Adversity — or how purpose makes us all stronger in troubled times
Just over two months ago, France experienced a wave of terrorist attacks. For three full days, the country was waiting in suspense, following the action of its police force, on the hunt for 3 shooters on a killing spree. The most striking aspect of this terror episode wasn’t its magnitude — an attack in Nigeria killed 100 times more people just days later — but its symbolic nature. People were executed for their ideas and their religion in a democratic country.
Within days of these events, the world saw an unprecedented spontaneous movement of solidarity and cohesion. In France, four million people took to the streets, without being convened to do so by any organisation. In the country’s history, it compares only with August 15th, 1944 when Paris was liberated at the end of WWII. All existing structures and community groups embraced the emerging movement. In reaction to the spontaneous movement companies discharged their rostered employees to let them join the march, political parties and unions called for national unity, and religious leaders put humanism ahead of other considerations.
In a parallel and un-precedented movement, 44 heads of state and political leaders across all continents decided to make their way to Paris for a symbolic march, hand-in-hand. This march took just 48 hours to agree and set-up, and brought together known enemies. As one can imagine, it posed a great security challenge to coordinate the protective services of 44 potential targets, in direct proximity of a crowd of four million, in a country under attack, and with less than 2 days notice. As a French reporter put it looking at the march, “when a head of security services has a nightmare, it must look pretty much like that”.
And yet, it happened, without a single incident, and all my friends who joined report having experienced a unique sense of harmony, close to symbiosis. The leaders that made the decision to cut the red tape and breach established security protocols for the sake of a symbol, made history. Obama later recognised that he made a mistake by not attending.
In the past decades, France has become a troubled country with a fragile social construct and increasing rivalries (communities, political opinions, religious beliefs, social class, etc.). Yet, the entire nation came together in a demonstration of unity, strength and determination. The underlying forces behind this emergent movement were a deep attachment to common values — freedom of speech and religion — and a strong sense of purpose — defending democracy. These were more deeply held than any antagonism, and they were visceral enough to allow for a spontaneous and powerful collective demonstration. The only role of the leadership was to nurture and catalyse it.
What is there to learn from these events?
Most organisations I come across rely on a vision and a set of values to inspire the workforce and to create focus and consistency in action. Sadly, when you zoom in, very few companies actually develop something meaningful enough to give their people a true sense of purpose and belonging. Visions, ambitions, missions, values, etc. have become the result of a linear and rational process, often carried out with (if not by) external consultants, and they end up being soulless and meaningless to an overwhelming majority.
For how long can you be inspired by the prospect of “becoming market leader in…”, “becoming the most profitable of…” or “becoming the most technologically advanced on…”. So what?
When I was younger I was told that, around 40, I would go through a ‘mid-life crisis’ and start questioning the meaning of my life (if any), and doubting whether all of this made any sense. My experience has been that these interrogations became top of mind for me, and most of my friends, in my late twenties, and my recent observation is that they are now becoming top of mind in university campuses. Big corporations will not get away much longer with denying the imperative for deeper meaning and purpose.
A vast majority of people care. They care for one another, they care for the future, and they care for the planet. They need to get a sense of contributing to something meaningful to them; they need to get a sense of pride and self-fulfilment. There is a unique opportunity for organisations that develop a true sense of purpose, that genuinely touch the hearts and minds of their workforce, and that rely on a set of values that people can relate to at a deeper level. People are collectively capable of the impossible when they stand for something and share an ideal. People know what really matters, across geographies and across generations, and they will move mountains to fight for it.
The challenge for leaders is to transcend the current business paradigm, shape an ‘out there’ to aspire to and create an inclusive space and context in which to collectively write the future. Over time, a sense of purpose will become more compelling than any objective and symbols will become more powerful than any internal guideline. And then, just as we saw in Paris, things may start happening that no-one would have thought possible, all the way down to the bottom line.
Note: this article was originally published in March 2015 on LinkedIn