Leaders, Get Out of That Riptide (#1 of 52 Openings)

Mid-August is known as the sweltering ‘dog days of summer’ here in New York City. Asphalt streets stick to your shoes, passing garbage trucks blast their overly ripe, sweet fragrance with the intensity of a fire siren. And the subway, Fuggedaboudid.

But like so many other norms now, anomalies abound in this year’s urban summer: From my terrace over the surfing beach on Rockaway, a whole pod of whales languishes for a quarter hour on its eastward drift past the concession stands at Beach 106 Street. And a dry, cool-edged breeze slaps a shiver as it flies toward the elevated A train down the block and the solitary Kennedy Airport control tower just beyond.

The neighborly idyll has its underbelly. Bathers, for example, have been drowning faster than usual for this point in the season. Almost all of them risked entering the sea after the lifeguards had left for the day, with the beach officially closed to swimming.

I wonder if they knew about the legendary Rockaway riptides, those vacuum-like streams burrowing between gentle swaths of welcoming waves. Water safety experts say that when you are caught in a riptide, dragged by force out to sea, there is one way to save yourself.

You must recognize the forces at work. With that perspective on the dynamics of this natural ocean phenomenon, you have a chance of rising above mortal panic and saving yourself from drowning. The knowledge? in a riptide, swim parallel to shore until you are fully out of that maw. That’s a counterintuitive strategy; the uninformed or panicked will fight for their lives directly against the vacuum force. And be drawn down by it.

Back at my desk, I’m struck by the metaphor of business leaders caught in the great convulsions of disrupted industries. So many flailing in the VUCA vacuum of their chaotic business- and geopolitical waters. There, as in the sea, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with, it’s frightening, often panic-inducing. And thus, mortally dangerous.

But from the balcony, the trained eye can recognize a likely riptide. With balcony view, you can plan around it. Without that perspective, your entire world may as well be an imminent, mortal threat. Then the only thing between you and the salty brine is your presence of mind: remembering the dynamics of the forces at work, and taking to your counterintuitive strategy of swimming parallel to the shore.

The leader on the balcony sees the great interconnectedness of the forces at work, and the imminent traps to avoid. In the churning seas, they are comforted by knowing the forces at work, and patiently watch for the opening to a safe new path, parallel to the shore.

Metaphor: The balcony view is the informed and intuitive perspective of System View. Knowing the dynamics driving the chaos that would swamp you is self-awareness of one’s place among many actors and forces in the Web of Life. It is for the leader to recognize when they’ve fallen into the trap of trying to hold on to an old paradigm in the disrupted new world.

Once in the water, it is for each of us to call forth the presence of mind, the intuitive path that flows with System Wellbeing, our shared destiny.

Here on the balcony, myriad, perhaps infinite paths emerge through the froth of daily chaos. Learning about these innovations almost daily sustains me.

They are bubbling up from people’s combined ingenuity, will, and resources across sectors, industries, peoples, species, institutions, local communities, academia, kitchen tables and hilltops and atols around our world. This blog will share such Openings, at least 52 of them over the next year, as practical paths we can take together as members, collaborative nodes in the hyperinterdependent system that is the web of life.

And as you hear of specific emergent models, success stories, inspired flows of flourishing human collaboration that support the Wellbeing of the Web of Life, please share them here, too.

Thank you, Elsie
August 12, 2019