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  • Simon Boardman

The Prisoner of the Moment

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Spaniards, prisoners, moments, dilemmas, and sandwiches…and what they all have to do with commercially surviving the current crisis.

Various ideas, analogies, and metaphors use the "prisoner" concept. We're dealing with one flavor of these right now. And without stating the obvious, it's a chance to be a hero or a zero and find out whether you're cut out to lead or to follow.

The idea of the Prisoner is one of the most versatile of metaphors. For example, there's the notion of the Spanish Prisoner. The Spanish Prisoner is (was) an elaborate confidence trick originating in the 1800s. According to Wikipedia (a decent source these days). "In its original form, the confidence trickster tells his victim (the mark) that he is (or is in correspondence with) a wealthy person of high estate who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. Supposedly the Prisoner cannot reveal his identity without serious repercussions and is relying on a friend (the confidence trickster) to raise money to secure his release. The confidence trickster offers to let the mark put up some of the funds, with a promise of a greater monetary reward upon release of the Prisoner. After the mark has turned over the funds, he is informed further difficulties have arisen, and more money is needed and so on until the victim is "cleaned." Modern versions include the variety of advanced fee scams, particularly the "Nigerian money transfer" routine. The reference to "Spanish" is also not lost as the current coronavirus's most popular comparison is the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Another idea using a prisoner example is The Prisoner's Dilemma. According to Investopedia, "The Prisoner's dilemma is a paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. The typical Prisoner's dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant". The Prisoner's dilemma is a well-known idea used to demonstrate the weaknesses in human decision-making processes.

Let's turn our attention to the current prisoner idea, that of the Prisoner of the Moment. The Prisoner of the Moment is "the state where an opinion is based on things that are happening right now. There is no real regard for what happened before or what may happen after." According to sources (unnamed), ESPN’s First Take (featuring Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and Cari Champion) introduced this idea. Bayless used the phrase to explain "the propensity for a sports fan to be caught up in either the nostalgia of a great victory or the agony of defeat while neglecting to view the big picture surrounding the totality of the events." I don't know whether Bayless borrowed the idea from somewhere else or originated it. While it's hard to believe that ESPN analysts come up with any original ideas (including those to do with sport), that remains a discussion for another time. But it nicely sums up a human dilemma that's more acute today than ever before – the idea that we are so consumed by the circumstances of the present (the moment) we are unable to exercise the judgment provided by either historical context of future-looking perspectives.

Here's the problem – if business leaders (those leading small as well as large businesses) become prisoners of the moment, they'll overreact to the current unknown, show poor leadership, and guide their companies and people into an abyss. Despite ALL the best practice advice, books, and discussion of the idea of "leadership" (it’s overwhelming these days) and the seemingly insatiable desire of young people who think they want to BE leaders, most will be "weighed, measured, and found wanting." What we need right now are a few grey hairs, calm responses, and steady hands. Here's what to expect and maybe how to avoid it.

"How Did I Get Here?" – The Talking Heads

David Byrne's great line from the song "Once in a Lifetime" has special significance. How did we get here? I'm not asking that with any reference to the coronavirus. I'm asking with the thought that we are all more guilty of allowing our opinions to be formed by current events and current events only. Why is this idea of the prisoner of the moment so prescient these days, and are we more susceptible to short term overreaction than we used to be? In short, the answer is "yes," so why is this?

We no longer have any capacity for delayed gratification. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus, "we have renounced our belief in a great cosmic plan that gave our lives meaning and replaced it with humanism; where we (humans) provide all the meaning we need. Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God: rather, it was gaining faith in humanity." Science killed God, replaced him with "us," and the inevitable belief that the only important thing is the now. There is no meaningful (long term) future, as we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The only immortality will be provided by us working hard to resist the effects of aging, AND whatever science can deliver in the way of freezing our brains or transferring our consciousness to a computer. Any episode of Dark Mirror on Netflix will show you what I mean. The net is that we have no patience, no appetite for delayed gratification, and have therefore become poster children for the idea of the Prisoner of the Moment. We are, therefore, less able to deal with profound challenges, such as those presented by pandemics.

We have added to this a constant seduction by the media and social media. We are constantly reminded of the good life, and of course, that the life we lead is not good enough which feeds the gratification problem. We live on a diet of dissatisfaction, and if we show any signs of contentment, we are accused of losing our ambition. Anything like the current challenge interrupts our relentless pursuit of the good life, leading to frustration and an almost childish response from many people. They overwhelm themselves with questions like why me? and why now? What's lost is that it's not you, and even if it is you, the question should really be, why not you? and why not now? An excellent metaphor for this is the movie "The Edge," starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. Lost in the wilderness of Alaska after a small plane crash, Hopkins recounts that people finding themselves in adverse circumstances (like being lost in a literal or metaphorical wilderness), don't die of starvation or cold or thirst. They die of shame. What he goes onto explain to a perplexed Alec Baldwin is that they become consumed by thoughts of why? “Why did this happen to them?” “Why did it happen now?” “What should they have done to avoid it?” They are so consumed in themselves, they don't focus on what to do about it until it's too late.

Do You Want Chips and a Drink with that?

The best metaphor for the current circumstance is that of the "big sh*t, sandwich, and we're all going to have to take a bite." But before we dive into how to digest your bite, a quick detour as we contemplate the provenance of that curious expression. The origin is unclear. According to Nancy Friedman, a contributing writer to Slate, there are several theories. The phrase apparently made its first appearance in print in 1966. "Mysteriously, that appearance was in the English translation of "An Anecdoted Topography of Chance", by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, who had written the book in French. Here is the relevant passage:

"Just this morning, Monsieur Georges expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that 'Life is a sh*t sandwich' with: 'Yes, and we take a bite every day.'"

"Moreover, it turns up—in phrasing almost identical —in a scene in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. The movie, set in 1967 and 1968, is based in part on the war experiences of Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches."

Finally, it always seems that sports (mainly football coaches) are regular sources of real pearls of wisdom like this. One source mentioned by Nancy Friedman is football player and coach Joe Schmidt; "This phrase came to be associated with the football player and coach Joe Schmidt, who was fond of the maxim "Life is a sh*t sandwich, and every day you take another bite."

The Great Escape

How do we avoid becoming a prisoner of the moment while having a nibble on that sandwich? As we present a few ideas, we'll try to avoid the mountain top speeches and inspiring, Churchillian prose, although you can't do these things without quoting Churchill at least once.

1. Observing the maxim that this situation is one big sh*t sandwich, you need to ensure that you and your leadership team, investors, the board of directors, etc. take a bigger bite of that sandwich than your staff do. You all get the benefits when we use the metaphor of "the pie" (as in you get a bigger slice), now it’s time to man up for this culinary delight. It goes with the territory so open wide tough guy.

2. Share the problem. It is not really anyone's fault, and no one alone can fix it. So, share the problem. Rather than cutting the workforce and letting people go, institute economies across the organization (as mentioned above) so everyone shoulders some of the burdens. It might get to the point where you have to do the former, but don’t make that Plan A.

3. Draw your siege or fire lines. When being under siege, commanders would have marked their "lines in the sand." When the enemy crossed these, defensive postures and actions would change. You need to adopt the same approach. Have a plan for the next 3-4 weeks. If the assumptions change, or there's no discernible easing on the horizon by week 3, prepare to implement Plan B. Obvious - right? Maybe not. Firstly we are in a classic "Black Swan" moment, which is virtually impossible to predict. Second, all those inspiring business major, MBAs showed us recently that back up plans were "yesterday's news" as we saw supply chain plans A, B, and C were all identical - "source from China."

4. Find the communication balance. You don't need to be a distraction with an hourly "bulletin," you're not CNN. A few lines in an email once a week probably won't do it either—something in the middle, maybe a weekly digital town hall-style or at least an all-hands call. Have your line managers facilitate more team communication (web-based, of course). People want to belong; they want to feel a part of something. The current isolation works against this, so encourage your line managers to facilitate increased communication.

5. Be straight. Here's the Churchill example. For a good deal of WWII, Churchill didn't have much good news to share. But he was clear, and he set expectations. He told the British people that it would get worse before it got better, and it did. He set the expectations and even though those expectations were low people gravitated toward Churchill's obvious resolve, determination and conviction in victory.. Grown-ups generally don't like surprises and despite fashionable thinking we're not inspired by leaders sharing their "feelings & vulnerabilities."

The Real Deal

Real leadership involves the tough stuff – not just pontificating about fashionable ideas like transparency, community, the environment, equity, and authenticity. Not just patting yourselves on the back when you raise (that means borrow) another $50m or sashaying around a stage during some "Ted Talk" style thought leadership session.

This is the "Superbowl" of leadership. This is really why you do it. This is the commercial equivalent of the 5-foot put to win it all, the last set tiebreaker, a penalty shoot-out, and sudden death overtime. Except it's more important than that. Sports analogies are useful but don't illustrate the seriousness of this one. You're responsible for people's livelihoods. That's a ton of responsibility and feels different when you're living it. It should.

As Master Sergeant Farell says in Edge of Tomorrow, "there is no courage without fear. Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the Fiery Crucible in which true heroes are forged."

So, if you find yourself uttering the phrase "I didn't sign up for this" - take the hint and respectfully vacate the position now, or once this has passed. Real leadership should be left to real leaders.

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