Why the words of wise men and women can be terrifying

The financial crisis is striking hard all over the world. Everywhere you hear and see so called wise men and women criticizing the current financial system. Today’s bankers and managers lack any sense of responsibility, they say, with an I-told-you-so-attitude.

Nothing different in my country. In a recent interview, Fred Chaffart, former ceo of the Generale Bank – which later merged into the now troubled Fortis bank – complains about how the whole financial system is so much driven by greed.

“We have to ask ourselves: what are we doing? Is it really worth the trouble? Does it make people happier? Does it better the world? We definitely don’t think about this enough. People didn’t turn to common sense when they created these way too complicated financial products which are at the heart of the current financial troubles.” (Chaffart in Knack, 8 October 2008, p. 44, my translation)

Wise words alright.

But then I wonder: this all happened when people like Chaffart were running the show, right?

So if they now know so well what went wrong, why didn’t they do anything about it at the time?

If they saw these things coming, why did they allow them to happen?

Because they didn’t understand them completely at the time? I might understand that.

But then, what is so hard about understanding that you have to take responsibility for your actions? What is so hard about understanding that what you do doesn’t benefit the world and doesn’t make people happier?

Tell me!

A lot of these over due wise words seem nothing but a late confession of guilt. A confession of guilt of people who had the opportunities and the capacities to change anything but who now blame the system for not letting them.

This can and should be by no means an excuse.

Why? Because it will keep us from truly understanding how this could have happened and how people can actually change a perverse system without the system having to change first.

Don’t let the financial mumbojumbo fool you. This is not a story about technicalities, this is a story about psychology, about behavioral economics, about people and how they act (or fail to act).

What a system does, is that it allows you to forget all about this. It allows you to put your consciousness on hold so you can focus more on what you do. What a system does is turn you into a means to an end. It turns you into a blunt faculty of production.

Systems hate consciousness. It slows them down, holds them back, which is perceived as inefficiency. But systems aren’t smart enough to realize that sudden moments of pause, sudden forms of criticism and consciousness can actually lead to changes which might improve a system more radically than its own logic can ever predict.

A system its knowledge and value is always limited to its current state. It is so much self preserving that it can become self destructive.

People have the skills and the consciousness to go against this. People have the power to slow systems down, to get out of the way, to do things differently and to ultimately change other people’s behavior (which we call “the system”).

Whatever people tell you, it’s not the system which does things the bad way, it are PEOPLE who do so.

It’s important to realize that people have a choice.

A system allows people to actually say and believe they don’t have the choice to act differently.  When wise men like Chaffard and wise women say things should have been done differently they actually deny the fact that they had the opportunity and the choice to act differently.

They deny the fact that it are people who change things.

But, it’s important to realize that people do have a choice.

People who lead understand they do have a choice and they take full responsibility for it.

They also understand there is a difference between a leadership of control and leadership of change. Leadership of control is based on fear of change. It’s also based upon the preconception that the current system they are managing should remain the way it is and that every form of radical critique cannot help to improve the system in any way.

Leadership of change is fundamentally different. Leadership of change is based upon the idea that all systems have a temporary form which will eventually build up pressure and provoke resistance. In this context, obstruction is not a threat but a challenge and an opportunity.

True leaders know the difference.

A lot of our so called leaders today don’t.

They think they do. But all they do is manage. And while doing so, they forget to lead. They trust the system to do that for them.

But then again who’s the system?

Right.

It’s always somebody else’s fault.

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