I’ve always loved the practice of harm reduction in public health work. The concept is, rather than ask or expect people to change, we recognize that they are going to do the things that they are going to do, and so we put practices in place that at the very least will help people to not do more harm to themselves than necessary. To illustrate an example, drug users are a common group in which the harm reduction model is used, where organizations not only offer resources to help people stop using drugs, they also recognize that while people are using, it’s important to provide things like clean needles and safe spaces to reduce any further harm.
I find that I have been generally dogmatic in my opinions around what I expect the world and people to be. I believe that people should be more discerning, caring, human-centered, insert myriad other words to describe conscious and compassionate living practices. I believe that companies should be more responsible to their employees, in their supply chains, and to the environment. I believe that government’s predominant purpose should be to set a level playing field for all of its citizens so that every person has the opportunity to achieve greatness without systemic and institutional obstacles in their way.
But what purpose does rose-colored glasses of idealism really serve? The world isn’t going to change overnight, and many will even argue that it shouldn’t. So all you are left with is judgment and disappointment that soon slips into cynicism and jadedness. To be a great leader, you must meet the world where it is at. Like the practice of harm reduction, recognizing the steps, however small, and however long they take, even if it means just keeping the status quo in order to avoid any further harm, is an important part of the change process. It’s not holding people to your sometimes righteous and unreasonably high standards, even if those standards come from the genuinely good place of wanting the world to be better than it is. It is understanding why things function the way they do, and however frustrating and sometimes painful, it is pandering to those ways, even if you disagree with them, so that you will be able to start to move the needle.
Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out, micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.
As a caveat and a confession, as practical as this all sounds, writing this was hard for me, because I feel that so much does need to change now and that not making those changes immediately has profound and deleterious effects on people’s lives and wellbeing, and the revolutionary in me sometimes feels like all of this is just a fancy excuse for conceding or giving up. But in marrying the fantasy with the practical, I realize that to be a successful leader in these complex times, we need to be well versed in reality, recognizing there are many players with many stakes, that at many times are at odds with one another, and to be productive and effective we need work within it’s confines, rather than without, to successfully make the change we want to see.