Leading in a SHTF World: Bunker or Busker?

Photo Credit: Dwight Eschliman, New York Times; Source: http://bit.ly/2rtIllZ

Leadership is not a binary, an either/or netherworld in which leaders make black or white choices. For today’s leaders, nothing is plain or simple. And yet…the way leaders are portrayed and the way some leaders portray themselves, makes me wonder.

In 2012, National Geographic launched “Doomsday Preppers”, a reality show featuring Americans who were bracing for what they called S.H.T.F. – shit hit the fan moments. Four million people a week tuned in to see how preppers were insulating themselves in bunker communities. Deep below ground zero, families protected themselves from the “big one” – bombs, guns, plague, chemicals, nuclear war, terrorist assaults or combinations thereof. Many of these bunkers are in New Zealand, felt to be the last place of respite in our hostile world.

Ah, the simple days of 2012, remember them? Most of us look back there fondly – we were making headway against the financial meltdown, Obama was President, Kathy Griffin was still working, and Ariana Grande? She was just learning her moves in preparation for a bright career ahead. Where are we now? Doubt, uncertainty, fear and disgust may be some of the emotions you feel as you stare down what will likely be one of the longest years of any of our lives.

I know, I know, if you hear the word “disruptive” one more time you think your head will explode. But the flight of the preppers, those who are building bunkers, has led us to the fight of our leadership lives. There is pressing need to navigate the binary that has emerged – what I call a “bunker/busker” mentality.

Bunkers duck the question of courage. Their mantra is “Ask me later about my ethics-for now it’s about self-preservation”. Buskers hit the streets. Their creed is “Bring it on – we need to change how leaders are responding”.

And here’s the thing. For decades, we’ve held individual leaders up as saviours, believing they would assume higher moral ground positions on our behalf. Isn’t that how democracy works? Whether we’re in business, government, or not-for-profit worlds, most of us continue to entrust leaders to do the right thing, to take a stand and to do well by doing good.

My sense now is that all of us need to take this work on. While it’s great that leaders like Angela Merkel, Malala Yousafzai and Bill Gates are fighting the good fight, they can’t do it alone – nor should they. We need to move away from individualistic views of leadership, that one person can carry us. This kind of linear thinking continues to drive us into binaries and…bunkers.

The question of how all of us develop the relational leadership capabilities to take on this new heavy lifting of 2017 is a vital one. We need to urge each other just as much as business and organizational leaders are encouraging each other to take a busker stand.

An example of how we do this is to call out bunker behavior for what it is. When he was interviewed by the New Yorker, Max Levchin, a founder of Paypal, weighed in. He contended that billionaires who have profited from Silicon innovation and are now preparing for Doomsday scenarios, probably haven’t thought twice about giving a homeless person a dime since they made their first $100K. He went on to say that it’s these very homeless people that “preppers” are running from to escape. They envision an imminent, sustained and perilous civil war brought on by those less advantaged or as it is genteelly referred to in the article, “disorder”.

An ethical and moral stance are just one of five practices of relational leaders. Let me ask you, how are you developing yourself and your organization to embody the ethics demanded by this crazy, disrupted world we live in. If you’re a leader and not paying attention to it, you are doing yourself and our society a great dis-service. If you are a team member and are hoping that “your leader” is going to do it for you, you are late to the race. Relational leadership shows us that the stakes have changed. We all need to be leading all of the time.

So it’s not just formally appointed “leaders” now who should feel compelled to take a stand – to be a busker. We all have 2 options: We can, as Robert Dugger, philanthropist and former global hedge fund manager for New Zealand assets, “Fix the problem”. Or we can run from it – as far as our gutless funds can take us.

The Robert A. Johnson Institute for New Economic Thinking asked a pretty scary question about moral will and ethical fiber when they asked “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?…people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves…are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane”.

So if you find yourself staring up at the sky one day and see a plane overhead – don’t run for cover, don’t stock up, don’t hunker down. Be the busker, give your all to everyone everyday and yell out at the top of your lungs, “Bring it on!”.