Inspirational messages from pop culture seem to be in short supply right now when audiences desperately need them. The pandemic continues to ravage the globe, hitting the worst-run countries the hardest. The financial markets seem to be booming, while only benefitting the wealthy and powerful. The actual global economy is teetering on the verge of collapse. Those factors are interrelated: as jobs are cut, businesses fail.; this leads to even more jobs lost. The net reduction in consumer spending acts as a virtual drogue chute on national GDPs and the loss of cross-border trade from COVID-ravaged nations infects those who have it (mostly) under control. Meanwhile, we have to contend with massive wildfires, devastating hurricanes, violent extremists brazenly murdering people in the streets, police callously demand compliancerather than justice, and our democracies slide into authoritarianism as if this were there 1930s.
People have every right to be terrified for their future right now. The entire world seems to be taking the express train to hell. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people crave a temporary escape from their omnipresent sense of existential dread and yearn for an uplifting message. One that promises a happy ending after all this drama has finally been resolved. People desperately want to hear assurances that everything will work out in the long run. “Remember how terrible it was back in 2020? Good thing that’s all behind us!”
It’s a seductive fantasy. We know it isn’t true, but we need it all the same, like anaesthesia before a necessary amputation. That doesn’t make the desire for escapism wrong; if a good movie can take our minds off the dumpster fire that is 2020, great! A few hours with the curtains drawn watching a movie is leagues healthier than getting blackout drunk to make the screaming in our heads quiet down long enough to get some sleep.
That’s why I was delighted to stumble across the 2019 martial arts action film Hai Phượng (re-titled Furie in the U.S. release, alluding to the Greeks’ chthonic deities of vengeance) on Netflix this last weekend. I’d never heard of it. I had no idea it was the highest-grossing Vietnamese movie of all time. My family and I were instantly captivated by the teaser video where lead actor Veronica Ngo – whom you might remember from The Last Jedi and this year’s The Old Guard – displays some amazing martial arts talent. The thirty seconds of Ngo dominating in the teaser sold us … and we weren’t disappointed. Everyone was cheering when the end credits rolled.
In summary, Veronica Ngo plays a single mother with a troubled past. When her daughter is kidnapped by international organ traffickers, Ngo pursues and destroys them minion by minion. There are fights on motorbikes, boats, and trains. There are beautifully choreographed fights. The actors slightly exaggerate their characters to fit 1980s action movie conventions so that key plot exposition and emotional charges can be addressed efficiently, all to get us the next amazing fight scene as swiftly as possible. It’s a must-see movie if you’re into action films.
If the film is intended to have a message, it’s that you (the viewer) should never give up. No matter how difficult or agonising things get, accept the pain and setbacks stoically. Victory will only come through perseverance and endurance. That’s an excellent exhortation for the excruciating era we’re experiencing.
It’s awesome. Unfortunately, it’s a placebo … not a realistic path to salvation. To be clear, there’s tremendous value to be gleaned from heeding the story’s core conceit: the more one can endure and shrug off trauma, the more likely it is that one can eventually achieve their goals (despite all that life might throw at them). Doggedness is a virtue; Americans especially admire “grit” as an essential heroic attribute. It’s a good message. I submit that – while it’s truly inspirational and uplifting – it’s insufficient. That is, persistence alone can’t get us out of the mess we’re trapped in.
As exhibit A, I offer the as-yet-unsolved existential problem of racially-motivated police brutality in the U.S.A. Our people have protested, rioted, preached, legislated, and endured this nightmare since the first enslaved Africans arrived in mainland North America in August 1619. Seeing the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin support a group of violent extremists – one of whom had just murdered people protesting police brutality – aptly demonstrates that we’re nowhere near ready to resolve this problem. How much more “perseverance” is it going to take before America decides this is antithetical to our laws and values and puts an end to it?
Stepping things down slightly from institutionalized systemic horror to more mundane economic trauma, I offer America’s runaway wealth inequality as exhibit B. Six years ago, a Harvard Business School study pronounced the wealth gap as “unsustainable.” That came during a period of sustained, strong economic recovery; the world seemed to be healing from the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. In 2020, the pandemic has violently exacerbated the already perilous wealth gap. Fixing this will require far more than endurance alone; hell, the entire American political system is engineered to prevent all attempts to slow – let alone reverse – this barrier to upward mobility. How much more exploitation can we sustain before we give up the pretence of being a republic and go all-in on a cyberpunk dystopia?
I’m not arguing that we should wallow in despondency because the problems we face are legitimately overwhelming. I’m also not arguing that temporary escapism is ineffective, counterproductive, or somehow wrong. Absolutely not. We needthese brief moments of respite and those messages of hope to help keep us going. If anything, we need more of them. Our health and sanity demand some downtime.
That being said, I am arguing that we – as business leaders – are compelled to play straight with our people as these overarching societal problems play out. We cannot –must not – mollify our employees with cheap aphorisms and ephemeral feel-good slogans. Exhorting people to “just hold a little longer” until “the pandemic is defeated” so “everything goes back to normal” is disingenuous and dangerously corrosive to employee morale. Most of our workers aren’t fools; they recognize that these systemic societal issues are coming to a point of no return. They can rationally project the cascading problems coming up next. They understand that we’re facing an irreversible shift in who we are and how we’re going to live. There is no “going back.”
If we want our people to stay loyal to our organisation and remain productive, they have to trust us. If we want our people to trust us, we have to be honest. We must offer encouragement, sure. We also must speak plainly about the obvious problems we’re grappling with in society and offer them practical solutions for how those problems affect them. If we can’t solve those problems, we can try to make them somewhat easier to bear. At the same time, we need to actively plan for worst-case predictions and initiate realistic pre-emptive measures to help both our organisations and our people deal with them if – when, really – the worst-case scenarios manifest.
Think about it as a Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery drill if that helps. As we’ve seen in 2020, organisations that prepared for a pandemic were able to sustain their operational capability as COVID-19 shut down our city centres, crippled supply chains, and bled consumer spending dry. Organisations that prepared for civic unrest near their sites were less affected by massive protests and the inevitable police suppression of said protests. BC/DR is the art of predicting how bad things might get, then taking steps to weather the worst possible outcomes.
That’s what we need to do now, while we still retain some semblance of economic normalcy. No matter how rosy a spinthe government analysts try to put on it, the long-term, downstream effects of our systemic problems are inexorably coming… and sooner than we’re ready for. Therefore, it’s pragmatic to start girding our metaphorical loins and get ready to face the tactical manifestations of the worst-case scenarios. The more we prepare now, the better positioned we’ll be to endure whatever post-COVID disaster happens first.
Preparations, though, require people. If we want our people to give us their best, we first need to convince them that we value them; that we’ll continue to protect them; that we’ll never betray them, come what may. The only way to achieve that is to be honest with our people; the moment we’re caught in a deliberate lie, our credibility is irreversibly squandered. Integrity and transparency are our most critical leadership attributes right now since no one company can control what’s happening to the political or business spheres on a macro level.
Huge societal problems can’t be defeated with grit alone. You can kick a racist in the teeth; you can’t kick institutionalized racism in the teeth because centuries of corruption don’t have a discrete physical embodiment. Systemic cultural problems can’t be defeated mano-a-mano the way a scenery-chewing villain can be trounced in an action movie. Long term, the existential problems that scare the hell out of everyone are going to demand hard work, long-term sacrifice, painful introspection, and, yes, a lot of endurance … but on a national scale, not a solely individual one. No “lone hero” is going to save us all from this headlong dive into the abyss.
So, tonight, try to relax. Kick back with a heart-pumping inspirational action movie like Hai Phượng. Cheer on Veronica Ngo and revel in the feel-good message her story ends on. Then, tomorrow, log back in to work and commit yourself to a policy of straight talk and ironclad integrity with the people you lead. Tell them what you’re going to do to help the organisation in general and them individually deal with the dangers that lie ahead. Own your fears and your failures. Be the emotional rock that your people need in these turbulent times. Hope for the best while you prepare for the worst. Be the hero today that your people will need in our rapidly approaching grim future.
Things are going to get worse; that’s beyond debate. What matters now is how we prepare for it.
Pop Culture Allusion: Le-Van Kiet, Hai Phượng (a.k.a., Furie, 1999 film)