by Dan Gregory & Kieran Flanagan
Originally published with The CEO Magazine
The self-help industry and the associated cult of positivity often leave us with an incomplete picture of the environment we find ourselves in. We end up seeing only opportunity without risk and end up relying on hope as a strategy.
But just as crucially, this partial view of reality robs us of the positive potential that negative influences can exert on us.
The story of the aging executive who suffers a heart attack only to turn their lives around and become a health enthusiast is almost cliché, and yet it’s an important reminder that bad news isn’t always bad for us.
It’s also indicative of how our enemies can define our vision and mission as much as our noble ambitions.
Of course, when we talk about enemies, these needn’t be individuals or even people at all. In business, our enemies might be outdated beliefs, unproductive behaviors, the tyranny of a monopolistic category or even the outrageous mistreatment of shared customers. Enemies need only be something that we collectively want to change.
A clearly defined enemy can often be more motivating that a less tangible but positively phrased mission statement. In fact, the need to create change in the world points to the fact that something that already exists is undesirable.
It’s also important in terms of how we build organizational culture. Few things incite human tribalism as viscerally as a shared enemy and this is because it aligns so well with human nature. As much as we would like to believe that we are defined mostly by carrots and only rarely by sticks, this flies in the face of our evolution as a species. Our survival brain is far more driven to avoid risk than it is to gain advantage and this still drives much of our decision-making.
However, rather than being seen as something dark in our natures that needs changing, we would do better to understand this innate desire and to align it with our greater purpose.
Defining your enemy:
- Understand the change you wish to create – If your goal is to make your service more affordable, it’s useful to frame this as fighting against high prices. If you’re driven by the desire to democratize your category, making your product available to everyone, then fight exclusivity and category snobbery. Freedom, for example, makes a lot more sense when defined alongside slavery or autocracy.
- Be clear that it’s a fight your customers want you to have – This is incredibly important. No one will thank you for picking a fight with an underdog, however, challenging a bully is in everyone’s interest.
- Be clear about the rules of engagement – In other words, establish clear rules about what is appropriate behavior in the way your staff talk about their enemy and just as importantly think about it.
- Use the scale of your enemy as leverage – The larger the change you are seeking to achieve, the more critical your mission, the more important you become in the live for whom you have taken on the fight. David was defined by the fact that he took on Goliath, so too should your enemy be a challenger worth taking on.