S+B: So where does fearlessness come in?
WHEATLEY: To be fearless is to face the reality of your situation; to recognize what you can actually achieve given these very powerful cultural and systemic dynamics, without deluding yourself that you can, through your own act of will, be more powerful than you are. And then, at the same time, deciding who you want to be, so that you can stand firm for the practices you believe in most deeply and so you can accept criticism. This type of fearlessness can be found in anyone — senior leaders, midlevel leaders, supervisors, or workers.
If you’re a leader, you have to be thoughtful about this. Even a senior leader from a major corporation who is extremely successful and uses very high engagement strategies probably won’t be able to convert the whole company. I’ve given up on large-scale transformation, but smaller measures can still effect change. For example, helping a few people realize their competence, value, talents, or creativity. But it’s difficult for leaders to accept this kind of thinking.
For once you accept that, you open yourself to accepting other ideas, such as the belief that human beings aren’t the masters of the universe and that we can’t make our own rules, no matter how powerful our technology is. That’s not how the planet works. Or recognizing the ways in which the pursuit of material goods and consumer comforts, even as this pursuit makes people healthier and live longer, can also deaden people in other ways and destroy the essence of culture, community, and family. One thing I’ve felt deeply working with a number of indigenous communities in Africa, Australia, and North America is that the lure of acquiring material goods is stronger than any other lure in the world right now, especially to teenagers. A lot of them leave home to support their families and experience a better life; we have huge migrations occurring all over the planet. And a society whose practices are premised only on economic growth is going to self-destruct, because materialism, if left unchecked, destroys the best aspects of being human and brings out our baser qualities.
It’s not a pretty world right now. Inside and outside organizations, things people thought were protected are falling apart. Within organizations, many people are left to their own resources. To break away from this situation, fearlessness is called for.
Art Kleiner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and author of Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Doubleday, 2003).