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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Public Leadership and Management

Navigating the “Existential Vacuum:” Practical Strategies to Achieve Meaningful Leadership

In Viktor Frankl’s bestselling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he writes, in the context of the post-war era: the existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.” The vacuum itself is described as a state of meaninglessness, in which a person does not know exactly what they want, or what they want to do. As Frankl writes, “no instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.”

According to Frankl, this existential vacuum is the result of two factors, to which Frankl refers as a “two-fold loss.” The first factor is, perhaps, more straightforward: a loss of basic “animal instincts” that were left behind as humanity developed. The second factor is a more recent development: the loss of traditions and social structures that previously helped to define human choice and attitudes.

One example of this could be the influence of religion. Research indicates that the majority of countries are becoming less religious, and today’s generations are likely to experience a decline in religious influence when compared to previous years.

Another example could be found in social expectations. Traditional career paths and family structures are less predictable and often less desirable, and job tenure is shorter, more flexible, and less committed.

A final example is seen in automation; the rise of progressive technological developments that threaten previous ways of working and living. And the result? From Frankl’s perspective, at least: an advantage (more leisure, freedom, and autonomy), but also a loss (a potential sense of meaninglessness, or an inability to make clear choices about what lies ahead).

When it comes to the topic of leadership, even amid the existential vacuum, there may be an opportunity. Where social structures and expectations might fall away – or decline in power – a space may emerge in which new voices and suggestions can be heard. Leaders of organizations, communities, and interest groups who are led by purpose are well-positioned to fill this gap. And if they are able to do so with intention, delivering innovations and creative solutions that reflect the values and preferences of those they serve, such leaders may be able to navigate the existential vacuum in a way that offers structure, support, and a potential source of meaning.

On a practical level, then, how could this be achieved?

First, meaningful leadership will call for a strong dialogue between leaders and communities. Research from Harvard Business School discussed a model of “organizational conversation,” drawing on four main elements: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. The elements were manifested in a variety of practical ways, including close listening relationships, involvement, and clarity of agenda. On a practical level, these elements could be introduced into a workplace or leadership environment using initiatives such as mentoring schemes or roundtable feedback discussions, enabling a mutual dialogue between leaders and their community.

Second, meaningful leadership will be required to confront and respond to the existential challenges raised by digitalization (in particular, AI). A White House study published in 2022 noted the likelihood of employee disruption as AI reaches the workplace, and emphasised the importance of making investments in long-term training and development. As a result, meaningful leadership will require leaders to look to the future, anticipating disruption, and establishing structures to support individuals through a period of existential reorientation. This might involve, for example, providing opportunities for employees to retrain, upskill, or master new tools.

Third, meaningful leadership will need to balance structure and support with freedom and space. In the field of Existential Analysis (an area of psychotherapy founded by Dr. Alfried Längle, prioritizing an integrated method to find meaning and fulfillment), three conditions – protection, space, and support – are regarded as supporting the fundamental question of existence: I am, but can I be? In other words, finding a sense of protection, space, and support can allow individuals to develop trust in the world, preventing or counteracting feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and fear. For leaders, protection, space, and support can be incorporated as priorities when dealing with periods of organizational change; for example, giving employees a sense of job security (protection), enough autonomy to perform their tasks (space), and a structured way to raise any concerns or issues (support).

For today’s leaders who are able and willing to rise to the challenge, to answer the call for meaningful leadership, and to navigate the evolving nature of the environment, there are countless opportunities to cultivate. These opportunities are, of course, not solely leadership challenges, but extend into personal, human and existential questions. For the leaders who recognise and respond to this, the rewards – both in terms of practical impact and personal fulfilment – will be significant.

Photo credit: Luca Bravo via Unsplash