Where do we think we’re going?


Didier Marlier

September 14, 2022

From Disruption to Engagement

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I came across this amazing picture of Brazilian Journalist, Lola Ferreira, showing far-right Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s supporters, “meeting” underprivileged people in Rio de Janeiro on September 7th. It struck me as symbolising the huge challenge ahead of us.

I was looking for a title to this article when “Where do you think you’re going” by Dire Straits started to play on my background music. And that is the question I feel we, as Mankind, should ask ourselves.

Since it is so long (almost two hours), I doubt many of you watched the entirety of NY Stern Professor, Jonathan Haidt’s interview by Lex Fridman, mentioned in my last article. So here is the extract (2’49’’ long) which focuses on what I’d like to reflect on here:


Are we gearing ourselves up for a World of polarisation, exclusion, opposition and, ultimately, destruction (a World of Defensiveness) or will we have the intelligence, determination and courage to build a World of curiosity, interdependence, trust, inclusion and construction (a World of Discovery)? And what should our role, as Business Leaders, be?

Such a topic may raise eyebrows in the context of a blog, precisely dedicated to Business and Leadership. But is there still anyone around seriously believing that there is a hermetic wall between business and societal trends & movements, politics, environment, poverty and migration, to name a few? I am writing this, having in mind our Business Leaders’ role as societal educators. And this starts with the individual leadership philosophy and behaviours of all of us.

The purpose of this article is to reflect on how, concretely, we, individual leaders, will contribute to head the World towards Discovery rather than Defensiveness.

Three types of ambiances

Amongst the numerous Business meetings I sat in, I noticed three types of “ambiances” regularly coming back:

  • Positional/Oppositional: These are the sorts of meeting where some of the participants (and only two are enough to rot the whole climate) are locked into positions they state loudly and firmly and seem unable to free themselves of. To them, the whole session seems about “winning” the conversation and finding arguments against the “opponent’s” point of view. We all have been into such meetings, sometimes adopting a courageous attitude (seeking to facilitate, help or even arbitrate), some other times avoiding the conflict (by fear or boredom) or, worse, by indulging ourselves to be dragged on the battlefield, taking side, actively becoming part of the problem. Such episodes are damaging to the business (the output amounting to the lowest common denominator or to a final decision by the strongest contender), to the participants (who, ultimately, all lost something on the ring), to the organisation (as news and details of the battle will rapidly spread) and its culture (reminding you that 70% of an organisation’s culture comes from its leaders’ behaviours). This is a boardroom demonstration of the defensive/avoidant culture Haidt mentions.
  • Passive/Avoidant/Neutral: We have all been in those endless sessions, paved with “benevolent neutrality”, where difficult topics are carefully avoided, ending up in a general frustration: everyone feels this was another useless meeting, where no decisions were taken whilst participants danced around the feared and most powerful figures, most of the time. I have sat amongst many of them, trying to ask the questions nobody dared to raise (to be immediately shut-down by the boss’ close guard, courageously “jumping in support of Victory”). This is the place where so many Boards, talking about Change, Transformation and other New Culture are… Terrified by what Change would really mean, they unconsciously pay lip service to it but carefully cut the wings of anyone who would have taken them seriously. Such culture and meetings create frustration in the lower ranks, disrespect towards the top leaders and… exhaustion since people are aware to be running… on a treadmill.
  • Constructive/Intelligent/Discovering: Such are meetings/cultures where participants/employees live a shared Purpose, understand they are interdependent and behave as problem-solvers, not as fanatic “Sole Depositors of the Unique Truth”. In such meetings and cultures, Value Building Behaviours (Listening Actively, Asking Open Questions, Summarising, Supporting, Challenging, Clarifying) are the norm, Inclusion is being lived, not only in terms of gender, race, sexual preference, faith etc. (the list can be endless) but also in terms of encouraging differences, welcoming different thoughts, embracing other points of views, seeing challenge as a sign of engagement, receiving discording opinions with curiosity. Welcome to the Approach/Discover World of Prof. Haidt!

Creating a Discovery culture

  • Shared and lived Purpose: Ensure that any project, department or organisation, has an intellectually clear, behaviourally lived and demonstrated, emotionally linked Purpose. This helps clarifying the context, the rules of the game and why we form a Community and not just a quarterly results-driven company.
  • Practice Value Building Behaviours: As they are critical in laying the foundations to enable a Discovery culture. Ensure there is constant, hierarchy-free feedback on how well people live those (at any level).
  • Refuse to enter the game of polarisation and opposition:
    • Avoid that people dig themselves into positions and remain stuck in those
    • Have them explore what really matters to them beyond their stated position (values, fears, emotions, hopes etc.)
    • Encourage them to recognise the legitimacy of the other party’s motivations
    • Challenge their creativity and intelligence, by requesting from them to build solutions respecting both sides deep needs

Remember the “3 Brains theory” (connecting researches of neuroscientist Paul MacLean, neurobiologist Henri Laborit and psychologist Daniel Goleman): When human sense (rightly or not) that there is a threat on the survival, territory or habits, their defense mechanisms (Fight, Flight, Freeze) kick-in, switching-off their capacity to analyse, reflect, be creative and take measured risks. Polarisation and exclusion are powerful triggers for that mechanism.

This is our time to become more than business leaders…


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