As the news came through on the Arizona shooting tragedy on Saturday, I was finishing a report on belief-based organizations. Since then, I have been reflecting on the role of beliefs and values in our world. My heart goes out to the families, friends and communities of those killed and injured. Let’s not forget though that violence and killing is happening all around the world. Governor Salman Taseer of Punjab province in Pakistan was assassinated by a bodyguard last week in the name of religion because the governor wanted to reform controversial blasphemy laws – a reported 50,000 protesters also marched at the weekend in Karachi against the proposed reforms. In Sudan, 10 South Sudanese civilians were reported killed today, as they returned home to vote in Southern Sudan’s ongoing independence referendum. This follows the deaths of at least 30 people including police in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei on the second day of the week long vote. Perhaps this is a time for us all to reflect on how we live our lives, together and individually, how we seek for and share meaning in a world which can seem gripped by madness. My sense is that we lack leadership in values and beliefs, which we need in a world of uncertainty and exploding choice.
This statement is not intended to explain the actions of the gunman in Arizona, nor in Punjab, nor in Sudan: There is no satisfactory explanation for these actions. Nor is it to take sides on the blasphemy law debate in Pakistan, make a case for Southern Sudanese independence or debate the nasty nature of American political rhetoric. It is about what these actions highlight: The continuing tensions over values and beliefs in a world which is increasingly interconnected. It is also about digging down to what the reports of events don’t say: The deep desire in human nature to find meaning within seemingly random and inexplicable events, and safety in a world of rapid change.
Traditional social structures are fragmenting, as families become more dispersed, single person households increase and urbanization continues. Income inequality is growing in around 80% of the world’s countries, while previously isolated segments of society are demanding inclusion, highlighting divides and raising tensions. Even as the world globalizes, many nations are dividing to reflect the demands of different ethnic or cultural or political groups – as in Sudan where a new nation is soon to be born. Fragmentation of beliefs and practices is occurring inside and outside religions. Beyond religion, the number of beliefs-based organizations is growing rapidly around a diverse set of ideas and experiences, from flat earth to animal rights. Communities of choice are emerging as a preferred social structure, connecting people virtually and physically across borders and time zones based on shared interests, beliefs, cultures, location, characteristics and/or experiences, and increasingly reflect a search for meaning and safety. As such, they have a strong impact on politics, conflicts, values, behaviors, and approaches to global issues.
But new and more communities are not enough to bridge divides over values and beliefs, or to fill the void in meaning which is becoming more and more apparent in a world of uncertainty. The social, technological and economic context in which organizations and individuals operate is changing increasingly rapidly and becoming more diverse. These changes are challenging fundamental values and beliefs, in some cases generating tensions and conflict, and in others triggering a personal, organizational or societal search for a “new way” to find meaning, motivation and identity. And sometimes, there will be no meaning, no easy explanation. We also have to find the courage and capacity to live with this.
This is why we need values and beliefs, a moral compass to guide our actions and words in times of uncertainty, even where meaning is not clear. It is also why we need leadership in bridging divides and demonstrating values and beliefs, from the Obamas leading the nation in silent respect to the leaders of Sudan whose actions will help determine whether their people can look forward to peaceful growth or backward to civil war. Such leadership needs to extend beyond politics and individuals to all walks of life – businesses, communities, families – if we are to succeed collectively in moving beyond conflict and make meaning versus madness.
Let me share some questions we asked around the fight for values and beliefs in The Global Trends Report 2010, which I want to revisit personally and hope you will also find useful:
- As the world becomes more interconnected and transparent what will be the impact of differing value and belief systems coming into contact? Will there be more convergence or more conflict?
- What/who are the key shapers and influencers of values and beliefs? How are these changing – and with what impact?
- What is our purpose and our core values in our organizations? Are they appropriate for our future vision, given the key stakeholders we have/will have? Are these clear to the whole organization and are we living them internally and externally?
- How much complexity and ambiguity can we tolerate as an organization in terms of co-existing with different external value systems? How about our stakeholders? What are the lines in the sand we will – and won’t – cross?
- Are we focusing our leadership development activities effectively to take into account cultural and generational differences, and to build responsible, genuine leaders?
- How do our personal values and beliefs impact our work, family and interactions with society? How do they impact those around us?
A key challenge for the leaders of any organization, as in any society, is to take ownership of the values and beliefs that guide and shape people’s actions on a daily basis. It requires creating meaning and shaping the shared purpose for the members of the organization. Maybe a time of extreme events is an opportunity for leaders to reflect on these demands – and to do something about it.