More Misleading Mischief

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Where are today’s political leaders? Why are the current batch of leaders failing to lead? When will we get the kind of moral leadership we need? These are three of the most commonly posed questions about those in government who purport to lead. They also indicate the consternation commonly felt when the leadership we anticipate is absent.

We can assume from these questions that most of us expect our politicians to possess the capacity to catalyse and direct beneficial change, and that we trust then to work on our behalf rather than pursuing personal ambitions and self-aggrandisement. These are reasonable expectations of anyone seeking and winning public office, one would have thought.

But reasonable expectations often conflict with actual circumstances, and to that extent there is a flaw in our thinking. These kinds of questions arise from two fundamental yet utterly invalid assumptions: that our experience of leadership should be similar each time we encounter it; and that there are those among us who are uniquely equipped to envision and inspire hope, soothe anxieties, and navigate a safe course into the future.

The first assumption originates from two factors. Firstly we are taught that authentic leaders think and act steadfastly in the face of change. We often refer to someone being an anchor in stormy waters, or of being highly principled – meaning that we can rely on the behaviours we observe being consistent regardless of external conditions. Flexibility and adaptiveness are frowned upon. They indcate weakness or indecision. Secondly it arises from an innate desire to minimise the impacts of change. If the world is fixed then our experience of the world should be constant. Of course that is not the case. The world constantly evolves, and dealing with that requires us to adapt. Thus a conflict exists between these two elements, in that our experience of leadership can never be consistent over time. We need to be able to live with flexibility as part of the evolutionary process.

The second assumption is based upon trust – the kind of faith we naively bestow on those individuals we elect to govern us. Sadly such trust is increasingly misplaced. Not because those who enter politics are unethical, stupid, or hungry for power – in fact most are probably honest, decent people, trying to do the best they can – but because the governance system itself is flawed and can only be trusted to give us what it has been designed to deliver.

Complaining about the system’s deficiencies, including the shortcomings of elected representatives or even the predictable apathy shown by the electorate, achieves nothing. If we are unhappy with the output there is no course available other than to redesign the system from first principles. We might reconsider the purpose of the system (perhaps by focusing on international cooperation rather than provincial issues); alter the inputs (by electing new candidates or finding ways to better inform the voters about policies); or revamp internal processes (such as installing online voting and real-time feedback loops, for example).

From a purely statistical point of view, the major challenges we face result from common cause variation. This is predictable noise within the current system as it has been designed to operate. In other words the most critical issues we face – including corrupt practises, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and disengagement of the community from the political process – result from the system of governance simply being unfit for purpose. It is in direct response to this state of the system, rather than politicians behaving badly, that new forms of governance, including new democracy models, are springing up all around the world.

The issue of identity politics is also a matter of concern of course. In fact it is a major impediment to the maintenance of democratic principles when it results in hagiographic adulation of any one politician or party leader to the extent that it obscures the truth of their activities.[i] But again, that is a common cause, in that the incestuous “deep state” affiliation between politics, business and the corporate media, currently encourages this. Unfortunately this is not the entire story. There are two interwoven aspects of modern politics that can be categorised as special causes.[ii] Outside of any past experience of how democracy operates, and inherently unpredictable, they shine the spotlight firmly on individuals in government.

The first of these two factors relates to the volatile complexity of the external environment in which our elected representatives, their advisers and agencies, are required to work. In any political system this means anticipating and responding to the “unthinkable” (in terms both of their unpredictable nature and unpalatable implications) with policies that are coherent, prudent, yet potentially adaptive.

To be capable of fulfilling these tasks representatives need a profound knowledge of the dynamics causing external conditions to warp and shift, as well as a deep appreciation of the internal operating mechanisms necessary to stay one step ahead of, or at least aligned with, such variation. The term generally given to a mix of profound knowledge and deep appreciation of this nature is strategic intelligence.

The second factor presents us with an intriguing neurological dilemma – one that affects many people in designated leadership positions. Recent research from the University of Southern California proves conclusively that those in power will ignore irrefutable evidence and rational arguments for change if the information provided does not accord with their own beliefs. Essentially the brain’s alarms go off (the individual feeling threatened on a deeply personal level) and then shuts down. Any rational data or scientific evidence that contradicts what he or she holds to be true is disregarded. The study also found that conflicting evidence will generally only increase people’s conviction in their own beliefs.

This phenomenon affects us all to some extent. But it seems to be particularly evident in those who hold public office and possess ideological certitude.[iii] The explanation for this reaction is quite simple. Political beliefs are akin to religious beliefs. Over time individuals become so entrenched in the ideological echo chamber that they defend their sentiments, in the face of irresistible opposition and counter-evidence, especially if they perceive it to be an attack on their identity. Media interrogations aimed at challenging their position or changing their minds will often result in even greater recalcitrance.[iv]

This factor also goes to the core of a peripheral question: whether any of the global forums convened under the pretext of solving the world’s problems actually achieve anything at all, other than acting as a medium for networking and ratifying an unconsciously limited number of entrenched positions. Clearly the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance. Human knowledge and human cooperation both depend upon cognitive and emotional flexibility.

So if more talk, smarter questions (or even dumb questions), statistics and any other kind of evidence, does not result in a change of mind, what will? How can we generate metanoia in the minds of those who refute reason? Is it remotely possible? This brings us back to the matter of strategic intelligence.

Question: When does intelligence become strategic? Answer: When profound knowledge of external dynamics combined with a deep appreciation of the system’s constraints, allows for the development and deployment of the most apposite and desirable strategic options.

So we have surfaced several obvious problems:

  • The global political system, particularly international diplomacy, has become so complex that it is challenging our ability to distinguish and visualise patterns that matter, and to make sense of those patterns as they unfold in terms of conceivable consequences.
  • We live and work in a globally interconnected world littered with news, stories passing as news, rumours, propaganda and distortions of the truth, to the extent that it is difficult to sort fact from fiction. Even when our antennae are fine-tuned and discriminating, there is so much available information that deciding where to look, what to focus on, and what can be safely disregarded for the time being (and for how long in that case) becomes a complicated drama.
  • There is also the excruciating problem of self-awareness to take into account. The sieves each one of us unconsciously use to make meaning of data are a double-edged sword. While they enable us to sort useful information from the inconsequential, they can also filter out material that is not directly congruent with our beliefs, and not vital in the moment or in a particular context. We have already seen how neurological conditioning reinforces beliefs that are held to be true in the face of evidence to the contrary. But there are many other types of sieves – emotional, cognitive, and psychological – that we unconcsiously apply to help us make sense of the surrounding milieu. By their very nature these are distorting lenses as much as mechanisms for setting aside what we believe to be trivia. But it also means we are likely to miss signals that could be important to our understanding of a different context or belief system.
  • Finally, emergent properties are common in complex self-organising systems such as human communities. This means it is often impossible to know what precisely will evolve from a changing set of circumstances, other than to expect, and prepare for, radical novelty and surprise.

Look carefully. A thread linking all these points, if it exists, would enable us to use a single key to unlock a comprehensive solution. Given the nature of the problems itemised it should be fairly clear that we need a new methodology, with a new set of tools, able to upgrade our capacity to deal with complexity. Devoid of new means to generate a change of mind and breakthroughs in our thinking we will, in all probability, remain trapped in this prison of our own invention, out of our depth, forever floundering in the enormity of the mission global politics has become.

Differing versions of a methodological dialogical archetype already exist and are typically used to address complex social and cultural problems. But there is still resistance to their use in situations where they are most needed: political governance and international negotiations. Models such as Otto Scharmer’s Theory U and Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis go a long way to address the issues identified – when appropriately applied. But even then the comprehensive strategic intelligence we are seeking may not be forthcoming.[v]

At Centre for the Future we have taken the solution one step further – combining sensing, making sense, designing and action into a seamless experience we call Wayfinding.[vi] The subtle construction of strategic intelligence is addressed by bringing three distinct learning modes into this encounter:

  1. The capacity to consider unpalatable futures is magnified and explored through the use of Deep Design, a social landscaping foresight technology arising out of an “expanded now” of choices.
  2. Transformational Narrative – a hybrid combination of validated practises from psychotherapy, the use of smart algorithms, and immersive visualisation technologies – is used to liberate the capacity for metanoia and to develop alternative narratives.
  3. Finally, Strategic Navigation extends expert curation of the experience into a continuous process of intelligence feedback loops, evaluation and recalibration, thereby dealing with the core theme of uncertainty.

Although we routinely blame the lack of relevant information to excuse human flaws and mishaps, unseen emotional and cognitive filters are quite often the real culprits behind poor decision-making that can then lead to tragedy. The Challenger space shuttle disaster and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be an illusion, are both examples of how incorrect or inadequate filtering, undermine knowledge, or swing our thinking from common sense to fear-based irrationality.

Wayfinder allows us create an experience that tackles each of the concerns identified above in a coherent, non-confrontational manner. The aim is to open participants’ minds to a forensic exploration of diverse belief systems, viewpoints, values and strategies, and to deploy solutions from moment to moment that best align with changes observed in the environment.

At no time do curators force a conceptual position, or insist upon the special validity (or not) of a specific perspective. The process is more of an invitation to try out different steps in the dance, to discover new tunes and rhythms, to sift through alternative information and narratives, and to change our minds at our own speed and within our own referential space.

For example:

  • The complexity of the system-in-focus (a policy field or defined global issue let us suppose), its dynamics and relationships, is made more palpable by using sophisticated visualisation and simulation techniques within a total immersion environment. This allows participants to “see” kaleidoscopic patterns of direct and indirect causation that would otherwise remain invisible, and to simulate and test alternative system constraints and designs.
  • Transformational Narrative juxtaposes three synchronised processes. These create a neutral environment for dialogue, counteracting any feeling of hostility or challenge to personal identity, allowing instead for a cathartic personal experience and group discovery:
    • The first of these processes guides us from the experiential tangibility of what we can easily feel and hold, through the enigmatic world of philosophy and deeply embedded beliefs, and back into the real world of design and implementation.
    • The second encourages an expansion of present thinking and capabilities – pulling past and future latent states into a coherent “expanded” now of possibility. This is also the realm of strategic foresight where alternative futures can be rehearsed and the likelihood of emergent properties more thoroughly analysed, thereby limiting the potential for totally unseen events to impact and disrupt our plans.
  • Concurrently, perceptive curation invites participants to interrogate their most deeply-held beliefs in a gaming-like environment. Deliberate introduction of novelty, in the form of new information and alternate filters – using techniques like appreciative inquiry and integral questioning – allows for the deconstruction and reconstruction of fresh sets of ideas in a playful composition that can open up different design options.
  • Given the global and intricate nature of modern “deep state” governance issues and agendas, the wayfinding experience ensures that polyocular views are injected at every point in the process. That simply entails welcoming a diversity of authentic mindsets and understandings into the conversation so that solutions are not dominated by prevailing Western orthodoxy, that genuine alternatives are examined, and the truth is more than just a partial defence of the status quo.
  • The problem of “where to look, what to focus on, and what can be safely ignored” is resolved through the use of an acupunctural approach to operational design. Smart algorithms can be employed to crunch through vast amounts of structured and unstructured data in ways that reveal false propositions, misleading statements, and sheer untruths. But this process also locates constraints within the current system where shrewd intervention, in the form of the least disruptive of tiny nudges, can alter or redirect the energy across an entire system.

In summary it is entirely feasible to have our political leaders deal appropriately and competently with contemporary complexity. It is possible for them to come out of the closet that traps many of them in dread of putting a foot wrong. But it is a matter of inclination and learning. In that regard it is vital for them to put aside their certitude in order to adopt different tools to those they carry around day after day and from one meeting to the next. A toolkit that provides them with foresight, fresh insights. flexible minds, and a revitalised impulse for cooperation. One that enables the getting of wisdom, or profound knowledge.

Over the past two years Nik Gowing – who will be known to many of my readers as the previous senior news anchor at BBC World – has been working with his television producer/director colleague Chris Langdon, on a research project called Thinking the Unthinkable. Conducting in-depth interviews with a few hundred of the most influential officeholders across all sectors of the community around the world, Nik and Chris have exposed what is best described as the psychological persona of this global community. The results are astonishing but also alarming.

Candid, mostly off-the-record, testimonies reveal a shared state of anxiety, bewilderment and fear, all fuelled by uncertainties in the global environment. The very people who appear so comfortable and in control in front of the cameras, who wield such power in the full glare of the public eye, are privately scared, confused, and in denial – overwhelmed by the scale and speed of change to the established order they did not see coming.

The insights I gained from reading the Thinking the Unthinkable report totally coincide with concerns expressed by the authors. Their main conclusion is an unfortunate paradox: most leaders are reluctant to accept that the conformity qualifying individuals for top executive office by and large disqualifies them from appreciating the enormity of the threats facing them.

Like them I am not convinced by the argument that a recalibration of the current system alone will serve to alleviate the pressures, or to create a new normal, which many still expect to appear on the horizon at some stage. It will take much more than that. We must remember those two special causes. Creating strategic intelligence as a vital step towards wiser action. And the vexing question of neurological resistance to unorthodox beliefs.

Ironically, given all that I am known for in terms of advocating leadership as an emergent process of collaboration for improving one or more aspects of the human condition, a viable starting point seems to point to the mythical path of the individual hero’s journey. Calling for whole-system change in the context of the existential threats facing humanity will entail immense personal resilience from those called to lead. Courage is needed in order to overcome threats to reputation and status. Honesty is the only force that will subjugate lies and propaganda. Humility will be essential in accepting the need for learning new skills. Flexibility, and a sense of urgency too, will be mandatory if collaborative action is to succeed. An entrepreneurial approach to risk will be vital so as to sever the chains of convention. A certain candour, even fragility, would also serve to enable those other qualities to embed.

This is an invitation few will take up. A very small number of incumbent leaders have these qualities. Even fewer, if the report from Nik and Chris is even marginally close to being an accurate reflection of the current state, will be prepared to set aside pride in order to cultivate them. It is tantamount to asking each and every one of them to transform by crafting a more empathic version of themselves.

But dealing with these issues, in conjunction with reinventing the systems that keep everything neatly in place, is vital. In the grand scheme of things, the only meaningful risk is the threat to human civilisation.


I am deeply indebted to Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon for sharing an early version of their report with me in confidence and for allowing me to elaborate on their findings in terms of possible solutions to the issues they have raised. This in no way implies that they endorse the views I have expressed here.

It will be clear to those versed in complex systems theory that I am drawing on the work of Shewhart and Deming as the basis for my analysis of the complexity within systems of state governance. In spite of recent criticisms, many justified, regarding incorrect interpretations of system dynamics being used to provide solutions for complex problems, I find the source theories uniquely insightful and practical and make no apology for resorting to these as the basis for accessing what Dr Demic referred to as profound knowledge.


[i] I have in mind here the sycophantic worship of Barack Obama who, adept at using his undoubted charm, rhetoric skills, and media presence, extended secret “special forces” operations to 138 countries, and set new lows in foreign slaughter, all under the guise of an unabashed belief in US exceptionalism.

[ii] Whereas common causes are predictable variations within the system as it has been designed to operate, special causes are new, unanticipated, unwanted, emergent or previously neglected phenomena that are inherently unpredictable. It is generally accepted that less that 20 per cent of problems will arise from special causes.

[iii] A recent example in Australian politics concerns Malcolm Roberts, an ultra-conservative One Nation senator and climate change sceptic. When confronted with indisputable data from NASA and CSIRO, he discounted both sources, rationalising his own position by branding global warming as a UN-inspired hoax to introduce a socialist New World Order.

[iv] I have deliberately refrained from adding the element of stupidity into this mix. Although stupidity coupled with ignorance creates incendiary conditions, nominating an individual politician as stupid or ignorant actually achieves very little apart from intensifying emotional anxiety, alienating the individual concerned, and polarising public opinion – none of which are helpful in improving the architecture of the governance system in focus.

[v] Theory U proposes that the quality of the results we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from.  Causal Layered Analysis is a futures research method whose primary utility is in creating transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures. Causal layered analysis consists of four levels: the litany, social causes, discourse/worldview and myth/metaphor. The challenge is to conduct research that moves up and down these layers of analysis and thus is inclusive of different ways of knowing.

[vi] In this instance the term wayfinding refers to the ancient art of orientation and navigation used by the master navigators of the South Pacific ocean. The “priestly” knowledge of wayfinding allowed the natives of the Polynesian islands to travel over vast distances on the oceans using only the sounds and sights of nature to guide them.

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