The Young, The Old and the Wisdom of the Middle Path

This post is inspired by an article in the New York Times written by Yuval Levin entitled: Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old? (June 3, 2022). As you will see it is a question I have asked myself in these past few years. Mr. Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a contributing Opinion writer for the Times. I will share a few opening quotes from his article to get your blood running as Mr Levin does not shy away from controversy.

Many American institutions seem locked in battles between well-meaning but increasingly uncomprehending leaders in their 70s and a rising generation, in their 20s and early 30s, bent on culture war and politicization and seemingly unconcerned with institutional responsibilities”.

We plainly lack grounded, levelheaded, future-oriented leaders. And like it or not, that means we need a more middle-aged politics and culture“.

In the last three contracts I worked before COVID hit and I decided to focus on needs closer to home, I found myself in demographically (age) diverse organizations that approached me for my experience in organization and planning.  I was surrounded by the mostly young and young-coming-upon-middle-age.  I noticed as I worked with this vital younger energy that when I hit a decision point I would often draw a long breath and wait for options for form out of my storehouse of memory and experience.  At the same time  my younger colleagues  would just as often hurl their thumbs at their phones seeking resolution from the world’s burgeoning collections of problem solving apps.  I knew I was old and they were young and frequently wondered why it was I who was there to advise and guide.  Was my long breath of a pause a sign of simply aging out of usefulness?  I suspect not and I also suspect the younger people I was working with were beginning to encounter issues that desired help that couldn’t be found entirely in the digital universe.  The motivation of this mystery of hiring me and my demographic seemed somehow related to the collective urge within their generation to buy turntables, vinyl records, cassette recorders, and vacuum tube amplifiers.  Something  was missing from the soul of the digital organization  and even a reasonably healthy bottom line couldn’t fill in that need. A vulnerable and scratched vinyl record might be better than the antiseptic perfection of the digital recording.  I never mistook my work at my stage of professional life as a call for my ‘leadership’.  Borrowing a Buddhist metaphor, they apparently wanted or needed a deeply seasoned finger to point at the moon (for consideration), and never did they need me to be the moon.  I return to Mr. Levin’s thoughtful article:

“Our politics has the same problem — simultaneously overflowing with the vices of the young and the old, and so often falling into debates between people who behave as though the world will end tomorrow and those who think it started yesterday.” 

Levin was speaking of politics and not necessarily organizational culture. That said, politics, like it or not, are a pragmatic rendition of present culture. He goes on to comment on the ‘vices’ of middle age mentality:

“The vacuum of middle-aged leadership is palpable. A middle-aged mentality traditionally has its own vices. It can lack urgency, and at its worst it can be maddeningly immune to both hope and fear, which are essential spurs to action. But if our lot is always to choose among vices, wouldn’t the temperate sins of midlife serve us well just now?”

This is where I need to expand on Mr Levin’s train of thought for a bit. The Good Decision and its pauses could be used in such a way that it becomes a vice conveying a lack of urgency and simply becoming a ‘sinful’ waste of time, That however would be missing the whole point of the process. Pausing for time isn’t so much a philosophical position as a nod to the needs of every human being’s neurology. In complex problems, our shared ‘body systems’ are closer to the analogue than the digital. Middle age often evolves into the “middle path{” which some people interpret as hesitancy or compromise. The Middle Path is not 50% of 100%. I suggest that Pausing to allow the complexity of one’s Sense of Good to align with the likely consequences of decision is a wisdom path that exists between the sometimes extreme urgency of youth and the often hopeless complacency of the very old. We are all analogue creatures, deeper in our identity than we are broad in conscious awareness. If you want to bleed the wealth of soul into your organization or nation, the importance of suspending judgement and action to create the time for the body and brain to compose the right path seems a small price for whole solutions grounded in integrity.

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