When the systems that we work (and live) within fail us, and leaders engage in conduct which is, at best misguided, or at worst, corrupt, we have choices on how to respond.
We can become perpetually fearful, focused on whether (or when) everything we value will collapse around us, dreading the future and feeling paralyzed in the present.
We can become apathetic, disengaging from that which makes us fearful. We can pretend that all is well when we know it is not. There are many pressures at work and in life to occupy our time and attention to distract us from thinking about the systems that form the context for our daily lives.
We can become cynical toward leaders and about the systems that fail to live up to our expectations.
Given these choices, I’d like to make the case for cynics.
Cynics are not naive about human nature. They are skeptical about people’s motives and institutional integrity. Cynics are not afraid to speak up, often through sarcasm and rebellion, when things go awry.
As a manager, I learned not to be afraid of cynics who reported to me. In fact, I even recruited a few. Cynics are difficult. They are critical, often negative, sometimes angry, and challenge leaders, sometimes publicly. They constantly test a leader’s sincerity and truthfulness. They do not tolerate hypocrisy or corruption in people of the structures around them.
Cynics also are almost always right. We need to listen to them. Usually, underneath cynical criticism and sarcasm is something rather remarkable—idealism. I have found that most cynics are frustrated idealists who live in the tension between what is and what could be.
Cynics may have traded optimism for pessimism and hope for anger, but they have not abandoned the ideals or the principles that guide their thinking. You cannot be a cynic if you don’t think we can and should do better. If leaders can find a way to inspire hope and optimism for a brighter future, and gain their trust, which is painstakingly slow, cynics will become our moral leaders, but only if we listen.
If you know any cynics, instead of being frustrated by their complaining, ask them to share their ideas about how to improve the current state. Ask them about their ideals and principles and why they hold them. Listen to them and do what you can join them in their ideals and support their ideas for improvement.