Taming the Wild
The modern world is the corporate equivalent of a formal garden, where everything is planted and arranged for effect. Where nothing is untouched, where nothing is authentic.
The book of Numbers begins with an organized group of travelers who become, by the book’s end, a windswept ragtag collection of complainers, most of whom die. This descent is, in part, attributable to the landscape. It is precisely because the landscape element has been so long neglected that the book of Numbers has been ignored or misunderstood. Rarely does a biblical text demand such a conscious and deliberate focus on the topographical backdrop. In the Hebrew Bible, geography and the conditions of nature can be central to the winning or losing of a battle, as we find with Deborah’s astonishing victory in Judges. The enemy’s plan to overtake the Israelites with chariots toppling down a mountain would have been an impressive show of force – until it rained, and the iron wheels got stuck in the mud. Changing weather conditions are not only a matter of luck. Understanding the context in which one leads is critical to success, or at least to avoiding failure. No one leads in a vacuum of abstract theories and formulas. All leadership is situational. As we will see, the book of Numbers offers up nature as a leadership challenge that must be negotiated well, as if to admonish Moses and the elders: Pay attention to the context of leadership. If you do not, it may swallow you whole.
It is odd to treat the landscape as a central character in and of itself, yet in Numbers, the land is as much a biblical protagonist as is Moses, Korah, or Balaam. The land was actively engaged in this journey, sometimes as friend, more often as foe. The landscape holds the key to understanding the unraveling of all of the good intentions that the Israelites set out with during their journey and it helps explain the breakdown of organization. The wilderness required not only preparation for its encounter, but also extreme vigilance to manage every step. Its intensity demanded extremes of human response: the twinning of careful organization and the abandoning of control. Fighting the reality of submission to the landscape led to the collapse of nationhood in Numbers. This black hole of desert must be treated as a character in the book of Numbers because it propels the story forward and explains the narrative texture of events. It is complex and inviting, confusing and stoic.
Beno Rothenberg and Helfried Weyer were well-known Israeli photographers who together published the book Sinai. They were intrigued by the unforgiving and dramatic landscape; they called it a place of “incompatible contradictions” that leads to “earthly spirituality.” In photographing it, they had to study it, and their conclusion is understandable: Sinai is “the cradle of monotheism and the scene of decisive historical events – in what is at the same time a dispiriting wasteland and an exciting sandy and rocky desert.”1Beno Rothenberg, Sinai: Pharaohs, Miners, Pilgrims and Soldiers (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), introduction. Burton Bernstein, in his book Sinai: The Great and Terrible Wilderness, quotes a fifteenth-century monk and pilgrim, Felix Fabri, who described the Sinai this way: “every day, indeed every hour, you come into new country, of a different nature, with different conditions of atmosphere and soil, with hills of a different build and color, so that you are amazed at what you see and long for what you will see next.”2Cited without textual source in Burton Bernstein, Sinai: The Great and Terrible Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1979): 2–3.
To understand the book of Numbers is to grapple with these human impressions of nature. It is difficult to define nature and to understand the way that humans have manipulated it. In the words of sociologist Jennifer Price: “‘Nature’ has long been drafted into service as a palliative for urbanism, anonymity, commercialism, white-collar work, artifice and the power of technology.”3Jennifer Price, “Looking for Nature at the Mall: A Field Guide to the Nature Company,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996), 189–190. Nature becomes molded through the private language of different academic disciplines and perspectives.
The work of literary scholars, anthropologists, cultural historians, and critical theorists over the past several decades has yielded abundant evidence that “nature” is not nearly as natural as it seems. Instead, it is a profoundly human construct. That is not to say that the nonhuman world is somehow unreal or a mere figment of our imaginations – far from it. But the way we describe and understand the natural world is so entangled in our own values and assumptions that the two can never be fully separated. What we mean when we use the word “nature” says as much about ourselves as about the things we label with that word.4William Cronon, introduction to Uncommon Ground, 25. What is it that we want from nature? What can we expect?
These questions make a terrible assumption. Underlying the question of what we look for in nature is the assumption that human beings can choose an experience of nature. Sometimes we can. Most often, we cannot. One of the most fascinating preoccupations with human constructs of nature is the search for the “perfect” landscape, or the quest for arcadia, an ideal region or space of natural felicity. The perfect landscape has been the subject of interest and passion for artists, ecologists, landscape architects, and poets. It has been described in words, in heady emotions, and in scientific equations. The historian Simon Schama describes two kinds of arcadia: “shaggy and smooth, dark and light; a place of bucolic leisure and a place of primitive panic.”5Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 517.
Nature – in its terrifying rawness – rarely conforms to human manipulation. It may for a time, and with constant human vigilance, bend to our desires. Yet, when we least expect it, hurricanes devastate human habitations and manicured gardens. Tidal waves crush villages. Entropy seeps into cities. Buildings fall apart and get covered by moss and trapped in vegetation as nature gradually takes back that which man builds. Shocked by nature and angry at its wrath, humans rail about cyclones and tsunamis, but these natural disasters are completely indifferent to the presence of human life. The wilderness with its arid stretches of land, its mountainous passes, and its flash floods was a daily and constant challenge for the Israelites; it was a compassionless challenge.
Amitav Ghosh, in his historical fiction, The Glass Palace, writes about the rubber plantations tended by the British in Burma before the Second World War. One of his central characters reflects on the difficulty of clearing space for human need and greed:
This is my little empire…I made it. I took it from the jungle and molded it into what I wanted it to be. Now that it’s mine, I take good care of it. There’s law, there’s order, everything is well run. Looking at it you would think that everything here is tame, domesticated, that all the parts have been fitted carefully together. But it’s when you try to make the whole machine work that you discover that every bit of it is fighting back. It has nothing to do with me or with rights and wrongs. I could make this the best run little kingdom in the world and it would still fight back. It’s nature; the nature that made these trees and the nature that made us.6Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace (New York: Random House, 2001), 202.
We try to control nature. We tame it. We clip it and shape it. And it fights back. Ferociously. Or worse: it ignores us. We humans become wholly insignificant to its plans.
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, writes about the day he discovered the indifference of nature in his article on the response to the 2004 tsunami. He was out in a small fishing boat with a friend, and the motor gave out as a fierce squall approached. The boat was tossed, and Wieseltier says that, at that moment, he was introduced to terror. In the midst of his “blackest moment,” a gull landed on the side of his boat and stared at him coldly: “I will never forget the equanimity in that bird’s eye. No, I did not expect the creature to be moved by my ordeal; but I had never before been regarded so inhumanly, never before had I imagined how I might appear exclusively from the standpoint of nature.”7Leon Wieseltier, “The Wake,” The New Republic, January 17, 2005, 34.
Werner Herzog exposed this feeling of the indifference of nature to human beings in his documentary Grizzly Man. Herzog adapted footage taken of wild bears in Alaska by Timothy Treadwell, a troubled young man who believed himself to be the bears’ friend and protector. Treadwell spent thirteen summers living in the Alaskan bush. Filming himself commenting on his natural surroundings, he once exploded with emotion for his bear friends: “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals.” But these vicious animals were not his friends. Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled and killed by a bear while his video camera, lying in the field, captured the sounds of him screaming. He did die, not for the animals, but through the violence of the very animals he sought to befriend. Herzog observed in the movie,
And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.8Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man (2005).
The blank stare. The half-bored interest. The raging sea. The fierce wind. All of them are indifferent to the humans in the landscape.
The Wilderness Within and Without
There is another kind of wild that no book on the wilderness can ignore. It is the wilderness within each person that, reflected in a rugged landscape, is simply the projection of man’s deepest emotional fears onto nature. Henry David Thoreau, often regarded as the founding father of the American ecological movement, understood in his loneliest hours at Walden Pond that the wilderness outside him was merely a mirror to the wild within.
It is vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.9Henry David Thoreau, “Journal, August 30, 1856,” in Henry David Thoreau: An American Landscape, ed. Robert L. Rothwell (New York: Paragon, 1991), 126–27.
The bog in the brain and the bowels is at the heart of the book of Numbers. Nature for the ancient Israelites was not merely outside of the people, but profoundly within them. Unsure of their mysterious destination, unequipped to deal with the uncertainties, the ancient Israelites fought against each other and their leadership until tens of thousands of them died before reaching the Promised Land. And yet, our history with the wild dates earlier than the book of Numbers. To fully comprehend it, we have to turn back to Genesis.
Adam and Eve were born into a garden and charged with “working it and watching it” (Gen. 2:15). They were born into a relationship with nature. The garden would provide their sustenance as long as they followed its rules. In turn, they had obligations both to tend and tame nature and to observe it. They had to master nature and simultaneously be its stewards. In their disobedience, they exploited nature to cover their shame. Adam hid behind a tree. Adam and Eve turned fig leaves into garments to cover up the nakedness that eating forbidden fruit revealed to them in their new state of consciousness. Nature was both provider and seducer.
The wilderness, from the earliest chapters of Genesis, was also regarded as a place of primitive freedom and refuge. In Genesis 16, Hagar was punished by her mistress, Sarai, and fled into the wilderness. Sarai, emotionally scarred from a surrogacy plan she herself devised, afflicted her Egyptian handmaid Hagar in a frustrated attempt to return her now-pregnant servant to her previous lowly status.10See Phyllis Trible’s brilliant analysis of the Sarai/Hagar battle for status in Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). Hagar ran to the wilderness as a refuge. She associated the wilderness with her freedom. An angel of the Lord found Hagar “by a spring of water in the wilderness” (Gen. 16:7). The spring in a place that is usually dry and desolate boded well, a sign that Hagar’s future would get better. It was there that she received a blessing parallel to Abraham’s: her offspring were to be too numerous to count. And yet, to receive this future, Hagar would have to return to Abram and Sarai’s household and submit to the difficulties ahead. The promise would be for her children’s freedom. This was a wager she willingly made.
Hagar repeated her wilderness venture in Genesis 21, when she and Ishmael were banished from Abraham’s house. Abraham and his wife acquired new names and a new stature through their own son, Isaac. To protect Isaac’s future as heir, Sarah believed that Ishmael and his mother must be removed from the picture. Hagar was given limited food and resources and got lost, a typical outcome in wilderness travel. Yet the angel of the Lord found her once again and provided the necessary water and salvation that became associated with her wilderness incursions. She had run out of water and out of the emotional strength to battle this new foray into the unknown. About to leave her son to die near a bush, the angel reprimanded her and God told her to open her eyes. A well was there, but in her distress she had not seen it. Where Abraham had struggled for decades to make sense of God’s command to raise a nation of countless number with an infertile wife, Hagar was willing to give up on the same promise for a lack of water. The wilderness was an apt place for creating a nation of free men from a son whose “hand would be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). He would be, as the angel promised, a wild animal of a man, suited to the liberation of the wilderness. For Hagar, the wilderness was the one place of solace and respite. Leadership will arise from this child of the wilderness, she was told. This time, Hagar did not return. Later, in a reversal of this story, when the Israelites were enslaved to the Egyptians, Moses led an oppressed people to the wilderness in a bid for their freedom. As we learned from Hagar, slaves run to the desert to find release and liberation.
Taming the Wild
Not every human being seeks to befriend nature or control it. Some seek out nature in their search for a simple life in harmony with their surroundings. They may use nature as an escape or as a place of personal exile. A contemporary example will shed light on the biblical perspective.
In 1918, American artist Rockwell Kent made a conscious choice to leave urban civilization as he knew it. Suffering depression and a crisis of identity, Kent took his then nine-year-old son with him to Alaska in search of mental quiet. They boarded a small dory in the Kenai Peninsula and set out for Fox Island, one of several small islands in Resurrection Bay. Their host, an elderly Swedish goat-herder, was the only other person to inhabit the island. Kent kept a journal of his seven months in the brutal winter of Alaska, and it was in this wild that the artist – as have so many others – found himself. “It seems,” Kent wrote, “that we have…turned out of the beaten, crowded way and come to stand face to face with that infinite and unfathomable thing which is the wilderness; and here we found ourselves [emphasis in the original] – for the wilderness is nothing else.”11Rockwell Kent, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), xi. For Kent, the wilderness was a window to the self, where human beings are forced to see themselves as the mortal beings they are, unable to escape the majesty of a landscape which dwarfs them in its size and power. But Kent, who was taken by the scale of Alaska’s mountains and forests, also naively believed that human beings could gain control over the immensity of nature. He thought that pioneering was “fun” and found that the work he did on his own cabin offered him control over the wilderness: “To be in a country where the fairest spot is yours for the wanting it, to cut and build your own home out of the land you stand upon, to plan and create clearings, parks, vistas and make out of a wilderness an ordered place!”12 Kent, Wilderness, 16.Kent went to Alaska to come to terms with some powerful inner demons for a limited time. He was able to bend nature to his will knowing full well that he would be returning to “civilization” within months.
There are ghosts of the past and present that make wilderness an appealing place for permanent escape. For criminals, jilted lovers, and angry adolescents, the wilderness is a place you remove to or are removed to for reformation or breathing space. Remote locations such as the outermost regions of Siberia, the outback, or the endless plains hosting little human existence have all served this purpose. The well-known author of travelogues and one of the first leaders of the forest conservation movement, John Muir, left home for the wilderness as an escape, an escape that eventually led to his life’s work recording and preserving the wilderness for others. He vanished into the north woods of Canada to escape a punishing, evangelizing father who moved his family from Scotland to Wisconsin because he believed he could practice Christianity better “away from the distractions of civilization.”13Richard Nelson, “We All Dwell in a House with One Room,” introduction to Travels in Alaska, by John Muir (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), vii. As a child, however, Muir did not discover God; he discovered botany and geology. Although he began his studies at Wisconsin University, he was not interested in formal education and decided, instead, to wander the Great Lakes region of North America. He saw that the best education he needed was time spent outdoors: “I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.”14Muir, Travels in Alaska, viii. Like so many nature writers, Muir saw in the wilderness an innate spirituality. When confronting the landscape-shaping natural force of glaciers, he believed that creation was being replayed before his eyes.
Beneath the frosty shadows of the fiord we stood hushed and awe-stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and we had seen the heavens opened and God made manifest…. Then the supernal fire slowly descended, with a sharp line of demarcation, separating it from the cold, shaded regions beneath; peak after peak, with their spires and ridges and cascading glaciers, caught the heavenly glow, until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed, and thoughtful, as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.15Muir, Travels in Alaska, 115.
On some level, Muir’s father was right. Away from the distractions of civilization, Muir did find God – a God who did not dwell in a cathedral, but in the sanctuary of nature.
An Escape with No Return
Not everyone believes that you can “make out of a wilderness an ordered place.” Some become victims of a wilderness impulse that they hardly understand or are not really prepared to confront. Herein lies the leadership conundrum. Many leaders believe that they can control, change, and shape what others have not been able to conquer. Without this instinct and confidence, they would probably not qualify as leaders. The drive and ambition for success and the belief in the impossible has characterized most heroic leaders for centuries. And yet, entering situations that push back against the best of leadership intentions puts us in Ghosh’s rubber tree orchard. You determine a course forward while everything pushes you backwards. As a leader, you cannot decide if you’ve been a realist or an optimist in taking on a challenge. Cultivating a garden requires constant vigilance just to keep it the way that it is and grow it incrementally: sowing, weeding, pruning. A garden is a limited swath of the landscape. The wilderness presents few visible boundaries. Vigilance and resilience are critical to leadership, but even these traits can fail when the wilderness is deep and convoluted.
Kent spent seven months in the Alaskan wilds, which may not have been long enough for him to realize that wilderness is not always fun. In 1990, a recent graduate of Emory University sought to escape from his suburban life. In 1992, his family learned that he had died in an abandoned bus – also in the remote wilds of Alaska; his remains were found by a moose hunter. Christopher Johnson McCandless began a Jack Kerouac-like exploration of the self on America’s open roads. Enamored with Leo Tolstoy’s abnegation of wealth for a life among the destitute, McCandless gave his life savings to charity, rid himself of his possessions, and trekked his way from the East Coast to Alaska in hope of finding himself in the wilderness. On one of his postcards to a friend he met on his journey – using the new name Alex for his new identity – he seemed to admit with retrospective irony that he was unprepared for the challenges of the wild: “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”16McCandless’s story and his journal excerpts are recorded in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild (New York: Anchor Books, 1997). Krakauer, an avid sportsman and renowned mountain climber, was so taken with McCandless’s story that he wrote a nine-thousand-word article on him in the magazine Outside, which grew into a book about the young man’s journey and subsequent starvation. Why did he do it? Was it a death wish? No. It was a life wish, as he recorded in his journal entry of February 24, 1992: “It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living [emphasis in the original] to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.”17Krakauer, Into the Wild, 37.
For McCandless, the wilderness was a place to live fully, with deep consciousness of one’s surroundings. It represented a relinquishment of the material pulls of suburban existence. Life seemed more real there. Jon Krakauer, author of the book that made McCandless’ life a subject of inquiry, confesses that his intrigue with this naïve explorer came from his own impulse for the wilderness, specifically his thrill at climbing ever-higher mountains: “The danger bathed the world in a halogen glow that caused everything – the sweep of the rock, the orange and yellow lichens, the texture of the cloud – to stand out in brilliant relief. Life thrummed at a higher pitch. The world was made more real.”18Krakauer, Into the Wild, 134.
The experience of living made more exquisite by close proximity to nature and the thrill of danger was captured in prophetic narratives. The love and contemplation of the spiritual against a landscape of monochromatic solitude was regarded as a central purpose of the Israelite stay in the midbar. Slavery and its emotional costs were to be weeded out by the barren independence required to live in vast, unpopulated spaces. This “Outward Bound” experience held such promise. What happened?
The Wilderness of Numbers
Numbers begins with the organization of the camp, the neat and orderly way that the Israelites prepared for a journey into the unknown, and concludes with the collapse of leadership. Moses pleaded with God in Numbers 11 to take his life lest he have to continue leading a rebellious and contentious people. Miriam and Aaron challenged their brother’s leadership in Numbers 12. The scouts of Numbers 13 undermined God’s vision and generated intense fear in the people. God, in Numbers 14, was prepared to rid Moses of this cantankerous and stiff-necked lot. In Numbers 15, the text narrows in on a man who broke the rules of the Sabbath, spurning God’s holy day. In Numbers 16, Korah and his band of 250 Israelite leaders confronted Moses and Aaron and tried to usurp the leadership. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings and leadership partners, died in Numbers 20. In Numbers 22, the leader of the Moabites, King Balak, wanted the Jews cursed and immobilized. In Numbers 25, at a time when Israelite men were accused of chasing Moabite women, an Israelite leader had illicit relations with a Midianite woman in public view and was speared by Pinhas, another Israelite leader. By the last chapter in Numbers, the Israelites were depleted by tens of thousands of members who died in plagues and punishments. What went so tragically wrong that a book that begins with enthusiasm for a journey descended into the chaos that emerges by its end?
At no point in the Hebrew Bible was leadership more critical. Leadership was a matter of keeping the organization of the camp intact despite nature “fighting back,” while at the same time keeping the human, existential anxieties of being neither here nor there under control. It was not a balance that came naturally to Moses. He floundered and his temper flared. Since the wilderness is indifferent to humans, it could have taught Moses not to personalize the challenges. It was not Moses who failed; anyone in his place would have found similar unruly territory. Indifference can be a result of callousness or it can be an aspect of resilience. Moses showed his vulnerability at times and his resourcefulness at others. He was a leader who needed other leaders to shore up the faith of the camp when belief dwindled. But Moses did not have the requisite leaders for such an enormous task. Try as he did, he, too, became engulfed and ensnared in the wilderness’s many torments. He survived the book of Numbers. His sister, brother, and most of the generation did not. They remained eternally in the wilderness, part of the human and physical landscape that they could not sufficiently conquer. Moses’ small victories and immense drive kept the flagging energy going until the journey’s end. But the Israelites as a nation would never be the same again, and Moses’ own failure to cross the Jordan was a direct result of his troubled leadership in Numbers.
The midbar was a place where the Israelites lost their way, both their compass and their moral compass. The demanding location made the Israelites demanding. They needed water. They needed bread. They craved meat. They desired the sensuality of Egypt. They demanded better leaders and then different leaders. It was never enough. As the journey stretched, so did the collective patience of the children of Israel. The sense of being forlorn and exhausted without respite permeates the biblical text.
The wilderness narratives easily transform from a geographic challenge to an apt and compelling metaphor for leadership. Leaders usually position themselves for change from a point of optimism and with highly manicured organizational skills. Those who lead begin with a desired outcome. They create strategic plans as methods to achieve outcomes and pursue goals, neatly defined objectives and metrics to evaluate – only to find that leading quickly becomes unpredictable, unmanageable, and often unbearable. The conditions can be perilous. Problems can feel intractable. The rewards are hard to identify. Criticism abounds. Outcomes are not anticipated. Unexpected surprises become the norm, and change is resisted with brute force, aggression, and even violence at times. Leaders like to exhibit and take control, but not every climate and landscape can be tempered by human control. Some environments seem impenetrable to any human intervention.
Much leadership backtracking and failure is attributed to causes and problems that cannot be contained or managed. Yet even this simple acknowledgment does not recognize the mysterious, unarticulated forces that work against leaders. The behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, in Predictably Irrational, breaks down a myth of Western civilization that has nurtured us for millennia. Humans are not rational beings. We have never lived up to the rational vision of man presented in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!”19William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. How naïve. We only believe that we are rational. This belief itself is a primary cause of our failures. Instead, Ariely contends that not only are humans irrational, they are predictably irrational. In economic terms, the assumption of rationality means that “we compute the value of all the options we face and then follow the best possible path of action.”20Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), xx. That is hardly the way most people eat, make purchases, or act in relationships.
Leadership expert Jim Collins wrote two books that explore corporations with outstanding records of success and how they got there, Built to Last and Good to Great.21Jim Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperCollins, 1997); Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001). Both assume that when certain assumptions are fulfilled, companies set the groundwork for impact and far excel competitors. Through great leadership, the identification of talent, mutual ownership of success, and intense focus and specialization, companies can soar above mediocrity and sustain results. To that end, Collins singles out companies that show all the hallmarks of greatness. For many years, his books became the crux of leadership development in the for-profit sector. He introduced a whole lexicon of expressions and words used in leadership: on the bus, off the bus, hedgehog, flywheel, level-5 leadership. His ideas had a spillover effect on nonprofits, which began the process of adapting the ideas Collins embraced along with his research team. He even wrote a separate monograph for the social sector, responding to requests to address discrepancies in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
And then, Collins found himself in the wilderness. Years passed without any new book until he wrote How the Mighty Fall, the title relaying an almost tragic turn of events for the hubris of success. The economy tanked, and some of the companies Collins once identified as great and built to last did not last. They crumpled and collapsed, like their more mediocre competitors. What did Collins have to say for himself? Read in between the lines of his introduction to Great by Choice, and Collins seems to be defending himself when he talks about the intervening times:
Think back to 15 years ago, and consider what’s happened since, the destabilizing events – in the world, in your country, on the markets, in your work, in your life – that defied all expectations. We can be astonished, confounded, shocked, stunned, delighted, or terrified, but rarely prescient. None of us can predict with certainty the twists and turns our lives will take. Life is uncertain, the future unknown. This is neither good nor bad. It just is.22Jim Collins and Mortin T. Hansen, Great by Choice (New York: Harper Business, 2011), 1.
The conditions for greatness were not really conditions for sustainable greatness at all. Distilling conditions for success is never formulaic. Luck and random forces seem to play a more significant role than anyone feels comfortable admitting. While identifying the factors that lead to greatness sold millions of books, life seemed to take a different turn. Collins dismisses the fact that his “great” companies failed in a sentence or two because even though companies may not last forever, they should still be built on the same principles he wrote about earlier.23Collins and Hansen, Great by Choice, 191. Getting past the defensiveness, Collins understands that the wilderness is a frightening place, but without naming the fear and recognizing its pervasiveness. Most enterprises will not succeed in our ever-changing landscape:
Instability is chronic, uncertainty is permanent, change is accelerating, disruption is common, and we can neither predict nor govern events…. The dominant pattern of history isn’t stability but instability and disruption.24Collins and Hansen, Great by Choice, 193.
The new normal, it seems, was neither new nor normal but just another day, another year, another decade or century in a vast, unwieldy, mysterious universe. Stability is the recognition of instability, the dangerous tottering of life on a house of cards stacked with contingency plans. And suddenly we retreat from the paneled boardroom of a fancy office block in the twenty-first century and into the burning sands of noon at Sinai thousands of years ago. Instability is chronic. Disruption is common. Uncertainty is permanent.