‘V’ is for Vigilance


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“Freedom is like a small bird. If you squeeze it too hard, you will kill it. But if you don’t hold it firmly enough, it will fly away. Indeed, freedom can be both elusive, and so-as the McCormick Tribute Museum so powerfully reminds us-it requires our eternal vigilance, our willingness, our ability, our conviction to stand up for that which is right.” - Alex Kotlowitz

Vigilance is keeping careful watch over danger, threats and opportunities. 

The biggest danger and risk we face today is the normalization of the abnormal, where freedom and all that it represents is becoming more and more elusive. The reason for this is the absence of “eternal vigilance”. 

While many have the willingness, ability and conviction to stand up for that which is right, few understand and therefore practice the art and science of vigilance to effectively “stand up for that which is right.” 

To begin, we should reflect on what freedom means. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt eloquently articulated what we should aspire to -

“We look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms.
. The first is freedom of speech and expression- everywhere in the world.
. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world.
. The third is freedom from want - everywhere in the world.
. The fourth is freedom from fear - everywhere in the world.”

Based on the work I have done in emotional intelligence, I assert very few people in the world, under FDR’s aspirational meaning, enjoy freedom. 

I make this assertion because I understand how people feel, and more importantly why they feel the way they do. People around the world are angry, and the reason they are angry is that they are being denied the four fundamental freedoms in every aspect of society - where they live, learn, work, worship and play. This anger is being fed by authoritarian leaders whose objective is to advance their power and control through fraudulent persuasion. And, people are persuaded because of the lack of vigilance by those who are in positions to stand up for what is right.

We can all learn vigilance - to stand up for what is right - from the man behind the PBS show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood Watch”, when he made his argument to the Senate to save the public media.

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You've made this day a special day, just by being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you and I like you just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger - much more than showing something of gunfire.”

Mr. Roger’s point that “feelings are mentionable and manageable” succinctly makes the case for emotional intelligence. While there is ample evidence that emotions drive behaviours, very few leaders are vigilant in managing their own emotions and those of others. Because of this, as I pointed out in ‘U is for UNIFIER’, the majority of our institutions are broken. Fixing these broken institutions requires vigilance that must shift from simply the results to how those results are achieved. 

The 2017 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” report validates assertions I have been making for years that the human element in managing employees is almost non-existent. Most disturbing in the report is that only 21% of American workers strongly agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. So, if managers are not vigilant in motivating employees, where is their focus? 

A 2018 CEO survey “Threats: What Keeps CEOs Up at NIGHT...” offers insights in where their focus is. Other than “Availability of key skills”, the human element does not make the top ten threats. What is amazing is that a comparatively few of the CEO’s listed “potential ethical scandals as a threat - despite the growing number of firms that have suffered reputational damage in the past year”. 

Having spent the bulk of my career in retail, I learned the importance of being vigilant on meeting or exceeding customer expectations. We did this by continuously understanding how customers felt and why they felt the way they did. This kept our value exchange model with them fluid, which resulted in higher revenues. We similarly applied the value exchange model to our other stakeholders - our shareholders, our employees, our vendors, our regulators, and our communities. Our objective of meeting or exceeding their expectations of us resulted in their almost always exceeding the expectations we had of them. 

One in five people in North America has a mental health condition. Suicides are increasing at an alarming rate, and we are in the throes of a loneliness epidemic. Being vigilant about how people you are responsible for feel, and understand why they feel the way they do is a lifeline for them and may be the most important gift you can bestow on others.

To be vigilant, one must have a vigilant mindset. Paul Gustavson in his article ‘In the Eyes of a Hurricane: 7 Steps to a Vigilant Mindset’ identifies what we need to do to “persevere through the hurricanes of life”. They are:

“1. Prepare early for the unknown by developing yourself.

 2. Don’t stand alone but stand together with supporting forces.

 3. After a retreat to safety, look to re-engage. Exit back into your breakout zone at your earliest opportunity.

 4. Assess the deficiencies in your plan and be ready to pivot to stay on course. 

 5. Reactivate and restore to get your footing again.

 6. Keep the destination in focus no matter the competing environmental factors.

 7. Stay optimistic. When anxiety and fear look to paralyze you, remember the skies above the clouds are blue.”