Monday, February 23, 2009

Will You Reset or Hunker Down?

That's the choice.

Are you individually and we as a country going to treat the current reality as a one-time thing that we need to overcome, or as a signal that the sands are permanently shifting and that all our assumptions need to be dredged up and examined and potentially re-calibrated? Are you going to Hunker Down or Reset?

The Dow Jones is sliding toward 7000 as I write this. Talk of nationalization of the banks is growing, as we taxpayers keep pouring money into them without any noticeable effect on the credit system. The folks in charge in Washington do not know what to do because they have never been here before.

But neither have we.

Take a look at this video and see if it makes you think twice about whether we are experiencing a sea change or just a big bump in the road:

As usual, David Brooks nailed the problem well. In case you missed it, here's a link to his February 13 column called "The Worst Case Scenario". The underlying issue right now is not the lack of credit in the present, it's the uncertainty about the future.

And yet to many people I know and clients I work with, the response is to hunker down, hibernate like a bear, and hope that when you wake up, it will all be better. I'm tempted to hunker down myself because reset is hard and scary.

Most of us humans do not deal well with uncertainty. We look to our senior authorities, whether the President, the Governor, the CEO, the Executive Director, or Mom and Dad to create stability and security and clarity for ourselves. That's what we want from authority: direction, protection and order. We're hard wired from the day we're born to depend on authority to provide those services. And as long as they do, we will reward them with whatever is the coin of the realm: loyalty, votes, money, more responsibility. But in these times, authorities fail us because no one can provide those services. Hunkering down is the closest they can get.

Here's what hunkering down looks like: (1) Stephanie Strom's piece in the Times on Friday of last week showering sympathy on the well-intentioned charities going belly up, rather than seeing this moment as an opportunity to rethink their priorities, eliminate duplication, introduce good management practices, and get rid of programs and people who are not performing well. (2) GM and Chrysler begging for - and getting - more money to pour down their sinkholes, rather than using some of that money to support less encumbered investors and entrepreneurs who can design and build cars that we would actually buy.

It is harder to know what Reset looks like because it is so new and culturally outside our repertoire and comfort zone....and maybe competence.

For example, my friends in the foundation world are struggling with this dilemma every day. Their grantees are panicking, begging for emergency funds from them to fill the gap as their usual sources are drying up and there are more people to be served. The more courageous in the foundation community are using this crisis as an opportunity to encourage those grantees to make hard choices and to help them through the psychological trauma that Brooks wrote about as they contemplate mergers, closing of programs and whole agencies, starting innovative programs that might meet future needs and priorities, more disciplined practices, greater accountability and more transparency. Those are all Reset ideas.

Here's what Reset might look like more generally, for you and for the Government: (1) Funding risk-takers, creators, and inventors, small and large, in manufacturing, financial services, nonprofits, and even academia, as Tom Friedman suggested in yesterday's Times. (2) targeting your spending and investing now for the long term, like buying a Prius or supporting new faces and burgeoning success stories in education, people and ideas to help rescue the current school-age generation, so many of whom are not getting a decent foundation for their adult lives. (3) Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts opting for a 19-cent gas tax increase rather than tolls to help bail out a transportation system deeply in debt, knowing that the gas tax will incentivize drivers to buy fuel efficient cars and spew less evil stuff into the atmosphere. Similarly, (4) Reset would be the Obama Administration and some of those towers of marshmallow in Congress making the obvious changes in Social Security to keep the system solvent for the next generation. (5) Israel and the US talking with Hamas.

Reset is an idea still to be fleshed out. (My colleagues at Cambridge Leadership Associates are trying to do that even as I write.)But it has resonance with the choices we all face today. Reset can challenge us individually to think differently about the options we have.

For example, how would it feel to put your money or your body where your mouth is, and step up and target your volunteering and financial support by putting a stake in the ground where YOU think your time and money will build a society that can adapt to the new realities that lie ahead? How would it feel to really distinguish between what you want and what you need? How would it feel to work to restore those relationships which were once important to you and are now broken? How would it feel to embody our interdependence by engaging with The Other, in your personal as well as your professional life?

ps. Steve Pearlstein, an old editor and longtime friend of mine, now a Big Shot as
a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post, has joined with Ben Bradlee and Andrea Ussem to start a blog called On Leadership at the Post. I've been posting on it, along with some real experts on leadership and some heavy duty authority figures. Check it out.


Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...


I loved the idea of Reset.
That's what we really need.

I write on my own blog about leadership, and one of my post was about Changes in Chilean Education (I'm Chilean by the way). You can check it out at:

I follow yours and R.Heifetz's work.



Marty Linsky said...

The US is facing the same issues in education as you write about in Chile. This is a wonderful moment to bring to scale some of the education experiments that appear to be successful, and to fundamentally change notion of who is a teacher.

Anonymous said...

This might surprise some. I have decided I am going to use these readings as the centerpiece of my Christian Lent. I think there are major spiritual implications to this Reset idea. I am going to try to reflect daily on the implications of the words of Linsky and Karoff. With luck that reflection will turn into positive action. --Tim McGuire

Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...


I guess many countries are facing the same problem in Education (and in other areas). Since Education is a political issue, I think the Goverments of the day won't take the risk , because Education is a long term issue and politic is a short term problem. So it'll take a while to make people and polititians to understand this.

Anonymous said...

As I see it "reset" is simply a codeword for "radical." As the product of radical economists, I am comfortable with the word, and with radical ideas and even radical actions, but I think we do need to acknowledge that radicalism can result in bad results.

Just as you say that people will look more and more to authority as the uncertainly continues and increases, and their fear level rises, we should also acknowledge that what people will seek from authority in this situation is to submit to more authority. People will be willing to sacrifice freedom, and all of the uncertainty that goes with it, for authoritarian solutions.

So I just want to put a marker down here, that as we talk about "reset" we need to be aware of what exactly we are resetting, and what we are resetting to. Most of us, in our own small ways, as well as Congress and the President, and other world leaders, (in much bigger ways) will not be able to survive what's going on in the world today by continuing to take the incremental approach to everything. But let's be sure that when we start talking about "resetting" or "radically restructuring" the big things (like government and the economy), we keep one eye on the history of "resetting" so we don't end up making a BIG mistake. Roosevelt did it well, for instance. Mussolini - not so much.

Anonymous said...

Tim's reaction to Marty's piece resonates with me. The reset notion has 'spiritual development opportunity' written all over it. Most,if not all, of the historical traditional faiths call for a degree of asceticism and reflection that can be called a reset from the world as most of us experience it. I fear that we will miss the opportunity amidst our anxiety and concern for preserving our comfortable way of thinking, living and our material-centered definition of prosperity.

Sheila Escandon said...

Doug's response resonates strongly with me. I work internationally with the spiritual and inner journey of military and civil society leaders, supporting them in gaining inner tools to help them dramatically, yet gently, shift what they are creating in the world around them. To me, hunker down means holding tightly to the way we've always done things and the way that we've always related to ourselves and those around us.

I agree with Doug that the current reality is offering an opportunity, and indeed is requesting, that we step outside what is comfortable and known and not just transform but transmute who we are and how relate to our external circumstances. I see this reset as necessary at the personal, organizational and inter-national levels. I believe hunkering down will create economic and personal stagnation. For those who have the courage to truly reset, rebirth and renewal will be their rewards.

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