Chicken Little and A Six-Month Bifocal

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AMONG the challenges today's leaders must address are exaggeration and surprise from among their own ranks.

Journalists, who are expected to bring a steady rational expectation to their observations, are as often spooked by imagined conclusions - particularly as it may involve their own shop - as any other public worker group. Criticized for being too skeptical, they are as often too gullible - Chicken Littles, for whom the sky can be always falling precisely because it never hits the ground. They can be megaphones for ``experts,'' selecting from the more extreme predictions about events.

Exaggeration is a general response of groups, however, and not just of journalists, although the latter may be more vulnerable due to their expected sensitivity to signs of change.

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Lowering skies that have not fallen: The much-heralded European Union has not left the the United States economy in the dust. Nor have the Japanese and other Asian ``tigers.'' The American economy continues to expand, albeit slowly; its competitiveness, as a character trait and in its resources, was underestimated. Its enlarged continental market with Canada and Mexico will continue to be a source of strength.

Again exaggeration, I would stress, is a general human response, and it is only ironic that we media sentinels are as guilty as anyone.

The media generally do better with surprise than do other groups; certainly they do better than most managers, and especially this newsroom manager. The media are equipped to respond to outbreaks of war, assassinations, resignations, stock crashes - true pieces of falling sky. Managers usually have to deal with a far smaller magnitude of evidence, particularly from their personnel. It may be a matter of little consequence, really, but it can be baffling how any rational person could have done this or that. ``Where was his head?'' one wants to ask.

Now, I would propose here, the tendencies to both exaggeration and surprise can be countered by a conscious six-month bifocal approach: At the same time one looks at immediate evidence one should ask, ``How important will this matter appear six months from now?''

If the matter involves an administrative issue, what steps would you want to have taken six months hence to have addressed it? What response can be structured? Can it be looked at again at checkpoints to see whether the parties involved are able to solve it by themselves? The two-time-frame approach can be useful in the midst of chronic stress, as in classrooms, or during acute stress, such as organizational change.

There will, after all, be a six months from now. At that time we will be able to look back at where we are now with a certain detachment. We will have endured. And we will have learned lessons from whatever is looming so large now.

So we might as well practice an immediate detachment and look at the situation we are now in with an objectivity that is possible only when we do not overrespond.

Wisdom, it is said, is knowing what to look out for, the ability to assess the costs and whereabouts of pitfalls. This unfortunately usually comes only with experience - having the six months, as it were, already in our pocket.

Surprise, by definition, would catch us out. Zen masters practice a state of low-energy alertness that does not allow them to be sneaked up on while at the same time avoiding the enormous energy loss of perpetual alarm. A sense of humor - low in energy cost, high in effective alertness - may work just as well.

Modern society has an urgency addiction. It is hooked on the chemical surges of adrenalin and stress and believes that this urgent subjective state is the immediate objective reality.

An antidote may be to receive any rush for a response as suspect, if not likely wrong. When surprised we can call a time out. We can ration emergency runs.

Americans as a group have little sense of history. They are immersed in the now. A simultaneous engagement and detachment - a perspective about time and activity - could be of use.

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