Your Leadership And The Second Shoe

Want to know how we’re feeling today? I think I’ve discovered it. From all of my wanderings I’ve picked up the palpable belief from people that they expect a second shoe to drop in the economy. They’re waiting for, dreading, and are somewhat planning or preparing for some event that will cause the second shoe to drop and the economy to do another tailspin like September 2008.

Let me tell you something rather bizarre about this second-shoe-to-drop syndrome.

I’ve written, presented, counseled, and (in my River analogy) guided often about the shocking similarities between now and the late 1930s. The heart of the similarities is economic. The lengthy economic downturns known as the Great Depression (then) and the Great Recession (now) feature second stages of decline. First there was a downturn, then there was a very modest improvement, and then finally a second decline or downturn set in. For the Great Depression, the second stage began around August 1937. For us now in the Great Recession, I suspect we’ll come to see that the second stage began in May or June 2011, and continues still.

During this second stage in the late 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes, the architect of economic policies of the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential administration, noted that a “peculiar kind of new crisis of confidence” had sprung up. The phenomenon puzzled Keynes, so much so that he decided NOT to advise a repetition of his deeply held beliefs about the power of government spending. Let that sink in for a moment—the man who had nearly always insisted that government spending was the answer to economic decline now hesitated to suggest it again in the face of what he labeled a “peculiar kind of new crisis of confidence.”

Keynes had stumbled onto the second-shoe. For while Keynes was wrestling with the unknown and the doubts arising inside him, Roosevelt’s own family and advisors, as well as business leaders, wrote to him in 1937-1938 that a second depression might hit within the next twenty-four months. This was the stuff of the second-shoe.

Note this. The second stage was not the second-shoe. It produced the second-shoe as an atmosphere, a sort of social and public and community climate, in which Americans lived. I would argue that’s what we’re reliving, re-experiencing, right now—the second stage of the Great Recession has produced the second-shoe environment, just as it did in the late 1930s. This is not strictly or purely or wholly a phenomenon of 24-hour, instant media. That affects it, to be sure, but it did not create it. The second-shoe is inherent to the second stage. That’s a very important lesson of the late 1930s. These waters of the River look remarkably the same.

Besides their certain fear that a depression was around the corner, most Americans in the late 1930s grew ever more entrenched in their insistence that the nation’s problems were only at home, not abroad. Foreign issues meant little more than a passing interest, an item of distraction, a placeholder in the news. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, could rise to the point of spurring forceful American action in foreign issues. Not the Germans, not the Japanese, not the French, not the Italians, not the Soviets, not the Chinese, nothing. And remember, this was a time when Americans were marveling at one of the first global wireless technologies that seemed to bring there to here in the blink of an eye. But that made no difference. It’s a measure of this particular power of the second-shoe that the American mind focused very narrowly on wallet, bank account, and pocketbook issues regardless of dazzling new entertainment and information technology in the home.

Here are a few things that I encourage you to consider for your current leadership in our second-shoe-to-drop environment (remember I’m not advocating but am simply describing):

1. The second-shoe is a very distinctive situation or circumstance. It has elements that, taken together, are unique to itself. My recommendation—give the appropriate thoughtfulness as a leader which it deserves.

2. The second-shoe brings an unusually strong emphasis from the future. The future is not only unknown but is likely, and almost certainly, a dimension where bad things will happen. In contrast to other shapes of the future, the second-shoe’s version of the future has the doubly powerful presence of fact—the “fact” is that we “know” bad things will probably occur because they’ve just finished occurring in the earlier, first-shoe phase. Add to that our unconscious understanding that nature and nature’s law typically involves pairs in our daily life. The future, then, must hold the second-shoe. Nature teaches it, fact proves it. My recommendation—have clear, simple responses to purported facts and share them often in various forms.

3. The second-shoe places great importance on slowness. Slow is steady, and steady is a virtue. Thus, we can only go slowly. Speed, fast, and quickness only strip away the protection of the steady. To be steady is to keep protected. And why, the question is next asked, would anyone want to surrender protection in light of a dangerous future? Remember, I’m not making this argument; I’m simply describing the argument that either will be made to you or is quietly embedded in most of your followers, whether they choose to express it or not. My recommendation—articulate and educate, over and over, why slowness in the wrong situation is more dangerous than speed.

4. The second-shoe acts on some of the worst sides of imagination. Anything or everything can be the second-shoe. There is heightened interest in fashioning events, signals, or symbols into the visible front edge of the second-shoe. Pessimism and imagination become practically inseparable. Indeed, perversely, the only or nearly only acceptance of speed in the second-shoe is the speed with which empty spaces in the imagination are filled with proof that the worst is quickly coming. My recommendation—assume that you need to be first or at least very early in offering key information, news, and analysis.

5. The second-shoe readily accepts planning and preparation, though only of a particular kind. Plan for the worst, not better or best. Prepare for tougher days, not easier. What was once done for the sake of prudence and wisdom is now evidence of things that have already arrived, or nearly so. Left unchecked or unbalanced, planning and preparation reinforce the dismal. My recommendation—include in preparation and planning a very recognizable and doable form of action, risk, innovation, and creativity.

6. The second-shoe may not automatically create a seed-ground for blame. One’s instinct might be to define and target objects for blame, expecting that people in a second-shoe condition will immediately follow whatever instructions accompany blame. That’s not true. It’s as likely that followers will simply deepen their attachment to slowness and steadiness (perhaps to the point of inactivity) and will not go beyond that. Blame is a highly unsure strategy, as likely to backfire on the originator as it is to achieve some goal or action. My recommendation—keep quiet on generating blame as a unifier or energizer.

Your River is right now running through a stretch called Second-Shoe. Reflect on the meaning of it for your water ahead. Before you go, give thought, too, to joining one of my two Leadership Now Workshops set for January 20, 2012 (Down the Rabbit Hole: Leadership, Succession, and the Deeper Story of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts) or January 27, 2012 (When the Tears Fall: Leadership, Tragedy, and the Experience of Ronald Reagan, 1985-1986). Location is Fort Harrison Conference Center in Indianapolis, Indiana. Cost is $250 per person. 10 seats open per workshop. Call or text 317-407-3687 to register.