming older white men—is that the situation is complex, and I am only seeing a small part of what is going on.
Undoubtedly, this is true. And, as a complexity practitioner, it is heartening to see such folk realise that things are indeed complex, and that we only ever have a fraction of the truth.
But this ought inspire a kind of epistemological humility, wherein we question all that we know, and the sources from whence this knowledge came. As stated years ago, all knowledge gleaned from the internet has the taint of the warp to it. What ought we do with this awareness? The answer is almost always: to be a bit more humble. “To have our curiosity eclipse our conviction”, as I oft love to say. To be gentle in our opinions.
A wise professorial friend of mine—on the topic of being a complexity practitioner in the distraction economy (to the backdrop of ecological collapse)—once told me that:
The people that get it don’t need it,
and the people that need it don’t get it.
Which is true. And:
The people that get it
need other people to get it, too.
And so, to those who have newly found themselves using the term “complexity”—here are three important elements you need to know, in order to better “get it”.
1 // First: do no harm
Most healing, surgery and medicine involves complex (living) systems. Then Hippocratic Oath is something doctors, physicians, veterinarians swear upon when graduating into their profession. It contains a set of principles that serve as foundational ethics. Primum non nocere—first: do no harm.
Similarly, one of the key lessons ecologists and environmental scientists learn—that is, those who work with complex (living) systems—is The Precautionary Principle. Here we apply caution and deep consideration before intervening, so as to avoid disastrous unintended consequences.
A complexity practitioner is also aware of the potential for iatrogenic effects. That is: harm caused by interventions intended to help. Thus we tend to move quietly and plant things.
But: if the house is on fire—if lives are at risk—we act to put out the fire. We don’t let it destroy everything.
Thus when one of the world’s largest nuclear-armed militaries (backed by billions of dollars in aid and weapons by the military superpower that is the US) goes on a rampage of death and destruction—indiscriminately bombing hospitals, refugee camps, schools and ambulances, killing over
8,000 10,000 13,000* people (the vast majority civilians, including over five thousand children) in one of the most horrible ways possible—a complexity practitioner does not wring their hands and say “oh best do nothing: it’s complex”.
* The number keeps going up as I write this.
No. We do what we can to stop, minimise or otherwise mitigate harm.
Complexity, in this sense, ought not be weaponised so as to silence and/or allow for more harm to continue. Your role is to stop the harm. Then, once things have cooled down, then we can explore the fullness of the complexity. Not before.
2 // Remember: it’s not complicated
It’s a complex (living) system.
A complicated system is like a machine. Not alive. The parts of a machine relate to each other in a linear and predictable fashion. And, because the context is contained (and non-living), you can experiment and find your way to a ‘fix’. This ‘fix’ can be replicated across similar (complicated) contexts.
Many business problems result from ‘hard’/‘hero’ leader-men come to ‘fix’ things by treating complex systems as if they were merely complicated. Thus they intervene, with narrow focus—‘fixing’ the issue and saving the day, whilst creating a swathe of unintended consequences in the process. They then write bestselling books and teach others how to replicate their fixes across similar (complicated) contexts.
But businesses, organisations—all of life—is complex. Not complicated. The elements of complex systems relate to each other in a non-linear fashion. Thus, attempting to “eradicate hamas”* by inflicting the direct terror of bombing a densely-packed population of civilians and children will likely only serve to radicalise and recruit more support for hamas.
* If that is even the real goal.
3 // Keep it real
Being a complexity practitioner means striving to maintain a multi-perspectival acuity for reality (as it presents itself; not as we wish it to be). Wherever possible, we draw insight from sources as close to the relevant context as possible (rather than aggregates or intermediaries who may distort/conflate/reduce or otherwise influence information with their own bias).
Thus—as mentioned in my last museletter to you—the role of on-the-ground journalists and direct (unfiltered) reports is paramount.
If you are doing bad things (like, say, what many experts might call a genocide), you’d want to remove (kill) or otherwise suppress as much on-the-ground direct footage and recording as possible, only allowing vetted ‘journalists’ to report stories that fit your propaganda. You’d also want to bomb any hospitals and other places where official records of your atrocities are kept. You’ll then want to sow confusion, and gaslight, obfuscate, deflect and distract from what is really happening.
In the past, using blanket terms like a “war on terror”, or a “war on drugs”, or a “war on the axis of evil”, or a “search for weapons of mass destruction” has proven effective (as you can stir up fear and commit a lot of damage and terror before the world catches on).
But these days it’s not so easy. Thanks to social media, we now get to see both beyond the propaganda and new forms of propaganda.* We get to see what’s really happening. (Or rather: a portion of it. Enough to put The Narrative into question).
* All subject to the whims of the algorithm and the egos of those who maintain the platform.
Thus when a complexity practitioner hears a phrase like “a war on hamas” we think, wait: hamas is a concept. Sure, there are definitely hamas operatives that ought face prosecution for their crimes. But you can’t kill a concept—if anything, such things are antifragile. Fighting terrorism with terror begets more terrorism. A “war on X” promulgated by a state is simply a narrative foil.
And even if Meta and other US-based social media platforms comply to Israel’s request to remove 8,000 posts related to their actions—the mask has slipped. And the horrors have been witnessed by a much more internet-savvy audience. As sociologist Dr Melissa Finn aptly put it:
“Here's what the Zionist elites and their supporters don't get: even if they spend millions and millions *more* to get Zionist youth to create pro-Israel content that might appeal to younger generations, first, those younger generations already understand the stakes of this issue because it's been plastered all over their social media feeds for a month and a half (any gaps in their understanding of the issues has already been closed) which in former generations is the equivalent of more than 4 years of high school, and second, any agi-prop about how Israel is the victim doesn't fit into the epistemological and ethical frameworks of youth that can differentiate various kinds of cries. Gen Z know very well how to differentiate the fake cries of the power-hungry from the cries of people hungry for freedom; they are resilient to and largely unconvinced by the messaging of the former.”
If you are going to wield complexity as a term: do no harm, know what is complex, and keep it real. Don’t weaponise the concept of complexity to justify the proliferation of harm. Thx.
I am evidently still very grumpy.
I have been told by a few folk now to stop talking about this, especially if I value my work as a leadership speaker and advisor. Indeed, I look at many of my colleagues and note that they are keeping mighty “apolitical” about it. That’s fine, no shame. And I’m sure it’s better for business. I only hope that they someday find their moral courage. And soon.
I wish I had a better ability to compartmentalise. But: it’s all connected—we’re all connected. The same geriatric patriarchal colonising war machine causing all the woes in Gaza is much the same ideology perpetuating the metacrisis (and our ecological collapse).
I wish I had the ability to simply talk up my own work and brand in jolly psychosis, oblivious to context. “Did you know that approaching business leadership with the wit and wisdom to see through shallow simplicity and hollow hype means you are more likely to bring about genuine value and meaningful progress towards enduring relevance? I call this quest leadership. If you’re ready to venture beyond the default, let’s see how we might work together for your next strategic offsite or leadership event. But don’t take my word for it—hear what my many happy clients have to say!”
I should probably add: I am a consummate professional and bring a genuine alacrity to any engagement. Look, here’s me (genuinely) happy at the recent Purpose Conference.
The Fourth Turning
A few weeks ago a subscriber suggested I read The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy—What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny*—a book by Neil Howe and William Strauss. As a wizard I view terms like “prophecy” and “destiny” with deep suspicion. But I have been wracking my mind for some explainer as to how why the main defenders of the current atrocities are—in my experience—almost entirely older white men.°
* Ha, and I thought the subtitle for my first proper book was long (The Game Changer: How to Use the Science of Motivation With the Power of Game Design to Shift Behaviour, Shape Culture and Make Clever Happen)—I feel a little less embarassed now. 😅
° This issue is close to my heart; I am soon to turn 40, a step closer to becoming one such.
I should note that I have acquaintances from Israel and I understand that they are grieving; if I had family member kidnapped or killed I would likely not be in my right mind—so I am giving these folk space to process. I also acknowledge that there are Israelis protesting against these atrocities.
But the rest of the folks who’ve come to critique any appeal to universal compassion seem to be, predominantly, older white men.
Hashtag not-all-older-white-men, of course. If you find yourself bristling at my crude use of the demographic, then realise: this is a good sign. You are likely an exception—as most of my friends and subscribers are. But what is it that has this category of folk (the richest, most privileged and most powerful) so readily defend the Israeli right-wing government that is currently committing what many international lawyers and scholars call genocide? What begets this toxic patriarchy? The Fourth Turning may hold a hint.
I haven’t read the book yet, but I listened to Jim Rutt chat with Neil Howe (one of the authors of this now 26-year-old book—a book that seems broadly prescient of the times we find ourselves in now). I like Jim Rutt—he seems to be the perfect bridge between the (artificial bifurcation) of right- and left-wing politics. You’ll come to love his accent.
The gist is: The Fourth Turning thesis is that history is cyclical.* American history can be viewed through four ‘turnings’: High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis. We have been in crisis for a few years now. The key for this is realising that different generations “come of age” at different moments in history.
* I like the phrase: history doesn’t repeat; it rhymes.
Baby Boomers were born into the first turning (‘High’; post-crisis recovery), and came of age during the second turning (‘Awakening’; revival). Life has, generally, gotten better and better. This perhaps explains the general optimism in technology and capitalism, and the laissez-faire attitude to climate change (the market will fix it!). Boomers also came of age in a media landscape dominated by centralised television, radio, and newspapers—and many continued to rely on traditional media as a trusted source of information.
Boomers are very wealthy, too. According to the Federal Reserve, Baby boomers own 52.8% of all wealth in the US, compared to 5.7% of millennials.
Millennials were born into the third turning (‘Unravelling’; institutional decay), and came of age during the fourth turning (‘Crisis’; social rebirth). (Note that this speaks mostly to the US context, but I think that there are some generalisations that apply across Western countries). Life for us Millennials started with promise—beautiful illusions and constructs; memories of a pre-Internet age where quality journalism was valued more than ‘clickbait’, and where academics and scholars were respected as knowledgeable. But then most of these things have began to unravel and fall apart.
Millennials have grown up in an era of (relative) media decentralisation and proliferation. In addition to a greater diversity of media input, many of us also went to university; studying alongside—and making friends with—people of different nationalities, cultures and faiths.
And then there’s gen Z, coming of age right now in the heart of a crisis, with all the tools of the internet available to them. This generation, mostly, can see right through clumsy attempts at propaganda.
Who’s your daddy?
So why are older white men the ones more often—of any group—keen to defend these atrocities? Is it because their fathers—those of the ‘G.I. generation’—grew up during WWII and The Great Depression, resulting in a strong sense of national identity? Do boomers want to be ‘hard men’, too? Or is it simply because boomers themselves have stuck to consumption of centralised media, and still place their trust in it? Is it because they are simply used to the US being at war, and that they genuinely believe that “might is right”?
I don’t know. All I know is: even these broad brush strokes are probably not helpful. (Again, if you are in this age category know that I am musing in general terms; I know you’re one of the beacons that stand apart). I remain as baffled as ever. I can’t even explain it. And I am sure this museletter will attract more older white men come to lecture me in my DMs and in reply to my posts. Bah.
Venkatesh Rao recently critiqued the following meme.
Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.
“What actually seems to happen when ‘strong men’ of this sort rule the world is the perpetuation of endless cycles of escalating violence, destruction, and contests between contending uncritical notions of sacredness. [...] Instead of creating good times, strong men mostly seem to create dumb times.” (source)
But I tell you what is good—
Strong feminine leadership
There are qualities of strength—curiosity, empathy, patience, compassion, complexity, wisdom, relationality—that manifest more in the feminine archetypes than the masculine.
Not to get all binary on you—and not to say that all masculine archetypes are ‘bad’—but what prevails in “leadership” today is dominated by levels of masculinity that could be considered toxic. And with this comes the tendency to optimise based on narrow goals and metrics, to divide into this and that, and to otherwise justify violence and brutality with cold detachment. Sometimes this is needed. But right now we are in the hangover of too much of this kind of “leadership”—our systems, societies and ecologies are in collapse. And what is being inflicted upon the people of Palestine is symptomatic of this.
But anyway, here’s a strong female character demonstrating what it looks like to speak truth to power.
Side note: here’s a hot tip for journalists in the Murdoch Media Empire:
And here is Palestine’s United Nations representative Nada Abu Tarbush, confronting Israel over their actions in Gaza. Her composure is remarkable. Real leaders call for unity and disarmament (not division and destruction).
And now back to the Purpose Conference of earlier this month. I had the delight of hearing from Desiree Fixler—an advocate for change in the practice of ESG investing, and a corporate ‘whistleblower’.
“It quickly became apparent to me that there was a big gap between their public ESG claims and the reality of their ESG efforts. I tried hard to raise this internally with my boss, CEO Asoka Woehrmann, to the Management Board, and eventually the Supervisory Board. I explained that a number of their ESG statements in the Annual Report and other public releases were not only unsubstantiated but were seriously exaggerated, misleading, and just wrong. [...] They not only ignored me but actually made fun of the American strict regulatory compliance culture. Then it got ugly. They basically fired me and leaked a story to Bloomberg in an attempt to control the narrative.” (source)
Hmmm: a rich incumbent power trying to control the narrative—where have we heard that before?
Seeing Desiree speak irl was a real treat of the Purpose Conference. I will share some other themes with you in coming weeks, but what I found fascinating about this session is the disparity between the US and Australia when it comes to how whistleblowers are treated. In the US, whistleblowers have strong legal protection, are often venerated by society, and can be eligible for a portion of any fines enforced upon wrongdoing companies (which can translate to millions). In Australia we throw whistleblowers in jail. Or we let them rot in foreign prisons (whilst other countries make them honorary citizens).
It seems I am being extreme here, but this is what fascism looks like—and it’s happening right now, on our watch. (Not just here: in Russia an artist gets seven years in prison for replacing grocery tags with antiwar messages).
This whole epoch feels precarious. But (somewhat) hearteningly, there is The Whistleblower Project in Australia, which offers legal help (see these folks first before blowing your whistle). The Purpose Conference gave us a chance to hear from Kieran Pender (a senior lawyer at The Human Rights Law Centre) in conversation with Desiree Fixler. This is precisely the magic of events—‘you had to be there’.
As ever there is much more to share with you. But I have a book to write and (somehow?) services to promote to leaders seeking meaningful progress (beyond the default) in this time of transition and collapse.
I’ve a project to “update my collateral” this summer, and probably to increase my fees. If you’ve been contemplating a team refresh or kick-off event in the new year—something to ensure your team is equipped to rise to the complexity (and new challenges) of our times—let’s chat before the next solstice.
Much warmth to you, and thank you for reading.