In an era of disruption, with politics fuelling managed adaptive decline rather than empowering a new future ..who will lead?
I wonder if our political leaders really understand that? More importantly, are they willing and competent to develop the approaches required as politicians to actually lead in such an environment? Based on recent events, maybe not?
Brexit, Trump, Duterte, LePen, Hofer and of course the recent Australian election all point to politics unable to do its job in democracies impacted by disruptive change. So, what is the issue?
We aren’t all secure in the ‘new future’
Disruption is messy and in its current incarnation is driving greater change at a faster rate than many humans can deal with. New complexities stifle what once appeared simple and give way to uncertainty and confusion until the potential of the future sounds too far removed from the perceived sanctuary and sanctity of the past.
Forced immigration at a global scale. Perceived loss of national identify and culture. Growing social unrest. Radical terrorism. All of these global issues add fuel to the fire of the belief that something isn’t right with the promise of the ‘new future’.
Add to this the current and emerging loss of stable employment. The increasing casualisation of the workforce. Emerging automation – even of white collar work. Education systems unable to keep pace with change. The teaching of outdated skills. The spilling of unemployable graduates onto the street, without hope of work commensurate to their years of study and the qualification they have earned, and a big debt. The hollowing out of the middle classes – that bastion of growth and the inspiration for those wanting to do better than their forebears. Bring all of this together, and more … and you have the prospect of a perfect storm of disillusion and dysfunction.
In this environment the confused and disaffected are urged to join a clarion call to innovation, entrepreneurship and technological salvation. A message that inspires people secure in their position to leverage such opportunity, but falls on deaf ears for people who aren’t.
Those with some sense of what is happening and can see the positive side of disruption have a right to feel that these are exciting times. But not all have that understanding and too many are left feeling alienated when opportunistic views of change are espoused.
For those who are dispossessed, this simply feels like a hollow attempt to shine a positive light on a losing, if not already lost, cause.
Those that are embracing change and feeling disruption-ready may not understand the thinking of the disheartened and disillusioned – and vice versa. The numbers in each camp vary from place to place but irrespective of who has the balance of power, it is the people’s politicians who must play a critical role in these times. However, if the handling of Brexit and the rise of Trump are any indication, we shouldn’t be holding our collective breath while waiting for that.
No one could possibly have all of the answers for what to do when dealing with disruption. But we can make a start by understanding key parts of the human condition as typical responses to these types of environments.
Tune in and drop out, or …?
When disruptive change emerges and impacts our core values, needs, wants and beliefs, people generally choose, consciously or otherwise, one (or more) of five ways to respond. They:
- Opt out and choose to be oblivious to all news of change. Information dumb down rules and reality TV or life as a hermit becomes their norm. They engage with fantasies pedalled by extreme mainstream media. Or they tune-out all together in the hope that the world will re-emerge into something that hasn’t left them behind.
b. Understand but choose to ignore or deny that change is happening. This is the proverbial ‘head in the sand’ response to change. Politicians usually make a meal of this group when they use the fear of change to create or hold power. Think climate change, adoption of non-fossil fuel energy and closed borders.
c. Retreat back to the past, do what they thought worked then, and do it harder. The proponents of this response over simplify the best way forward by talking up how great life was in the past. This paints an unrealisable picture, that provides an illusion of a return to stable ground. Think ‘Make America Great Again’, Brexit leavers and a political campaign that shouts “jobs, security and growth” without genuine substance or plan. Another great stomping ground for politicians eager to win votes and hold power despite knowing that they don’t know what to do.
d. Promote unrealistic options for dealing with change. ‘Ban corporations’, ‘immediately stop driving motor cars’, ‘local food only’. Ok. Let’s all move to Mars, too. This is the territory of many sustainability junkies who oversimplify the incredibly complex task of ensuring planetary reliability and resilience while also maintaining social and economic stability that will provide people a pathway through change.
e. Think ahead of change, embrace and work with complexity and use the change that is already happening to create a new, desired future. Unfortunately, there are not enough examples (yet) to provide, but consider some aspects of Scandinavia and its preparation of citizens to take on their future social, economic and environmental agenda. Add to that Steve Jobs and Richard Branson and their unique way of leveraging disruption and others who are taking advantage of change by bringing new business models to bear on disruptive challenges and opportunities.
Going MAD is not an option!
The choice of alternatives, from “a” to “d” can produce short-lived pluses but any immediate gains are usually just masking Managed Adaptive Decline (MAD). MAD occurs when any type of organisation (community, business, government or country) fails to handle disruptive change and falls foul of declining conditions – in what appears to be a politically correct and very well-managed manner. Unfortunately, MAD is the road most travelled by those who fail to grasp change and use it to build a desired future.
MAD is an insidious spiralling decline that occurs exponentially through a long beginning to a shock outcome.
Although it may appear unpalatable to those who prefer “a” to “d”, the only valid choice is “e”. The “e” option will often appear counter-intuitive and present initial paradox and confusion. It does demand experiencing a steep learning curve and will more than likely generate failure as a precursor to success until the new complexities are understood, embraced and leveraged. The agrarian and industrial revolutions, though played out over a much longer period of time than today’s hyper-speed disruptions, are evidence of pain before progress and an outcome generally better than the past.
Those that take on the role of embracing disruption need to understand that it can’t be done in a way that divides people. Those on the far right and far left of the debate – the ‘wingnuts’ – who run divisive and conflict driven campaigns pushing ideological futures are not the answer, and ultimately may not survive. We’ve seen it before, they rarely have. Think Nazi Germany, Apartheid, Communist USSR and Russia, segregation in the US and the alliances against marriage equality and many more.
Without doubt, maintaining social cohesion and a sense of stability during the transition from the past to the future is the hardest task and the most important goal. If this is not kept squarely in view, economies collapse and add to the burden of change.
By now you are more than likely thinking “This is all a tall order for government.” And, “Aren’t they a key source of the disruption we face?” Especially when most democracies are controlled by the political ‘wingnuts’ with both the left and right side of politics using the impact of disruption and the five human responses to gain and hold their own power, rather than empower people.
You’re probably right. Hence, I think if we rely on government we could all go MAD!
A new force for leading change?
Sure government has to and will play their role. But there is also a role for innovators, investors, employers, entrepreneurs and individuals willing to take on a new enterprise mindset, leverage disruption and lead the way through disruptive times.
The challenge will be – how to bring people of all views and agendas along on the journey? Leaving large elements of our communities behind will not only not be an option, but could stifle future success. One key objectives that this mindset must deliver is an equitable economy for all – a key part of any society.
I propose that we all think about that enterprise mindset as something like:
- Understanding disruption, seeing it as a tailwind and leveraging it ahead of change.
- Focussing on growth through achieving a mix of value generation where social outcomes and a healthy planet are treated equally as valuable as financial gain.
- Selling services and products based on value-adding social health and wealth, rather than on fear and insecurity.
- Training people for satisfying and productive work and providing opportunities that generate upward mobility, wealth creation and the ability to leave a legacy for family and community.
- Being vigilante of those falling into the trap of a. to d. and helping them to explore and work through e.
- Bringing people with you – remembering that we are all in this together.
The list may not be complete, so … what do you think?