When Things Fall Apart




When my father used to put my young sister to bed for the night — she must not have been older than four or five, at the time — she would wail and cry. She just didn’t want the day to be over. My father’s response to this was just to say: “all good things must come to an end.” I was about ten years old, myself, during these early years when my father was still living with us, but I distinctly remember thinking: My god! What a thing to say! But it sure is true!

Everything must come to an end, including our lives and all the other things we hold dear. “All things must pass,” as the Beatle’s George Harrison once wrote.




In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times (1997, 2016, Shambhala Publications), Pema Chodron talks about how this sense of impermanence should be a key concept in any truly healthful life:

We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out. We experience it in the form of things always being in a process of change. When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life.

Why is this understanding of impermanence important for us to have in our daily lives? I think the two most important reasons are:

  1. Nothing will ever stay the same. By definition, whether we are sitting or standing at this very moment, the planet is spinning, the universe is evolving, things are not the same from one moment to the next.
  2. Getting accustomed to facing the next moment that’s coming without panic, helps us condition ourselves for a kind of confidence in living day-to-day with a kind of honesty and purity that is really very rare in the modern world, but that is going to be even more essential than ever in the years ahead.

When Change Overwhelms Us

I have written previously in the GlobeBlog about the rapid pace of change (see Future Shock Realized), and it does seem that this pace of change has even been accelerating in recent years. Whether this is actually happening or not, rapid change is an ever present part of our lives to the point where some of the change we are currently facing is incomprehensible to us mere mortals (see the GlobeBlog Post The Fire This Time).

In their October Harvard Business Review article What It Takes to Lead Through an Era of Exponential Change, authors Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman talk about what they refer to as the “new normal of change,” which they assert has three dimensions (thus, their slightly syrupy moniker of “3-D change”):

It’s perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.

It’s pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.

It’s exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.

Chima and Gutman cite “noted futurist” Ray Kurzweil who argues that “the future is widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past.” As the authors point out, this is problematic in the world that we are currently living in, since “Linear thinking can never catch-up and adapt to the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change occurring around us.”

The authors discuss the results of their course at Stanford University: LEAD 111 “Luminaries: Life Lessons from Leaders and Change-makers” in which they evolved the concept of “Sapient Leadership”:

The essential question we had was this: If leadership is significantly defined by the ability to skillfully navigate 3-D change, what type of leadership is most effective for our emerging future, one defined by perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change? The answers that emerged formed the basis for Sapient Leadership.

The key of Sapient Leadership is that it fits into the long history of the evolution of our species. Sapient, in its definition, refers to the nature of humans — it is in our nature to adapt or risk perishing. The challenge of 3-D change is that it amplifies the pressures on leaders, teams, and organizations to evolve and adapt faster….Sapient Leadership is a framework that enables accelerated adaptation….It builds into its structure the imperative for leaders, teams, and organizations to continuously evolve in order to overcome the challenges of 3-D change. Sapient Leaders and their successful organizations change with change itself.

Leading When Things Fall Apart

OK, so we all understand that “change is ubiquitous” — that phrase almost seems like a cliché right now — but what about when things are poised to fall apart, or perhaps already have?

I do think this is where we are right now in December 2020, at least in the US: we have done an abysmal job of dealing with the most significant pandemic to hit the states in a hundred years; our economy is trying to cope with the crushing blows of this pandemic and our ineffective response to it; we are a deeply divided and seemingly confused country after four years of Donald Trump, who has created perhaps the largest cult in modern history; and we still have not been able to facilitate a healthy national dialogue about the future of work, which is, more than likely, how many of the seeds of our divisions have been planted.

So how do we lead organizations, in this chaotic situation we find ourselves in? This is where the kind of thinking that Chodron espouses really needs to be considered. In a chapter entitled Three Methods for Working with Chaos, Chodron describes “practices” that “instruct us to move toward difficulties rather than backing away”:

This is the primary method of working with painful situations — global pain, domestic pain, any pain at all. We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy.

This seems simple enough, but it is not simple, and it is a fundamental shift from most of the leadership we are seeing around us today. We do not need to name and enumerate the supposed enemies in our lives — whether these are people or pervasive problems. Doing this kid of naming gets us into the blame assignment approach to managing, which is not a helpful, unifying leadership approach during chaotic periods.

What could be more effective during chaotic times than to honestly describe the challenges we are facing without blame or judgement? As Chodron puts it: “Whatever or whoever arises, train again and again in looking at it and seeing it for what it is without calling it names, without hurling rocks, without averting your eyes.” This is brave leadership. This is what an emergency room physician must do, so why can’t other leaders learn this approach?

This answer is: we can learn this type of leadership, and during these times, when things fall apart, this is the only kind of leadership that will be effective.


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