There’s a saying that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and it’s the same for a boardroom in crisis. Facing the worst day of their life, even the most bitter executives who don’t even know where the nearest church, mosque, or temple is will be trying to remember the prayers they learned as a child. They won’t add God to their stakeholder matrix, but they still hope He’s on their side.
But, instead of relying on divine intervention – which could be put to better use than protecting shareholders’ investments – there’s another prayer that is much more practical.
The Serenity Prayer
Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer asks that
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the differenceReinhold Niebuhr
Although he wrote this in the 1930s, Niebuhr reflected a philosophy that stretches back to the Stoics: that we can only control what we can control.
Unfortunately, executives and leaders can lose perspective on what they can control. Money and power expand the extent to which you can control the world, but this increased control isn’t infinite. So a CEO may be all-powerful in the bubble that encompasses their offices and factories, during industry events, and at social events they sponsor, giving the impression that the whole world will bend to their will.
But the world they control only extends to the edge of that bubble. What lies beyond is something different altogether, and their power diminishes dramatically.
However, because the problems they’re dealing with have entered their bubble, they mistakenly believe they also have control over the external causal factors.
Thinking that you can control these external factors – whether that’s the oil price, behavior of angry customers, or motivations of a criminal – is futile. Moreover, time spent trying to manage the unmanageable is at the expense of taking action where you can make a difference.
The Need for Perspective
And that’s where the Serenity Prayer (or your Stoic of choice) comes in.
Because you need the wisdom to know the difference between the things you can and cannot control.
Otherwise, you’ll be like the business leaders in 2008 who thought they could opt out of the global financial crisis through sheer force of will. Or politicians today who believe they can simply will a budget surplus out of nowhere. They can expect the same success rate as King Canute had with the tide.
So you must be honest and clear-eyed to differentiate between what you can and cannot control. Otherwise, you’ll be engaging in willful thinking that will make matters worse.
Then, you return to the first part of Niebuhr’s prayer, deal with what you can, and accept the events outside your control, but work out what you can do in response.
Be Effects Led
Because here’s the final part of this puzzle.
We’re primarily talking about causal events here. Some of these events are in your control but the majority are not.
However, how you respond to these external, uncontrollable events is entirely in your control.
So instead of wishing bad news away, or trying to assert your will over something that’s outside your control, focus on what you can control and respond appropriately. That will keep your preparations and response to whatever comes at you grounded in the real world, not built on a fantasy of control that doesn’t exist.
With the winter we’re shaping up to have, it may be worth making this differentiation sooner rather than later.
Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash