“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”

TS Eliot, Burnt Norton – Four Quartets

Jeanette Winterson writes of Eliot’s epic poems collectively known as The Waste Land:

“Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.

The Waste Land intuitively understands what will become of the century of ceaseless movement – of peoples, of information, of goods, of ideas, a flow that becomes a flood, where nothing, finally, seems to be in the right place, where nothing is held, where the positive energy of the free markets and unrestricted access, of democracy, of travel, of opportunity, gives way to flux without purpose, agitation, and instability…  The Waste Land pre-figure[s] … the “heap of broken images” that is our world.”

I am recovering from a period of intense overwhelm and unresolved grief.  The overwhelm is made of our modern world, real and virtual, and I notice it as Eliot’s ‘heap of broken images’, all at once and confusing.  My grief is both old and new; ancient, personal lifelong sorrows are mixed with powerless, existential terror in the face of pandemic and global heating, amongst other intractable forces.  

Three months in, I am now appropriately recovered to be able to see the positive images in the heap as well as the negative.  I am not yet soft or salty enough to believe the positive will win.  Perhaps none of us are.  Entangling my decades of experience of leadership teaching with the skills needed to rise and face each morning seem to me, at the moment at least, to be unspeakably difficult.  The help I have sought and am receiving has been simple, honest, and powerful.  None of it has been clinical, but natural.

Spring is helping.  So too empathy or an unanticipated kindness, or an unexpected burst of optimism from a friend or colleague.  Deep counsel with multiple people has been the most efficacious.  I can now tempt a mousy gratitude out of my emotions with the cheese of my conscious mind using the reminder that we live in an interdependent world, and that means connection.  

Yet aren’t these consolations small, so tiny; and what can they possibly mean to those who rule continents, where grand strategy and god-games play out in real time against the ticking clock?  I am active in the world, but does my angst even matter?  The short answer is of course not.

Context is everything in leadership.  I see the crisis (mine and the world’s) as having one source, and I spy it for what it is: the culmination of behaviours that have for too long stolen from the future to pay for the present; from the small everyday compromises we make right up to geo-politics.

In his book ‘Good to Great’ (2001), Jim Collins wrote powerfully about a critical leadership skill he termed the ‘Pursuit Of Reality’.  Only 20 years on, Good to Great was clearly a book of its time.  Its lessons were exciting and profound, taking about the need for ‘grey style’ (authentic) leadership – leaders who put their businesses before themselves.  The research into specific companies dated quickly as disruption and the 2008/9 financial crash bit hard, yet the leadership lessons remain: change the leaders, and you change the perspective.  Change the perspective and you change the outcomes. 

Do we agree that human kind cannot bear very much reality, as Eliot asserts?  And what reality is he referring to?  Would our definition or search for reality matter to how we run our businesses, make decisions, and exercise leadership that invests in the future? 

The claim is borne out in the age of Trump and Brexit, climate denial and pandemic conspiracies.  Diversion, obfuscation, outright lies and petty tinkering are the preferred strategies.  The ‘heap of broken images’ presage our C21 meme that any truth is a point of view, any viewpoint justified, any decision correct seen from the right perspective.  Eliot himself was foreshadowed by Dostoevsky in the 1880s, who posited in The Brothers Karamazov that in ‘a world without God, anything is permissible’.  Are we now seeing the inevitable climax of such realities?  Today you can incite insurrection, mount a coup, pay no tax, break your Treaties and assassinate rivals to face no accounting.  That reality is teaching our smartphone, internet-addicted children that our conduct can be anything.

The pursuit of a reality in which equity and interdependence thrives could be a fool’s errand.  As a species we prefer illusion bent to our own will.  What well-intentioned individual, bound by law and contained by police, who pays their taxes and trusts those in power to ‘do right’, would continue to pursue such imbalance as an acceptable reality?  Should I pursue the reality of my own deluded rule-following, my wasted beliefs in jurisprudence or morality?  What business leader would in utter conviction continue to pursue a reality in which their broken business pollutes the planet and us?  What premier would pursue a reality in which the alliances that hold up their own domestic economy at the same time condemn millions to concentration camps and genocide in another?  Or print out of thin air enough money ($28tn, 2020-21) to both solve the climate crisis and end world hunger forever, and yet not fully back either of those things?

It is no wonder we are looking for some hero to save us, and some moral or ethical conduct to show the way.

Yet there remains the enchantment of another earth; a potential reality in which we no longer ignore our own – and perhaps more importantly – our planet’s interests.  Perhaps that is what has been glimpsed in the race to find homes in the country, or toppling statues into Bristol docks, convicting a racist policeman in Minneapolis, or President Biden’s first 100 days.  In lock-step with the doom are just as many examples of promise and potential – but all of these potentialities come from a different paradigm; one that does not yet hold enough power.

Perhaps we are keeping ourselves from that reality because we cannot bear to witness our own folly.  Perhaps it is too overwhelming to face into that communal shame and despair, too painful to know ourselves without illusion.  We know in our bones there is no way out of where we are: only a difficult way through to somewhere else.  The challenges are known.  The path is clear.  And yet we delay.

What would it be to pursue a reality in which the true interconnectedness of all things were recognised and enshrined?  Where your own tiny personal moral investments and withdrawals mattered?  Where we took leadership not by donning a suit of armour in a moral vacuum but through facing into our shared grief and overwhelm, passing through the eye of the self-loathing we cannot any longer ignore?

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