The Real Problem

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Ten years ago, when I wrote my third book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, I saw my primary task as helping to shift our thinking about leaders and leading away from the customary notion of individuals with inspiring visions using their status and authority to forge change, to a far more egalitarian notion of people engaging in a rich experience of mindful collaboration, where diverse contributions are all essential and equally valid.

I linked this explanation of leadership to the theory of social identity – in contrast to more widely accepted theories, such as charismatic and contingency theories, that dominated most academic and developmental descriptions of leadership at the time.

The thought of a crowd doing the bidding of a single leader who possesses some kind of magical aura or unique knowledge, always seemed absurd to me. It still does. Instead we perceived leadership as contextual – set within the burgeoning complexity, exhilarating energy, and daunting issues of a new globalism – but also more inclusive, personal, and consequently engaging.

Little did I realise that our preferred definition of leadership would be even more relevant and necessary today than it was back then. And, though still beyond the boundaries of the establishment, there is no doubt such collaborative approaches to leadership no longer belong at the fringe.

Leadership is the moral impulse to engage in a collaborative experience for improving one or more aspects of what it means to be human.

My personal volition in this context has been to explore deeply the various ways we can and should upgrade our thinking – particularly adopting a prudent balance between facts and beliefs – in order to arrive at new insights and undertake such vital improvements.

My inquiry has been an intellectual journey. This is the reason I have written extensively, helped develop new dialogical methods, designed alternative models, and mentored some of the most amazing people on the planet. It is the rationale for speaking to diverse audiences around the world at every juncture. And it is the motive for working with some of the most innovative thinkers of our time to establish Centre for the Future.

The mission of Centre for the Future is to make the world work for everyone. Our agenda for second-order change – a mindful uprising – has been planned as a transgenerational Earth-scale project to be deployed over 100 years. Yes, that is insanely audacious. But…

The rationale for the work undertaken by Centre for the Future is clear. Sapiens appear to have reached an impassable cognitive threshold. Unable to think ourselves out of today’s problems we increasingly pass these on to the generations that will come after us. Unsure how to create or transcend alternative conditions, we resort to patching up the present by surrendering to what seemed to work in the past.

At the same time, because of increasing complexity in our society and the overwhelming amounts of data available for us to access, we are finding wisdom harder to come by.

Meanwhile the fears and apprehension generated by leaders who are at a loss as to what they should do, particularly in the political sphere, is creating an ethos where beliefs and opinions are an acceptable substitute for facts and knowledge.

The putative challenges of our time – ranging from nuclear proliferation and terrorism to endemic poverty and the effects of climate breakdown – are being treated discretely, with a caution verging on paralysis, little sense of urgency, yet a reckless misunderstanding of the complexity underlying their relationships. These challenges are only the visible signs of a far deeper malaise – one that could threaten civilisation as we know it.

Whether we are talking about the rapid disintegration of the Gupta, Maya, Han, Khmer or Roman empires, there are a number of factors that seem to appear each time a civilisation is headed for disaster. In each case the adaptive capacity of the society is reduced. There is no valid reason we should regard our own civilisation any differently. When increasing complexity generates conditions in which the society finds it almost impossible to think of viable alternatives to the status quo and, as a consequence, defers action indefinitely, we face the possibility of societal collapse.

These days, every day, I see evidence indicating our incapability of thinking our way out of the grave emergencies facing us. Incumbent leaders, progressively out of their depth and slow to act, are generating gridlock. Meanwhile new technologies have become a raison- d’etre, a panacea, rather than an aid to conscious coevolution. As fear, inertia and apathy embed as the real enemy, we must turn to adaptiveness. Not just physical adjustment, but cognitive renewal – the facility to design and adapt to alternative mental models, different epistemes, and unfamiliar practices.

I believe our aim has to be a transformation of the prevailing worldview and the design of a genuinely regenerative culture where the exceptional nature of the human species does not equate to putting ourselves at the centre of everything but, rather, seeing ourselves as a sacred part of Earth’s ecology.

Starting with the reframing of human purpose, cooperative interactions arising from abundance, empathy and inclusion, will need to be designed into every aspect of our lives – from the exercise of power, business and the economy, to governance, learning, production, and community advancement. Ultimately our primary task at Centre for the Future is to turn a vicious monoculture, driven by the prevailing mindsets of scarcity and competition, into virtuous cycles that benefit all the human family.

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