A Return to Mean

After Winter, then Spring

2016 has certainly been a year of the extreme, with political shocks either side of the Atlantic within months.

Characterised by a resurgence of intolerance, both the Brexit and US Election campaign happened in an atmosphere of meanness. This meanness was not limited to one side.

I have no unique insight to give. The rise of automation, the export of jobs, economics that excludes, political systems that offer a vote which seem meaningless, have all been raised as causes in the media.

And yet we all know it doesn’t necessarily take a specific threat for mean politics to arise. Selfishness and fear reside in each of us. Populists routinely ride on the back of existential fears; in such times we have to hope our politicians will call on our better instincts and values, and make the case for education, information, logic, and fundamentally address exclusion and pace of change for whoever it hurts and wherever it exists.

They can’t do it all, and they can’t act for everyone; that’s the nature of politics. But they do know we are all in this together, and let’s hope they remember their responsibilities to society as a whole.

Returning to the mean

I do offer a simple rule of normalisation. If human interactions follow the natural trends of all complex systems, then extremes tend to be followed by the less extreme. If meanness becomes extreme, expect a return to the mean.

How might this happen? In times of existential crises, how can you avoid following the zeitgeist. Markets may move with an invisible hand, but they do this by aggregating our personal actions.

Ask “What can I do?” Look for the positive opportunities. Start with your own motivation. Are you feeling demotivated by events? What can you do to improve on that? Focusing on what can be done rather than what can’t be done reveals plenty of opportunity to take a lead. Focusing on what can be done rather than on blaming outside forces puts us psychologically back in our own driving seat.

Leadership Options

Standing back and waiting is one strategy in times where there is intense uncertainty. Whether it is the best strategy depends. It may be the most risky. Planning models like VUCA (contrasting situations which are volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous) are helpful, guiding us to many alternate available courses of action.

My view is that when the existential threat seems significant, we haven’t done our homework well enough, and we need to get busy with what we can do rather than worrying about what we can’t do. In particular this means emphasising communication: asking, listening, hearing, sharing information. I have no doubt the important people in your lives are talking about this, at work and home, only by getting involved can you hope to hear, and perhaps to influence their thoughts, and feelings. Distraction kills effectiveness and productivity, so my suggestion is take a lead.

The Humble King

Taking a metaphor from English history, I am reminded of King Cnut, the Viking King said to have asked his followers to take his throne to the sea so he could order the tide to turn; demonstrating the limitations to his powers.

Re-turning the Tide

In human affairs, we are the water, we are the tide, and we have to decide to turn it ourselves, unlike Cnut, I see this a the leader’s job.


Get in touch to discuss strategic options in uncertain times and the leadership priorities you should be considering right now.

Nick Mayhew, founder and managing director

Alembic Strategy

nick.mayhew@alembicstrategy.com