The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

I knew exactly what to do

A while ago, a new commencement speech emerged from the web. It was Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s commencement speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on June 12 of this year.

Using quotes from “The Office” Governor Pritzker shared some of his life lessons. The one I’ve seen quoted most often, was his suggestion “to develop your own idiot detection system.” Where his system is based on the understanding that the most intelligent people in the room have developed an ability to feel comfortable with difference despite the basic human instinct that difference is an indication of danger. According to him, those who have a track record of being cruel, have failed to learn this ability until now.

Another valuable lesson for leaders was introduced with a quote from Michael Scott: “I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.”

It’s a paradoxical situation I’ve often seen unfold. That is, especially when there is no experience available to deal with a specific situation. In his case, it was the necessity to deal with the pandemic. The fact that it was a crisis and that everyone expects a governor to act certainly helped him deal with the situation, having a small team of people working with him too.

It helped deal with a situation bringing a daily experience of “waking up every day on a raft in the middle of the ocean, frantically searching the horizons for some land to anchor your feet on.”

He knew that his “job was to minimize the damage this deadly disease was doing.” But how could he know how to do this? Well, he couldn’t.

However, he found a path allowing him to align his job with one value.

The way he solved this for himself was by defining one value he could use as his core value and hold himself accountable to. His decision was “do everything I could to save as many lives as possible.” Whatever else appeared in his way would have to come second. And if there were several options, he would ask himself which of the options was “most consistent with that core, guiding value.”

For those of us, who aren’t a governor and don’t have a situation of crisis that automatically creates decisions, Governor Pritzker warned against the risk of inertia. It may happen despite or because of a world that seems to be spinning out of one’s control. In such a situation it may not be sufficient to realize that inertia is a decision in itself. Thus, he suggested that it all is about finding a way of moving by starting with small decisions and actions one can tackle. From there it is all about continuously building on existing decisions until medium and then big decisions become possible.

The problem I see most people struggle with in these situations is their inability to integrate others into their decision process. Not to have them make one’s decisions but to become able to revise one’s decision when better arguments appear.


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