We are living in times dominated by extremist views and actions – in so many areas of life people are standing firm in their polarized and often uncompromising positions. It’s not only on our television screens and in news reports that we are able to observe the damaging impact of closed-minded people with little respect for differing points of view. Far from being limited to the realms of religious fundamentalists or radical activists, extremist behaviors dominate politics and are rife in business.
All too often I observe people acting in ways that can be described as divisive or lacking in balance, driven by an ‘either or’ and ‘them or us’ mentality. These attitudes permeate our society, narrow our vision and stop us from seeing alternate possibilities. However, it’s not just in our attitudes but also in our priorities that I observe a lack of moderation and balance in life; here are just a few of the many examples I regularly see:
- A lot of people are still working longs hours at the expense of quality time spent with friends and family. How many people do you know who continue to miss important events or special occasion because they are working?
- People are struggling to prioritize their health and wellbeing – how often do you or others around you choose to stay at work, to ‘get just a bit more done’ rather than putting down your pens and heading off to include some exercise or relaxation in life?
- The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – as big and powerful business strives to extract maximum return for the shareholder, workforces and communities are struggling to get by
Extremism can also be observed in the approach of so many business and political leaders. Many operate at one end or the other of a spectrum between being results driven and people focused. One I call the ‘results guy’ or intellectual leader, the other the ‘nice guy’ or empathetic leader. While both bring strengths neither are ultimately effective thanks to a failure to recognize the power of an integrated approach characterized by a balanced focus on results and people.
While extremism is unquestionably a major challenge of our times I suspect the human race has always struggled to moderate our views and actions. Ancient wisdom of cultures from around the globe talk of this challenge and offer the solution – now all we have to do is listen and learn:
- Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ advocates the desirable middle ground between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example, an excess of the virtue of courage would manifest as recklessness, a deficiency of courage as cowardice. Similarly, the middle ground between aggression and passivity is a much more effective assertive approach.
- The Mandorla, a Christian-based concept, informs us of the power in the union of opposites; beyond either/or thinking, beyond ideas of common ground or compromise, it seeks to demonstrate the principle of ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. “Mandorla people” are described as being those willingness to stand in the middle between opposing ideas and define a new path; they are the kinds of leaders who keep one foot in culturally accepted reality and the other in a never-before-seen blend of the old and new.
- The highly popularised Chinese philosophy of yin yang talks of the two aspects of a single reality. Central to this philosophy is the concept of balancing, not opposing, forces that are complementary and interact within a greater whole. In all aspects of our lives, whether they relate to the health of our planet or our bodies, the power of yin yang can be observed. Take for example the importance of day and night and of each of the seasons on the health of ecological systems.
- The ‘Middle Way’, a Zen Buddhist philosophy, describes being free of the one-sidedness of perspective that takes the extremes of any polarity as objective reality. The term was used in the first teaching of the Buddha after his awakening and describes a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This Buddha described as the path of wisdom.
- Throughout his writings, Carl Jung draws our attention to opposing pairs and then points to the archetype that integrates them.
In my recently released book, The Corporate Dojo: driving extraordinary results through spirited people, I introduce the Integrated Leader and advocate a balanced approach that places equal value on results and the people that make them possible. The table reveals the most important characteristics of the leader who ‘walks the middle way’.