“The most important task today is, perhaps to learn to think in a new way.”
(Gregory Bateson (1972:462)
We live in a time when our collective human actions are putting the very existence of our species at threat, but also a time when we have the potential to destroy most of the living world of this planet along with our own species. Tim Smit the founder of the Eden Project for sustaining biosphere diversity opened a speech to the UK Institute of Directors with the line: “The next thirty years are possibly the most exciting time to be alive in the whole of human history. For in that time we will either discover if we deserve the title Homo Sapiens, or we will all fry.” (Smit 2019).
Reg Revans the founder of “Action Learning” (Revans 1982) often used the powerful formula L= E.C. (Learning must equal or be greater than the rate of the environmental change) as a way of awakening those who would listen to the Darwinian law of organisational survival. It is only through learning in relation to the contexts we find ourselves in that individual, teams, organisations or species co-evolve, flourish and survive. Bateson (1972), a contemporary of Revans, would also point out to those that would listen the problems we have created by choosing the wrong unit of survival.
In accordance with the general climate of thinking in mid nineteenth century England, Darwin proposed a theory of natural selection and evolution, in which the unit of survival was either the family line or species or sub-species or something of that sort. But today it is quite obvious that this is not the unit of survival in the real biological world. The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism that destroys its environment destroys itself.
Charles Darwin, unlike his popularist acolyte, the deterministic Herbert Spencer, did not advocate the survival of the fittest, or as it is often misunderstood the survival of the strongest, but the talked about the most adaptable.
If we really understand the implications of these two radical and prescient thinkers of the 20th century Bateson and Revans, we have to realise there is no such thing as a great leader, high performing team, excellent organisation and that you cannot save species. Survival and flourishing is always, but always, relational between any organism or system and its environmental niche. A species does not evolve, there is only co-evolution between a species and its ecological habitat. The species does not just adapt to its ecological habitat it also changes it – the niche and the niched are constantly co-creating each other and the learning is mutual.
In 2005 Thomas Friedman wrote a ground breaking book called “Hot Flat and Crowded” about how the world was facing global warming (“hot”), where knowledge was becoming available everywhere to everyone through the internet (“flat”) and the world’s population was growing exponentially (“crowded”) – trebling in my own lifetime from 2.4 billion when I was born in 1950 to 7.35 billion today. Recently he wrote in the Huffington Post.
“When I said the world is flat, Facebook didn’t exist. Or for most people it didn’t exist. Twitter was a sound. The Cloud was in the sky. 4G was a parking place. LinkedIn was a prison. Applications were something you sent to college. And for most people, Skype was a typo. That all happened in the last seven years. And what is has done is taken the world from connected to hyper-connected. And that’s been a huge opportunity and a huge challenge.”
Thomas Friedman (2012)
It is estimated that we now discover as much in 14 years as it took the whole of the 20th century and this will be equalled in the next 7 years. But as Pascal wrote, “knowledge is like a sphere the greater its volume, the greater its contact with the unknown.”
As humans we have not just increased knowledge, but even faster accelerated complexity through the rapid growth of interdependency. For millennia, human beings have discovered how to flourish in localized niches. Now we have created a world of one inter-dependent globalized niche, through the growth of the internet, social media, virtual communication, cheap fast air travel, the trebling of the human population in one person’s lifetime, mass migration, global trade and inter-connected financial markets and the unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s resources, As yet we have no idea how to flourish as an inter-dependent species in this one global niche. But we are aware of some of the challenges that it presents.
Many writers and thinkers have shown how we need to learn how to live in a VUCA world – that is Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous (Stiehm 2010). Yet social psychology shows us we crave certainty and predictability and can dive into either ‘wilful blindness’, (Heffernan 2011) or dependency on trumped up authority (Genovese 2016), or ‘groupthink’ (Janis 1982) and collective delusion, as possible havens from the unpredictable and ambiguous.
Learning to thrive in this VUCA inter-dependent global niche, will not emerge from either the dualistic, individualistic, scientific rationalism of post enlightenment western thinking, nor from the harmony striving, collectivist thinking of the Chinese, nor from the tribal waring, tradition defending and enemy fixated thinking that characterizes many parts of Africa and fundamentalist Islam. We cannot address the complex challenges of our time with the thinking and being that have created them.
Currently I am engaged in several linked but separate research inquiries. The first I am leading jointly with Giles Hutchins author of several books such as “The Nature of Business”; The Illusion of Separation” and “Fit for the Future”. Together we are exploring “The acceleration of the evolution of human consciousness. A write up of our first inquiry group with leading thinkers, writers and activists in the fields of sustainability, spirituality and individual and organisational transformation is now available on renewalassociates.co.uk/renewal-foundation. The second inquiry group has just happened and was a very exciting and lively hackathon with Millennials (under 35) who are involved in innovating in the field of communications, social media and other media. In time the output of this will appear on the same website.
This research is sending me back to inquire into the nature of Human Consciousness – a very contested area which is sometimes referred to as the hard problem in philosophy. I am seeking guidance from among others, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, David Griffin, Neuro Scientists, Gregory Bateson, David Chambers and many of the great mystical scientists and non-dual phenomenologists of Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity and Adviata Hinduism.
The third area of study is on “Tomorrow’s Leadership’s and how we need to radically transform Today’s Leadership development.” I am leading this research as part of my professorial role at Henley Business School with research partners in many parts of the world. We are interviewing CEOs, HR Directors and Millennial leaders of tomorrow to discover how they leadership changing and what they think leadership development is doing and needs to do different.
As part of this work has come the realisation that leadership does not reside in leaders, but is a process that is co-created between a need in the world that requires a collaborative response from leaders and followers, who might constantly interchange roles. That it is therefore not possible to carry out leadership development with individuals in a classroom, or a coaching client in an individual coaching session.
Professor Michael Genovese, President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University in the USA, writes:
Can we prepare the leaders of tomorrow for the change of tomorrow? We have no choice but to try? (Genovese 2016:1).
I hope in a small way the research projects with Henley Business School and Renewal Foundation will make a small but significant contribution to this urgent endeavour.
Bateson, G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books, New York
Friedman, F. (2012) ‘On Connected to Hyper-connected’ Huffington Post 28 September http://huff’to/1CNx3HW, accessed March 30 2016
Genovese, M.A. (2016) The Future of Leadership: Leveraging Influence in an Age of Hyper-Change. Routledge: New York
Heffernan, M (2011) Wilful Blindness: How we ignore the obvious at our peril, Simon and Schuster, London
Janis, I (1982) Groupthink, 2nd edn, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston
Pascal, B. (1941 edition) Pensees. New York: Random House
Revans, R. W. (1982). The Origins and Growth of Action Learning. London, UK: Chartwell-Bratt, Bromley & Lund.
Smit, T (2009) Talk at the IOD Annual Convention 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v0g74Yu9nQ (accessed April 19th 2016)
Stiehm, J.H. (2010) US Army War College: Military Education in Democracy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.