Can you spot the wizards with their smoke and mirrors?

by Alan Hosking: Publisher of HR Future, South Africa's human strategy magazine, and a Leadership Renewal Coach for senior executives.
As a business or team leader, you’ve probably been bombarded by enough Covid-19 messages offering you advice to last you a lifetime! Like everyone else, you’re trying to find your way through a chaotic present of genuine and fake news and information into a better, more comfortable future. Only thing is, as a leader, the pressure is on you to find the future faster than the people you’re leading – otherwise you risk becoming irrelevant.

So, amidst all the pressure, who should you be listening to when so many voices are shouting in your ears, urging you to follow their home-baked advice?

Having spent the last two decades helping HR Directors and HR Professionals prepare their companies for the future of work – long before anyone else was giving the slightest thought to the future – I have a particular view on all the advice that’s being dished out at the moment and wish to whisper a word of caution in your ear.

As an expert in your field, you’ve developed your gut instinct more than you possibly realise. And gut instinct is what sets an expert apart from the crowd. It’s therefore time to apply your gut instinct, based on years of experience, to determine who’s giving good, and who’s giving bad, advice.

For instance, one of the ways to make sense of the future is by doing something quite counterintuitive, something that few experts will advise you to do – that is, keep a firm eye on the past.

And by “past”, I’m not referring to last week, last month or last year. I’m referring to the past few thousands of years!

Now, why would anyone want to do that? Surely what’s past is past and all that counts is the future lying ahead of us?

There are two points to be made here – the one is that it’s all about perspective. When you look at the present and future in the context of our greater past, you see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The other point is that the current crisis is a human crisis and, when all is said and done, human beings are not going to change from who they are. Some will manifest their good and noble qualities and some will reveal their dark and selfish side.

When it comes to perspective, look back over the centuries and you’ll see patterns that have repeated themselves – floods, plagues, famine, wars, economic crashes and so forth.

Something that pops up every time there is a human crisis that leads to uncertainty and fear is the sudden arrival on the scene of the wizards of the day – the soothsayers, the high priests and the prophets – who all claim to have some special knowledge and insight into what’s happening and, more importantly, what they think is going to happen.

They speak with such authority and conviction that most people who listen to what they have to say think, “They seem so sure of what they’re saying that they MUST be right.”

Many of those wizards may be very sincere, but bear in mind that while a person may be sincere, they can also be sincerely wrong …

The wizards attempt to convince all who are prepared to listen to them that big changes are coming and then proceed to tell you how to manage those changes. They say things like, “The world has been turned upside down,” and, “Nothing looks normal anymore.” They also talk about a “new normal”.

While there are definitely many, very significant changes occurring, with certain old ways of doing things set to disappear and new ways of working and living going to become prominent, the wizards play on the uncertainty of the day in order to throw you off balance, make you insecure, make you panic and then encourage you to look to them for the solution to your insecurity, fear and panic. It’s an old trick – been happening for thousands of years.

So be discerning. When you really think about it, many of them are not saying anything new. All they’re doing is taking yesterday’s message and dressing it up as today’s “great revelation”.

Need an example? Remember how, over the past 10 years, people have been talking about disruption? Well, nothing’s changed. What’s happening now is just a continuation of the disruption we’ve been experiencing over the past decade – with a lot more happening now in a lot less time. So you’re going to have to do a lot more of the same – manage disruption.

Another example is that leaders are now also being told they have to make decisions much faster these days. Excuse me, what happened to the concept of agility that we’ve been teaching leaders over the past five years? In a nutshell, agility is the ability to make quick decisions, communicate them quickly and implement them quickly, so telling leaders they have to make quick decisions is not new at all. It’s just a case of a lot more of the same

Something else the wizards are now telling leaders is that they have to be more empathetic and need to communicate with their people. Come on! I and other forward thinking leadership development facilitators have been actively teaching leaders how to be empathetic for many years now. Ii is indeed absolutely critical during these times that leaders demonstrate more empathy and communicate with their people but, if a wizard is presenting this to you as some “new revelation”, I would advise you not to follow them too blindly. If that’s their best shot, you ain’t gonna get much more from them.

And then there’s the volume at which they deliver their message. Be careful not to be too easily taken in by the many loud voices clamouring for your attention. Global politics has, over the past few years, been dominated by the philosophy of “he who shouts the loudest wins the argument”, and this mentality has started to filter into the business world, with the many wizards shouting as loudly as they can in order to win the argument of who gets to be believed and who gets your cash – when it starts to flow again.

There are indeed many new perspectives that are emerging and many things that need to be done differently from here on out and we must indeed adapt accordingly, but I would like to remind you that, when it comes to human beings, you would do well to maintain perspective. Remember that, as Robin Chater, Secretary-General of the Federation of International Employers in London, put it, there is still a mountain of unintelligence, dishonesty, greed, self-interest, self-deception and parochialism that you’re going to have to deal with.

My advice to you as a leader is, when confronted by someone “shouting loudly”, to remember that, while research by Washington State University reveals that it is quite correct that the person shouting the loudest wins the argument, what that person says is not necessarily true, valid, constructive or helpful. When you encounter a wizard who is shouting loudly, exercise caution and don’t allow yourself to be hypnotised by their flash as they make a dash for your cash.

Look for those with depth, genuine authority and a compelling case who do not feel the need to shout to win the argument. So, if you want good advice, listen cautiously and critically to what the wizards of the day have to say, and choose your advisors well in order to make wise decisions that will benefit your people, your company, your country, your planet … and yourself!

Useful resources:
HR Future
HR Future is South Africa's only independent, most forward thinking human resource magazine with the richest content wealth of HR related issues on the continent of Africa to help executives recruit, manage, train, reward and retain the best talent.
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