During my time working in the investment banking world, I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in a lot of meetings during the dot com bubble and the more dire times of 2001 and 2002. I always found it interesting how any situation in the market – and every challenge – was always presented as an unusual one-off. Bold proclamations were regularly made: “Never before have we had a market bubble, followed by such volatility in interest rates, interspersed with terrorist concerns.” The business leaders would nod their heads in affirmation. “This is an extraordinary time,” someone else would say.
Based on all the times I had heard, “This is the most unusual X, the greatest period of Y, the new era of Z,” I was starting to think that, had I not been born in the past 30 years, I would have missed the most interesting years of business since the Big Bang.
And here we are again: A suffering economy and an entirely “unique” set of challenges ahead. Not surprisingly, many leaders now use the “uniqueness of the times” to fuel their focus. Nothing is more empowering than “more than ever before, this is the time of opportunity!” Of course, if you consider the greater scheme of business over centuries, you see more patterns than exceptions. There was the railroad craze, the tulip craze, the radio craze, the Internet craze; and the culprits, the “carpe diem” executives who put it all on the line.
“Business narcissism,” which I define as the tendency of leaders and teams, across industries, to think that they are always encountering a special case – is rampant. It is the leader’s default thinking that they are the exception to the rule.
The real unique opportunity is for leaders to internalize a grounding realization: not much is new, and, yes, you canlearn from the past. Saying, “this is the time of opportunity” is narcissistic. Instead, take some perspective. Today never feels like it will be history, but it will. And more likely than not, we will look back and realize that we should have known…
During World War II, the UK was facing not only a suffering economy but also a daily pounding of heavy explosives from the enemy. In an attempt to quell the public anxiety, the British government posted signs around the city with the sage advice, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Perhaps another reason to carry on is that, like all previous calamities, this too shall pass. And, if we keep calm, we may actually look back and gain confidence from the proof that history provides us.
Leaders today may want to hunker down and send a similar message.
***This article is adapted from the research and writing of Scott Belsky and the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develops knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.
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