From Arts Leaders to POTUS: The Importance of the Macro View

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange).

In the past, I have written of the importance of taking the long view in strategic and business planning. Similarly, it is critical to consider the macro issues of what we might call “change” while dealing with the micro impact of such developments. Writing in 1789, Benjamin Franklin was aware of the constant nature of change: he famously noted that nothing is “certain except death and taxes.” What he could not have understood is the degree to which change would come to dominate our lives. Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, in his Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street, traces the history of societal change through the development of economies, from circular economies and social structures that lacked any growth to our current state, where we rely on growth to necessitate constant, inevitable change.

Until recently, the pace of change was such that it was possible for individuals to focus on the micro issues of how change affected their lives and leave the analysis of the larger, macro impact on society to historians. Since the industrial revolution, however, the pace of societal change has accelerated to such a degree that we can no longer ignore its macro impact on society in real time. Indeed, it is perilous to ignore the question of societal “change,” and especially so for leaders — whether in the political arena, the corporate sphere or the nonprofit sector.

The death-knell of the nation-state?

In the political context, for example, our nation’s current electoral divide is actually being driven by differing attitudes toward unstoppable macro trends unfolding in our world. One of our presidential candidates focuses on the micro impacts of change: job losses, tax-avoiding corporate inversions, animosity to immigration. He proposes to stem the demographic, social and economic tides by forcing a return to “what was.” The other candidate aims to strategically identify and advantageously address the macro, global changes we’re experiencing, while simultaneously addressing the micro impact of those changes on the individual. As demonstrated in John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber’s lucid fable Our Iceberg Is Melting, the latter candidate’s balancing of micro and macro issues of societal change can be difficult — but denying it will be catastrophic.

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In the cultural context, the decades-long weakening of the structures that have supported our creative industries make it tempting, not to mention easy, to focus solely on the micro impact of societal change: failing attendance, disrupted production and distribution mechanisms, chronic lack of resources from shifting philanthropic trends. As in the political arena, to focus solely on micro impacts — that is, to ignore the macro changes underway, or to assume they are unknowable and thus impossible to consider — invites catastrophe. Like in politics, considering macro issues is not risk-free: we will not know if we have properly planned and acted for the future until we look back with the eye of a historian.

It is perilous to ignore the question of societal “change,”

Much has been said and written about the inability of contemporary artists to make a living – this is a very real issue. Any response based in nostalgia, however, is bound to disappoint, from the problem of arts critics no longer being hired by journalistic outlets to dancers no longer reasonably able to expect to audition and win places at one company for the duration of their careers. On the other hand, we know that there are creative opportunities for those willing to consider the macro implications of change and to use that insight to navigate the evolving cultural environment and, accordingly, to structure a career. Critics can and do publish themselves, and work productively and even sometimes profitably across platforms and media. Dancers can and do engage with cross-disciplinary collaborators; they can engage with and utilize technology in their creative activities and explore their creative endeavors in far more numerous and varied venues than ever before. For those devoted to the cause of creative expression, this should be positive and optimistic news. For politicians and others, the macro issue at hand is how to support and how to value these adaptations in the creative economy.

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What is driving much of these current macro societal changes is the triumph of unbridled markets. Fundamental, macro shifts have made it possible for some goods, services, money and people to flow freely around the world. Consider the impact of globalization on manufacturing; of the Internet on news and information flow; of ubiquitous access to, and availability of, content. This is all so central to our existence now, so much a fact, that it even raises questions as to the relevance of our civilization being organized through nation-states. With market forces now impacting, for example, the value of a nation’s currency, how health care is provided, and how funders ascribe value to creative efforts, to focus solely on micro-trends and societal change would be to act like Kotter and Rathgeber’s penguins: ignoring the melting ice around them.

On a melting iceberg.
On a melting iceberg.

To build walls around our nation while the world continues to change is as dangerous as it would have been for the penguins to wait until it was too late. It may be too early to sound the death-knell for nation-states, but there is no doubt that focusing solely on the micro issues of societal change will make it easier for that organizing structure to slip into irrelevance. And what if it does? What would it say about the place and future of the arts — which, as some might argue, has already lost its relevance?

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I have argued repeatedly in this column that the most critical consideration is our point of view. Adopting a personal point of view that focuses solely on the impact of large forces on each of us individually is too narrow: it misses the macro forces driving the micro changes. In teaching strategic planning, I impress on students that a plan is a rational, reasonable approach to the forces that a planner knows and understands is at work. It is never immutable or unchangeable, since the underlying given is that all businesses exist in an ever-changing, ever-evolving environment and ecology. The strength of strategic planning is not in developing a roadmap to show the pathways for individuals across a never-changing geography, but in positioning buoys in an ever-changing ocean that keeps one directed on a path toward a successful goal. This is only achievable when a planner mixes careful consideration of the micro impact of events with the macro impact of change.

The story of humanity is one of constant improvement. Great visionaries and leaders have directed us to embrace inevitable change at the macro level instead of focusing merely on the challenges of the micro level. This is perhaps why more people live safer, longer, and more comfortable lives than ever before. This lesson is invaluable and one we should heed — but especially our leaders, whether they are in arts and culture or running for President of the US.