Staying calm is good. Carrying on in the middle of a crisis - not so much.
When it began to gain prominence in North America, I, like everyone else though “Keep Calm and Carry On” was cool. I didn’t regard it as a mind-blowing advice, but it had a retro look and some kitsch to it.
Now… three years on, I’m telling clients to think twice before adopting "Keep Calm" when designing change and improvement slogans. At best it's overused... at worst it's harmful and counter productive. Leave it out of your HR and Change Management campaigns – and, do not promote it as a virtuous leadership behaviour.
An Opiate for the Masses
“Keep Calm and Blankity Blank” statements are being overused by shortsighted leaders trying to forward their own agendas, to the point of nausea. The meme is applied like a salve to “sooth” the masses while asking them to do something. The medium is the message, and this medium implies it should be done without question – unfairly making it an issue of loyalty and stoicism.
Consider Not Using the Original
When it comes to the original statement “Keep Calm and Carry On” I want you to consider that this advice is harmful to a high-performance culture.
King George and the British Government released the original in 1939 as they braced for war and the terror of bombings that would surely follow. It was designed to raise the morale of its citizens under a constant threat of attack (hardly the trite "do as we say" applications of today).
According to historian David Johnson even the British government had second thoughts and the posters were not actually seen by many. "During the war, the British population had shown a genuine aversion to cheery posters, finding them patronising, so most of the “Keep calm” production run was pulped, and the few that survived were not displayed."
Keeping your wits about you is indeed important, and a critical element of success. But staying “calm” and “carrying on” in the middle of a crisis when you should step-up and declare your commitment to do better, is inexcusable. The notion that there is some over-riding nobility to merely carrying on is stifling to communication, innovation and continuous improvement.
“Carry On” is appropriate when you want someone to keep their head down, work, and maintain the status quo - advice rarely offered by good leaders. If you’re asking employees to unite and improve in the face of adversity, despite budget cuts, market shifts, recession, merger or acquisition, reorganization, surely we should be asking them to get passionate, get busy, get creative, ask questions, fight the status quo, and have a healthy disrespect for authority, past assumptions and sacred cows.
I live at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Here, if confronted by a bear, you have two choices: play dead, cover the back of your neck and hope it just takes a limb; or, get big, get loud, throw rocks, swing sticks and take yourself off the menu. I’ve been face to face with a bear on more than one occasion. I’m still here, all limbs intact… and I’ve never opted to play dead.
We all have a choice when and where we make a difference.
Things change for the better because someone does something different. The real heroes are seldom the ones getting the credit, and the most influential choices are often small first steps... made by many.
Imagine for a moment if Luke Skywalker had chosen to stay on Tatooine... keeping calm and carrying on:
Princess Leia Organa: Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.
Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi: [to Luke] You must learn the ways of the Force, if you're to come with me to Alderaan.
Luke Skywalker: Alderaan? I'm not going to Alderaan, I've gotta get home, it's late, I'm in for it as it is!
Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.
Luke Skywalker: Look, I can't get involved. I've got work to do. It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now... It's all such a long way from here.
Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi: That's your uncle talking.
No progress comes from blindly accepting the status quo.
Promoting a “Keep Calm and Carry On” approach in business is dangerous. It reinforces employee helplessness and contributes to the rising complacency infecting teams across the globe. We need employees to be a force for change.
Take that “Keep Calm” poster out of your office, refuse to merely “carry on” with the status quo, get clear on what success looks like, then get fired up and get busy.
May the Force be with you.
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