What have I done?

Though it was still early in the morning, it was already becoming hot in the Jornado de Muerto desert, about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. On this day, the sixteenth day of July, 1945, the world was about to change forever.

At 05:29, the United States Army detonated the first ever nuclear weapon. As huge sunlight flash subsided and the mushroom cloud rose into the air, amongst the 425 people in attendance was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory where the bomb had been designed, Dr J Robert Oppenheimer. He later said that the sight of the explosion brought to mind words from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita:

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

June 16th, 1945.

Developing the technology behind such a device had been his life’s work, and within days of that morning in the desert the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August the 6th and 9th respectively, effectively ended the Second World War. The only nuclear bombs to have been used in combat, they killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki, with roughly half of those dying on the first day. 95% of those who died were civilians.

There’s no knowing how long the war might have continued without those bombs of course, or at what cost in terms of lives. History changed course at that point, leaving those stark figures as the epitaph to the largest war the world has ever known.

Oppenheimer’s moral conscience about his place in this history as “the Father of the Atom Bomb” was complex and nuanced. Two years after the bombs had extinguished both life and war at the same time, he would tell his peers that they had “dramatised so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war”, and connected science to the idea of sin like never before.

Yet when asked to reflect later in his life, he claimed to carry “no weight on my conscience”, seeing the scientist’s role as distinct and detached from the governments who decided to use their work. Scientists do science. Governments do war.

I’m not sure I could disconnect myself from the responsibility for my actions quite like that. But then I’ve never been indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a flash. Perhaps that would be the only way to live with it.

And here we are, a month under 67 years later, and the mere threat of those same bombs that Dr Oppenheimer came up with allows a country to invade another and no one can do anything to stop them, just in case.

Oppenheimer never could have imagined. At the very first, it was all about the science. As Jeff Goldblum’s character memorably says in the first Jurassic Park movie:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

It makes me wonder about all the other people who started out with good or decent intentions, and ended up making the world worse.

The people behind Twitter is an obvious one. Created as a way to connect people all over the world, it’s ended up being a place where the positive connections and sharing and love is vastly outnumbered by the division and demarcation and disunion. Where people can anonymously shout and threaten without consequence, and conflicting interested parties can choose to create and curate hatred and vitriol.

Google was set up to “democratise information’. Now they sell our personal data to whomever wants it so they can convince us to buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have. They could, and didn’t stop to think if they should.

Facebook was set up by pretty grim people for pretty grim original reasons, and then morphed into something that was nice for a bit but now is as bad if not worse as Twitter. For every local community group, there are ten more sowing dangerous lies, giving legitimacy to lies which in times gone by would have died on the edges of society. Connect enough crackpots and they’ll convince each other they’re all right.

[There’s no question this extreme online discourse has leaked into society as a whole. If you haven’t seen David Baddiel’s excellent documentary on the BBC then check it out in iPlayer here.]

There’s an old cliché that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, but it’s a cliché because it’s true, of course. And on much smaller levels we all have it in our own lives.

As I say, I’ve never invented an atomic bomb, but I have been so desparate to avoid having to make people redundant that I ended up making things worse in the long run. I have allowed loyalty and hope to cloud my judgment. I have had times when the utopian working environment I was aiming for looked more like a sweatshop. I have tried to make someone laugh with a joke that actually made them cry. I have tried to hold everyhing together for everyone else and ended up forgetting myself. It”s no bomb, but I can learn from my “what have I done?” moments anyway.

You’re not Dr Oppenheimer either. But imagine for a second that you could undo the thing you did that’s put you in the situation you never planned for and don’t want to be in right now. Compare that to inventing the atomic bomb. One thing can’t be undone, but I wonder if the thing you’re thinking of can?

If it can, fix it. It doesn’t matter how, although I can give you some tips on a good sorry I wrote earlier here.

If you can’t, then don’t push it away and deny it, like the good doctor. But don’t carry it with you either like a stone in your shoe. We all make mistakes, even when the intentions are good. Instead just acknowledge, learn, and move forward.

It’s not about what you’ve done. Because there isn’t a damn thing you can do about that. It’s about what you’re going to do next which makes things better.

So go. Do that.

Now, more than ever…

Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.

My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).

but now, more than ever, in these uncertain times etc etc

Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.

[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]

So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.

Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.

It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.

“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.

No. No, you don’t.

No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]

And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.

But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.

How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.

So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?

Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.

Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.

And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.

With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.

And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.

None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.

Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.

People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.

That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.

Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.

[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]