Tree Care For Forest-Viewers

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

Link to audio version

On Wednesday of that week, I was certain that if the opportunity still existed four days later, on Sunday night, I would be boarding a flight from Honolulu to Austin.

At the same time, I was growing increasingly agitated seeing some leaders try to publicly minimize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, which at that point had infected over one hundred thousand people across the globe. As an avid follower of thinkers in the field of complexity science, I had become convinced that the only people publicly projecting optimism about the potential spread of COVID-19 in the United States were either limited to shallow, linear, single-dimensional logic, or were successfully fooling themselves into doubting expert guidance because they had something personal at stake – shielding their eyes from any view of the forest behind their particular tree.

I certainly had something personal at stake. I was going to Austin to attend GovCity – the epic convergence of government disruptors – the pilgrimage to Mecca for public-sector innovation nerds – an event I had eagerly anticipated attending from the moment I first heard about it a year prior.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to go to GovCity. I want to do a lot of things. I want to attend annual conferences on leading in complexity in Malmo, Sweden, but I won’t be disappointed every year for the rest of my life if I never make it. It was that I had been invited by Molly Cain, the super-duper-connector and champion of righteous disruption of song and legend herself; and against all odds, I had actually secured funding for travel from my Air Force unit. I was going to GovCity, because the stars had aligned for me. Watching those stars get slowly eclipsed by a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic felt more than a little bit shitty. It felt personal.

I had accepted that cancellation of large gatherings was a responsible response, but at the same time was fully prepared to move my flight forward to try and get ahead of any Air Force-wide TDY cancellations I anticipated would be happening any day. I got approval to move my flight to Thursday night instead of Sunday, so I could at least get to Austin before stop-movement orders came down. I drafted the request in the Defense Travel System and nearly submitted it before having a last-minute moment of clarity- a vision of being stuck in Austin with everything cancelled anyways, having earned myself no more for my efforts than twenty four hours of close-quarters travel in a big, depressing, carbon-emitting, germ-stirring circle.

I thought it only logical for leaders to take broad action to arrest the potential spread of this virus in its tracks; but at the same time I was prepared to contract, carry, spread, and return with it, if that was what the price of admission to GovCity ended up being. I realize, when put that way it sounds selfish…and it feels selfish. I am now looking at my thoughts and intentions from another angle, from forward in time, from above and into the future, and from here, where now over 186,000 people have died of COVID-19 globally (that we know of) it does look quite selfish. (At the time I started writing this piece on April 4th, the death total was 64,000. By the time you read this, this number will likely be inaccurate by tens of thousands of human lives.) 

So I am grateful for leaders who chose to take decisive action, who took the initiative out of my hands, who stomped on my plan to attend GovCity like it was a birthday cake on fire. I am grateful to Molly for shaping the path; making an incredibly difficult decision so others, like me, didn’t have to. She stepped out from behind her singular tree with no apparent hesitation, to view the forest in its entirety, for all its complexity, as meanwhile a fast growing conflagration grew rapidly closer; and she recognized that the stakes were so much higher than any one person’s perspective or any one event’s success or failure could really capture. Her decision to cancel GovCity, to me, exemplifies true leadership.

We have this tendency to think of leaders as navigators. We envision them as the most expert, often wizened with age, being able to draw on a lifetime of lessons to take on new organizational challenges with sharpened intuition, tempered in the crucible of hands-on experience. I am more inclined to think of leaders as facilitators. I borrow this term from the practice of Design Thinking, where the facilitator isn’t the most expert in the room, but there to act as a catalyst for the expertise, creativity, and sensing capacity of everybody else.

In Design Thinking, what a facilitator does might be described as helping single-dimensional people navigate multi-dimensional domains. Facilitators create conditions of complexity from which emergent phenomena can grow – like creativity, inspiration, collaboration, collective intelligence, and others. On our own, without that guide to impose carefully constructed constraints to inhibit bias, create safety, suppress ego, and free us from natural cognitive and social barriers, we aren’t very good at cultivating these conditions. Our first-person view, obscured by the unique distortions of every eyeball and neurological configuration, makes it very difficult for us to be self-facilitators. We can’t see the forest behind the massive tree of our identity. We struggle to transcend the single dimension of our own perspective. We need someone on the outside to help synthesize it with the dimensions of others.

Great leaders are facilitators in this regard. They impose constraints to aid their charges in the navigation of complexity. Leaders have to see the maze from more than just ground-level, where the only walls and doors we can see are those unobstructed by other walls and doors – hardly enough information to make decisions. They don’t see from all angles themselves. They are informed by the synthesized, multi-dimensional vantage point of many different perspectives. Leaders aren’t all-seeing, and those who think they are, are setting themselves up for a special kind of failure.

It was odd to see some leaders do the right thing like Molly did – start to impose those constraints that would help keep us safe in the face of a complex crisis, one that was visible only from a multi-dimensional vantage point, while meanwhile so many people struggled to transcend their single-dimensional perspective. I can only guess how many people will have suggested to her that cancellation was a mistake, echoing the sentiments of those who called COVID-19 “just a flu” for so long. Those people didn’t get it, and I hope those people aren’t leaders.

It’s not that I think those who didn’t anticipate this outcome are stupid. We are all limited to only two eyeballs each and a brain that is extremely poorly equipped to deal with statistical intuition, especially in the face of exponential growth and complex systems – which makes something like pandemic response a subject we’re all going to be naturally terrible at. A very small fraction of people on the planet were actually equipped to read and respond to those signals coming out of Wuhan, China in January and February. Where many leaders have gone wrong is in failing to find and trust those who are equipped to guide them through the complexity of the crisis. Many maintained a low-dimensional view of a high-dimensional problem, and that has gone very badly for a number of them already. True leadership is not about having the right perspective or being smart enough to figure out what’s going to happen. It’s about facilitating the synthesis of many perspectives into a multi-dimensional view- one that captures the forest – and allowing that, not the magnificence of their particular tree, to inform their way ahead.

Molly cancelled GovCity on Thursday of that week. She stomped out my birthday cake, which I was planning on eating even though it happened to be on fire.

Thank you Molly Cain, and all you leaders out there with birthday cake on your shoes, for your leadership.

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