The assembly line at Ford’s Highland Park Plant, 1914 (Source)
Seven principles and an open invitation (Part One of Three)
By Intersticia Advisor Ibrahim El Badawi
A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be the guest of an online “meet and greet” session with the Intersticia’s community, shortly after joining this global community as an Advisor.
The closed Zoom meetup was in the form of an informal conversation hosted brilliantly by Jacquie Crock, whose questions covered various topics, from innovation and digital transformation to Sufism and many rich topics in between, as you can imagine. This diversity (and randomness!) was probably due to the Ask Me Anything (AMA) nature of the conversation, my career journey, and geography. I zoomed in from Sydney, Australia, but I was born in Sudan, which means diversity is a natural fate I couldn’t escape. Rather, a privilege I had to learn to appreciate. Sudan is where Asia meets Africa, Arabian Bedouins meet African Dinkas, where the Blue Nile and the White Niles merge, and where the great Nile emerges. This horizontal mix might be the platform that enabled my vertical career journey. At one point, I was a computer scientist coding in Assembly, and just yesterday I moderated a global virtual lab on public policy with public sector officials from Sydney to New York to Marrakech.
In line with my role and Intersticia’s mission to develop and support emerging leaders for the Twenty First Century, a subtle theme of the conversation was to share my thoughts and lessons that could be a source of inspiration for young fellows who represent the heart of Intersticia’s community.
The energy I felt in the virtual room made me reflect on the conversation we had, and encouraged me to share my thoughts in a structured open way with you, young aspiring leaders, whether you’re part of Instersticia’s community or not, and anyone passionate about the same mission.
Perhaps you agree with me that the ongoing pandemic and its cumulative burden on our societies, in addition to the recent footage from Kabul and the White House, make it timely to talk about the leadership crisis that our world is experiencing.
In this article and in two more to follow, I share with you seven principles that I consider essential for young aspiring leaders to consider while navigating their path in the 21st century and preparing to lead others. Needless to say, I am not sharing these principles as an inclusive list, nor am I talking to you in any way from a superior position. Rather, these are lessons I have learned through my ups and downs in the past phases of my professional and personal journey.
And because I am learning and growing myself, I will dedicate the third article to invite you to a conversation around the meaning of leadership in the 21st century.
Here are my three first principles for leading a life in the twenty-first century.
Principle #1: Remember that almost everything in your life was decided by someone
There is a good chance that you are reading these words at the moment while you are in lockdown in your place, or carrying your mask and worrying about staying 1.5 meters away from the people around you! Right?
Simply because someone has decided that this is how you should work, study and live your life in this pandemic.
As it turns out, many of us actually enjoy this and prefer to continue living this way even when the pandemic is over. According to a Harvard study that surveyed around 1,500 professionals working remotely over the past year, 81% either don’t want to fully return to the office or would prefer a type of “hybrid” schedule going forward.
This landslide vote is not a surprise given the enormous economic, social, environmental and other benefits of remote work, as most of us have experienced in the last year.
But this should make us wonder: if remote work is so awesome, why had we spent the decades before the pandemic commuting to the office or school every day?
Again, the answer is the same: mainly because someone had decided it for us.
Everything in life follows suit. Aside from gravity and other natural facts, everything you can see around you is probably the result of someone’s imagination, vision and action.
You can look around you right now. Notice the knob of your room door, the car across the street and the digital device on which you are reading this article. This principle transcends physical objects to laws, regulations, traditions and ideas that govern your society.
It is a simple fact of the system in which we live, but significant enough to make you rethink your life outlook.
I realised this vividly for the first time when I watched this short video of Steve Jobs, and I watch it every now and then to remind myself of this principle:
Principle #2: This system has missed some major updates
Steve Jobs, however, did not point out another important reality about the design of our world, at least not in this video. Many parts of the system in which we live today were originally designed in the 20th century or earlier.
Since then, the world has been through many changes, and the system has had to be regularly updated to accommodate these changes. But the system has missed many of these updates, and some of them are major ones!
This is a flaw in the system.
Depending on what changes have been missed and where you live in the world, this flaw could manifest itself in different ways. However, some changes are universal, including the invention of the Internet (and the Web) and now COVID.
As I said earlier, it was a non-negotiable fact of life until a year ago that we had to commute daily to work or study. We can trace the roots of this belief back to the early pioneers of the industrial age, including Henry Ford, who decided that the assembly line of the Model T required workers (all men of course!) to be present in the same location at the same time to do the job.
In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos and others challenged this, and since then we have been using the Internet to order pizza, book vacations, and play video games, but we continued to travel to work and study.
It took us a global pandemic, and someone telling us in 2020: Hey! Actually, you can (and must!) now use the same internet to do work from home. Duh!
You can spot missed updates right now, where you are sitting. Try out this exercise: take a look around the physical world around you. Yup, literally the room or space you are in. Whilst you are at that, think of the larger world you live in – the assumptions, beliefs, laws and ideas you, your family, your business, your community or small society operate according to.
Can you spot something that makes no sense and negatively affects your life and the life of the people around you? Or at least bothers you? It can be small or big, from something in your room you can fix immediately, to a problem in the world that goes beyond your ability to do anything about it.
My current long list includes the books stacked on the floor of my bedroom in the new place I moved to recently, the arbitrary borders between countries in the Middle East and Africa, the tradition in some societies that you can only hire or marry someone if they are from certain tribes, and the belief and formal foriegn policy in other societies that they can win the hearts and minds of other people by bombing them.
Also, I do not like the fact that every time I check-in to my local supermarket using the COVID app from the NSW Government I need to manually check out, and I forget to do so most of the time! Why doesn’t the app do that automatically once I leave the shop by detecting the change in my location?
Most likely you already have such a list!
Principle #3: You can and should challenge this outdated system
This list serves as your starting point. A potential space where you can practice leadership by redesigning this part of the system and improving life for yourself and the people (and other creatures) around you.
I encourage you to examine it through the lens of the previous principle.
There is a good chance that the observations in your list exist because the system was designed sometime ago on the basis of certain assumptions or needs. These assumptions are no longer valid, but the system has not yet been updated.
How is it possible that a car company founded in 2003 outside Detroit is now the world’s most valuable car company? Here is one answer from Elon Musk’s biography:
“Anyone who tries to build a car company in the United States is quickly reminded that the last successful start-up in the industry was Chrysler, founded in 1925.”
You can train yourself to have such a questioning radar active all the time, but this exercise can be more significant when you are about to make strategic choices in your life.
In 2013, I decided to change my corporate life and start my entrepreneurial adventure, and I had one key design parameter for this new life: to leverage the internet and liberate myself from the location factor. While enjoying the fun GoDaddy part, a disappointing reality struck me from the system: I had to legally rent a physical office to get my business license.
For more than seven years, I have been paying the monthly rent for an office in Dubai that I rarely use. But you know what? I do not think of this as a rent. This is the cost of no longer being location bound. This is the price I pay for challenging a system that was originally designed by Henry Ford for his Model T.
While challenging an outdated system, be prepared for paying a price.
In my next post I will share with you the remaining principles starting with Principle #4: Avoid the “next big thing” trap.
The Covid Corridor has provided me with the opportunity to take stock, slow down and focus on some key learning areas that I believe are critical to help inform what the post-Covid world might look like. I will write about this in a later post, but one of the more formal educational programmes I did in 2020 was the Tavistock Institute Dynamics @ Board Level Certificate.
What follows is the assignment I submitted to complete this course.
We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons. We act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves. And this is what gives us the power and the obligation to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action. It is because we can share our wisdom that we have a special responsibility (Daniel Dennett 2021).
We are essentially marching naked into this digital century without the Charters or Rights, the legal frameworks, the regulatory paradigms, the institutional forms and the kind of leadership that we need to make the digital future compatible with democracy. (Shoshana Zuboff 2021)
On 11th March, 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared Covid-19 a Pandemic.
Over the past 12 months not only has this Pandemic touched every continent and nation but it has ushered in a step change in the way that humans individually and collectively have adopted, utilised and integrated digital information technologies into their everyday lives.
As we entered this interstice I determined that one of the most useful and productive things that I could do was to experience as many online Group Relations events as possible in order to learn from the breadth of experiences of how people were beginning to embrace a 21st Century digitally mediated existence.
This existence, which from the outset reminded me of E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops (Foster 1909), began decades, if not centuries, ago.
A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools, it happens when a society adopts new behaviours. (Shirky 2008)
The new behaviours we learn as we interact and engage with each other as groups, teams and systems mediated through digital communication technologies will both shape and inform how humanity embraces and faces the challenges of the 21st Century and the post-Covid world.
This paper seeks to consider my experience as a member of the Tavistock Institute’s 2020 Board Dynamics cohort, the first to be held fully online, and operating between continents, time-zones, cultures and mindsets during the most intense period of the Covid 19 Pandemic. As for us all this was just one group within the greater global system and, as such, the value is in extrapolating the learnings from this experience to more fully examine it and how it informed other interactions and engagements.
The Shift to Digital
When I first applied to participate in the Board Dynamics course the expectation was that it would be conducted as a hybrid with the first two modules held online, and the second two face to face. Those who more fully understand the nature of Pandemics would have realised from the outset the naïveté of such an expectation, but around the world the hope for a return to ‘some sort of normality’ by the Northern Hemisphere Summer was an important coping mechanism.
My interest in the course stemmed from both a curiosity about the direct application of Group Relations processes and academic research to the functioning of Boards as mechanisms of Governance, together with a desire to explore how this would operate in an online medium.
The Affordances of Digital Technologies
We have become digital on the last few years as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means (Doc Seals).
Life online is very different to life IRL (in real life). I have spent the past thirty years exploring this difference seeking to more fully understand how we humans interact with each other, and how the technologies interact with us. The core of my work may be termed Web Science – the Theory and Practice of Social Machines (SOCIAM), which is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how we are changing the Web, and the Web is changing us.
The World Wide Web was invented by physics researcher Tim Berners-Lee (see CERN) to try to solve the problem of information sharing between scientists, universities and institutes around the World. It was envisaged as an academic project, but, as so often happens,
we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run (Roy Amara).
All technologies and artefacts have what are called affordances, a word originally invented by psychologist J. J. Gibson to describe the actionable properties between the world and an actor (Gibson 1977). Donald J. Norman (Norman 1988, Norman 2018) expands upon this to state that affordances
- provide strong clues to the operations of things
- signal the perceived and actual properties of the thing
- are properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used
- when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed
I first became aware of the importance of affordances as they relate to digital media when I read the work of Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff 1988, Zuboff and Maxmin 2001). At the time I was working in the graphic arts, the first major industries to be disrupted by digitisation and digitalisation due to the development of desktop publishing and digital printing, undertaking research into the emerging Web and its impact on the workplace.
Zuboff’s work in this space is seminal and the table below clearly articulates some of the different characteristics of information in physical (analogue) and virtual (digital) form.
Table 1 – The Characteristics of Digital Technologies (adapted from Zuboff and Maxmin, 2002)
The more people started using the Web the more it developed an ecosystem of its own driven by the twin aspects of (1) negligible transaction costs (Coase 1937, Malone et al 1987) which enabled the freemium model of electronic commerce (see Zuboff 2019) and (2) the network effect (Castells 2000). By December 2019 just on 50% of the global population were connected to the Internet; by December 2020, largely due to the Covid Pandemic, this had increased to 62.4%.
I have heard it said that giving people an internet connection is like giving them a car to drive, without any instructions on the road rules or basic mechanics. That is pretty much the situation we currently face in terms of people’s understanding of the digital landscape largely due to the rapid digitisation of information and digitalisation of business processes and organisational systems and the paucity of digital literacy and digital fluency.
Digital literacy describes being how to use digital tools; Digital Fluency describes being able to understand why they should be used (Hopkins 2019).
We have evolved to operate in the physical / analogue environment and our senses enable us to interpret and function there and we have developed these through trusting these senses and the data we receive through them.
When it comes to the virtual / digital worlds we are only just beginning but as we increasingly interact online we are venturing into new environments where we cannot necessarily predict or trust the outcomes.
Figure 1: Rowland-Campbell – Literacy Model of Information Technologies
Technology, Transparency and Trust
When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details. (US Secretary of State George Shultz quoted in Bhalla et al, 2021)
Trust is essential to human relationships and at the core these are usually messy, inefficient and take time and brain power to develop and maintain (Machin 2019). Maintaining key relationships is at the core of our learning (Fonagy 2015) and a key element of this is what Rachel Botsman calls trust friction.
Here emerges one of the most important digital affordances. The designs built into most of our digital technologies, driven by the values and imperatives of the designers, are to remove friction, to make our lives easier and to more seamlessly integrate these technologies calmly into our lives (Weiser 1986 – 1989). One of the reasons why digital devices have become so ubiquitous is precisely due to this affordance built into the user-interface design.
Many young people don’t realise that everything you see on the computer screen is a construct that was invented by someone. (Ted Nelson)
This is a perfect example of Schein’s model of organisational culture (Schein 1994) where the values and assumptions of the technologists manifest in the artifacts.
Figure 2: Schein’s model of Organisational Culture, (Schein 1992)
Through the Looking Glass
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
The Knight looked surprised at the question. ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be?” he said. “My mind goes on working all the same.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
When it comes to how we experience these new digitally mediated screen interactions we need to continuously remind ourselves that we are engaging in a space between presence and absence, being somewhere that is both on and off where our bodies and minds can often be disconnected.
Interacting online and interacting IRL differ in a number of important ways:
- Notions of Time – the online world synchronises time, we are all in the same temporal space even though we may be living in different geographies with different time zones, and therefore different body clocks. Our notions of time seem to have changed during this period of the pandemic – in some ways speeding up, in others slowing down – and different for each and every person.
- Notions of Space – in group settings we are no longer in the same physical environment, but inhabiting different physical spaces (for us) which present to others through the same sized screen window. One result of this is what we are now calling Zoom Fatigue (Bailensen 2020). The information we currently receive through online channels is heavily dependent on aural and visual information but the somatic, which connects us to our physical presence, can feel disconnected until we experience the aches and pains of too little movement and the tiredness in our eyes (Microsoft is working on an interesting solution to this).
Figure 3: Rowland-Campbell – Information Channels as we interact online
- Management of Boundaries – in the physical world we have the opportunity and time to change our mental states as we transition through physical space and time, to clear our thoughts from previous encounters and prepare and focus on what it is to come. In the virtual world unless we consciously create this interstice between one meeting and another the transition is through a few clicks of a button taking a matter of seconds. In the digital space we are either on or off, it is very difficult to be anywhere in between which means that how we show up, how we are present (or absent), how we view ourselves, and how we leave can be very abrupt. In addition the boundaries are porous and it is difficult to seal out the outside world which continually intrudes.
There is one other element which sits between presence and absence (Scharmer 2007), that of transparency.
- The digital world gives us the ability to easily record, edit, broadcast and replay our online interactions. This leads to far greater levels of potential transparency but can also create a persistent unease in the knowledge that we are continuously on show, on the camera and the stage. Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage can merge giving little respite in between (Goffman 1959, Sternheimer 2020).
Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes and expectations; between materiality and functionality of technologies; between the intentions and perceptions of designers (Nagy & Neff 2015).
All of these affordances have been designed into the systems we use which become a part of our experience and how we experience others.
Group Dynamics Online
Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self (Castells 2000).
Eric Miller states that Freud’s great insight was to shift the focus from the individual to the interaction between patient and analyst, the notions of Transference and Countertransference which Bion then shifted to that of the group and the processes of socialisation. (Miller 1998).
What we think of ourselves is born in what we were thought about, we scrutinise the minds of others and we try to find ourselves within, to guess at our own feelings and thoughts (Fonagy 2015).
So how do we see each other as we show up on the screen? How do we feel in these spaces and how does this impact our emotional responses?
The work of Solms (Solms 2021), Damasio and others suggests that our emotions stem from our feelings.
Our choices are grounded in a value system. Feelings provide the value system which enables choice in unpredicted, novel situations (Solms 2021).
Given the lack of somatic information, which is often the primary source for our feelings, how is this impacting our engagements in the virtual space? One way to consider this is how we react to the physical presence of others versus how we sense them online through their windows; another is how the back-channels (i.e., the chat function) can be used for side conversations, which is similar to passing notes in the back row. Both of these elicit feelings and therefore emotions. Finally, when there may be uncomfortable feelings in the virtual space instead of having to sit with them in a physical space where the ability to leave takes some time, in the virtual space once every participant has the option to turn off their camera and sit behind it, or completely leave the room.
There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole. (Wertheimer 1924)
Every element of this impacts the virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (Sonnenfeld 2002) which is at the heart of how governance and corporate responsibility needs to operate.
The Modern Board
The concept of a corporate board
is a reflection of widespread political practices and ideas in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages which reflect both social norms and cultural values as they pertained to business governance, political and cultural ideas, together with assumptions about wealth-maximizing efficiencies (Gevurtz 2004).
For those of us who live in Western cultures these ideas constitute what is normal, but it is necessary to put these ideas in context.
The work of Henrich (Henrich 2010, Henrich 2020) shows that the Western mindset has emerged from the geo-political history of Western Europe (see also Marshall 2016 and Goldin 2020).
Henrich classifies Western people as being
hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was, and still is, enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put (Henrich 2020).
We Westerners are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (see also Stasavage 2020). Henrich argues that this is one of the reasons that Capitalism emerged in the West driven by the rise of the individual (see Morris 1972, Nashef 2018, Curtis 2002 BBC).
The Discovery of the Individual is an eccentricity among cultures (Morris 1972).
This WEIRD mindset has created a positive environment for humans to flourish (Harari 2015, Pinker 2018, Roser 2021) but is also based on the assumption that humans need to be controlled, for our own good (Bregman 2020).
The limits and boundaries of Agency Theory (Simon 1957) are determined by its model of man. (Davis et al 1997, Keay 2017)
If we consider governance, particularly as it is beginning to manifest online, from a more naturalistic and biological perspective (Bandura 2017) then the concept of the Social Machine as a symbiotic human-machine ecosystem becomes much more useful (Neff 2021). This leads to a broader perspective where it is assumed that humans are driven by larger collectivist, pro-organisational goals (Argyris 1973, McGregor 1980, Maslow 1970) which is precisely what the online environment was designed to achieve from the outset (Levine et al 1999, Kelly 2010).
Changing Global Mindsets
The link between communication and character is complex, but unbreakable. We cannot transform all our media of communication and expect to remain unchanged as people. A revolution in the media must mean a revolution in the psyche (Toffler 1980).
Former InfoSys Founder, CEO and Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan (Gopalakrishnan 2021) believes that the 21st Century will change as a result of the impact of information technologies.
- Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives;
- The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
- There will be a global shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
As we continue to reach out globally we are creating societies online and
each society chooses which thoughts and feelings shall be permitted to arrive and which must be kept hidden (Eric Fromm as quoted by Susan Long, March 2021).
An Antipodean Perspective
Our people have been entrusted by the Creator Spirit with the care of the land and the associated ceremonies. In most parts of Australia, they are unable to care for their land and ensure its continued fruitfulness because it has been taken over by the immigrants. The spiritual line of succession, from the time of creation through countless generations, has now been broken. And deep inside, our people live with guilt and hopelessness (Archie et al 2007).
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are (Turkle 2011).
I was born and grew up in a sunburnt country riven by guilt and sadness. This duality underpins everything about Australia (and many other colonialised cultures) and as we move in to the 21st Century our greatest global challenge is to move away from the dominance of the WEIRD, and largely industrialised, thinking and embrace the power of more organic Dreamtime mindsets (such as those which harness Social Dreaming, Lawrence 2000) in order to better govern our social systems.
This is especially important as we become more embedded in the Technosphere which has become all too obvious as we all move our lives online. As I have reflected on my own online experiences in groups there is one word that repeatedly comes to mind, and that is the word stewardship.
Stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours (Davis 1997).
Stewardship addresses the illusion of being able to manage and control up front (Long 2021) by being more inclusive, taking a longer-term view and understanding the symbiosis of humans and the systems, both natural and technological, that we inhabit.
My own work is based on the philosophy of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002, Spears 1998) combined with a practical application through the principles of Sustainability where we seek to create an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations. (Avery 2006, Avery & Bergsteiner 2010, Rowland-Campbell 2021)
As I sat in the various modules and groups of the Tavistock Board Dynamics course I felt very keenly the Tyranny of Distance (Blainey 1966) and the mythic structure of Bion’s Groups (Bion 1961, Shambaugh 1985) as they ebbed and flowed through each module.
I felt alienated by the dominance of WEIRD values, not only in the predominantly European makeup of the Group, but in the very design and interface of the technologies themselves.
We each played our part in this, but the success of these events was largely due to the stewardship of our consultants, who did not lead but sought to serve each of us by providing the space to reflect and learn.
Corporations and Industrial Capitalism have driven the development of humanity over the past few hundred years and the associated governance and management systems which have underpinned them must be seen as a part its success. But we are now questioning what success looks like? As our environmental systems react to what is now being talked of as the crime of Ecocide it is imperative that we evolve how we manage and govern ourselves harnessing the smart machines we have invented but more importantly drawing on all of the smart people.
We are now on the threshold of a global opportunity, one that can take advantage of being in the unfrozen state between the old world and the new (Lewin 1947) that is to come. As such
We have the opportunity now to not just do what we did yesterday. We have permission to change things. Everything is now up for grabs. (Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns 2021)
A part of that change is to adopt a more natural and Eastern philosophy towards our corporate systems as part of a global ecosystem embedded in the natural world and inclusive of all humanity because the challenges we face affect us all.
This is the Stewardship Challenge for the 21st Century which should be the main guiding premise.
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Last year I participated in an online course run by one of Australia’s most prestigious Business Schools entitled Learning to Lead. One of the first slides that was put up was one which said “It’s all about Me”.
I immediately had a visceral negative reaction. Why?
Because these words demonstrated to me everything that I believe is at the core of what is wrong with much of our current 21st Century leadership, starkly revealed by the latest Edelman Trust Barometer 2021:
there is an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.
For quite some time I have been musing on the word leadership and trying to determine what it means for me and the work we do as Intersticia. When I’m quizzed about Intersticia I often struggle to find an easy answer. If I say we develop and support emerging leaders people immediately assume we are a Leadership Development consultancy or we just provide educational scholarships, neither of which remotely describes who we are or what we do.
For me this UNSW leadership course, as with the World Economic Forum’s concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, represents an outdated, industrial age mindset built around the concept of the Century of the Self which emanates from the liberalism of Enlightenment thinking and it’s belief in rationality and the power of the individual as they key agent of change:
Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control. (Danny Hills)
In the mid 20th Century as the world emerged from an unprecedented period of self-destruction so rose the hopes for a better life built on shiny new technologies powering towering metropolises, global trading systems harvesting natural resources through unbridled capitalism. This fueled a mindset of greed and consumption, of winner take all and Kardashian-type narcissism which led to rising inequality and has now culminated in what Shoshana Zuboff describes as
Surveillance Capitalism – a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.
It has been our self-obsession which has resulted in the imbalance between us and the natural environment, and then … along came Covid and suddenly everything has changed.
Economies have been shut down, borders have been slammed shut and libertarian societies have introduced monitoring Apps but the air is cleaner and many people have had more time to pause to breathe it.
We are now all living in the interstice between the pre-and post Covid worlds. This interstice – as Kurt Lewin so eloquently put it in his CATS model – is where the real opportunity lies and the real work happens.
Getting caught up in semantics
Much of my discomfort with the way the word leadership is used comes from the concept that it is something transactional and commoditised – with the right set of tools it can be taught and applied at just the right time.
I also feel that the term conjures up a zero-sum hierarchy where only one person can be a leader at a time, with everyone else lining up to follow. This makes me think of the Messiah Complex and Great Man approaches which have so resonated throughout human history through most of our heroic literature where one lone individual comes to save us all from monsters, aliens and more often than not, ourselves. Throughout the ages the tales of war and conflict seem mainly to have arisen due to the ego and hubis of individual so-called leaders who are either driven by greed and power, or who are corrupted, and who command the battle field – whether military, political or commercial – in order to win at all costs. They need to be brought down in order to restore balance – the classic duality of good versus evil; light versus dark that underpins our mythologies and religions.
Finally, I feel that the word leader is becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. We have always lived as a species within the natural environment but we are now globally inter-connected as never before supported by the intertwingularity of the technical systems we have constructed and the networks of minds who collaborate. This is enabling us to solve complex problems (vaccines for Pandemics) and operate virtually across time zones but it is also resulting in a new level of transparency in how we live our lives, both personal and professional, and who holds the power to influence.
This transparency is revealing the fundamental differences in how different societies operate as the balance between notions of privacy and personal freedom are pitted against those of health and security.
In his history of Democracy author David Stasavage states that
If we see seeking consent as a basic ingredient of democracy, then we can say that democracy itself occurs naturally among humans, even if it is far from inevitable.
Throughout history societies have drawn upon the different skills and capabilities of people in order to govern themselves. Whether the system was proto-democratic or autocratic in nature seems to have depended on the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers. As early societies became more settled developing technologies enabled more sophisticated bureaucratic institutions which were exploited by more autocratic systems (listen to Stasavage interviewed by Sean Carroll; also Yuval Noah Harari). It may be that the reason that proto-democratic and consultative processes became more embedded in Europe was due to the slower progress of science which gave societies more time to adopt and refine democratic governance processes time before bureaucratic autocracy could take hold.
The relationship between Science and Society is symbiotic and one that autocratic leaders keenly appreciate. This is why those in positions of power and authority need to more fully understand the implications of the tools being developed, but also be more consultative in how decisions are made. The Pandemic has shown that those governments which have listened to the Science seem to have managed things better, but what does that mean for what we do next?
Management controls, Leadership Guides … Stewardship Nurtures
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are. (Sherry Turkle)
At our recent Brave Conversations Bangalore I interviewed former InfoSys CEO and Chairman ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan. I asked Kris for his thoughts around the development of information technologies in to the 21st Century and he felt there were three areas of major change:
- Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives
- The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population and is less developed economically so there will be big shifts in this area.
- This will result in a shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
So the question is how can the East bring it’s philosophy and culture to solve some of the problems of the world? How do we use Eastern values to move from a consumption led to needs led system?
Historian Ian Morris suggests that the forces which cause societal collapse include: uncontrollable large scale migration, breakdown of major states, spread of epidemic diseases in new forms, spread of massive famine, and rapid climate change in a way that people can’t control. All of these seem to be converging in the 21st Century but this time we are armed with tools which our ancestors did not have.
The first is over a century of social science which has analysed history and society through multiple lenses. For a start we have truly begun to question our own mindsets and analyse how we see ourselves and each other, revealing some of our cultural biases and limitations (see Joseph Henrich’s work on WEIRD values, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations, and East and West).
We have taken this in to our organisations to analyse the differing roles people play, how power and influence operates and how we can work more effectively. This, of course, has resulted in the development of Leadership Development programmes as a label and a whole field of research.
The word lead comes from the word loedan – to travel – thus one definition that has always resonated with me is that a leader is one who takes the hardship of finding a better way of doing things for the common good and then selflessly shares the knowledge with others by guiding them on that path. (Avijit Dutta)
This sharing to me is the key to leadership, because it implies that leadership is a collaborative activity, it is not a thing, it is a process, and it includes others who take equally important, but complemenary and different roles.
Those who lead require others to follow especially Managers, the people who embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly—sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully. (Abraham Zaleznik)
But is this really following? Or is it the other way around?
Robert Greenleaf, who crafted the concept of Servant Leadership, and whose ideas have always informed much of the work I have done in the leadership space, believed that
The servant-leader is servant first (which … ) is sharply different from one who is leader first. … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.
Greenleaf stressed that a core component of Servant Leadership was to be a steward (Larry Spears), someone who is guided by the long term interests of those they serve and exercise their free will to make a conscious choice in favour of service as opposed to self-interest (see Peter Block) in how they use their personal talents, abilities, power and authority and where they direct their energies.
The power and potential of the Steward
Instead of being all about me it’s about us in the broadest possible sense.
The word steward seems to have a range of roots including the Old Norse stivadl, Old English stiward (house guardian) which evolved to Middle English meaning the act of caring for or improving with time which morphed in to the Scottish name Stewart and Stuart. Much of the literature seems to reflect the fact that the term was hijacked by the Christian church in particular referring to the Book of Genesis and humankind being stewards of the Earth (as evidenced in theological writings of people like Douglas John Hall).
Regardless of how one views the term
the word stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours. (Davis 1997)
The concept of being a steward is driven by something beyond oneself and links to a concept of time beyond the life of one human being, an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between all living things, and the idea of being responsible for sustainability. This can be articulated in the idea of being a good ancestor, something which Kevin Kelly feels is an outcome of understanding the power of networks and appreciating that taking a longer term view, even for entrepreneurs and start ups, is what builds successful companies – what goes around comes around.
Many years ago I met Macquarie University academic Professor Gayle Avery who wrote Leadership for Sustainable Futures which became the Honeybee and Locust framework. Avery’s model is underpinned by the idea of an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations. As part of a natural system Honeybees are natural stewards, but we as human being have a greater responsibility.
With great power comes great responsibility
In the 20th Century we learned how to annihilate ourselves with atomic weapons, in the 21st Century we are learning how to create artificial life. As the rate of technological progress increases and the machines we build become smarter and begin to build their own progeny we need to think deeply about the types of people to whom we entrust the power to determine our future.
Our history tells us that we have favoured the leaders, those who showed the way and enlisted others to follow. But we are entering a dangerous phase where we have made a Faustian Bargain with the future. Our obsession with shiny toys and smart machines relieves us of the toil our ancestors endured to craft their homes out of the Earth, but we have become slaves to the machines we have built, and we are pillaging the planet to feed those machines and the lifestyles they provide. Whilst I wouldn’t advocate going back to pre-industrialised times something tells me that the smart move next is to embrace the ‘and‘ and harness the wisdom of our history to inform the power of our knowledge and technology in order to craft a new mindset based on appreciating the mystical fundamentals and wonder of the cosmos that awed and inspired our ancestors whilst applying the power of our technologies.
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technologies. (E. O. Wilson)
We need to do much more than lead as we change our institutions and systems, we also need to consciously and proactively embrace the principles and behaviours of stewardship if we are to secure and protect the fundamental human values upon which societies around the world are built.
When it comes to Intersticia as I consider the fine young people who make up our community, not all of them will become leaders who need to step out in front because I don’t think they necessarily want to. But there is no doubt in my mind that they are already exceptionally fine Stewards which is why we have chosen them, and they choose to continue with us.
Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.
In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals. One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.
In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online. The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.
The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives. But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.
This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.
I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.
I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.
As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online. This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’. It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.
Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world. The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on. This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems: Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.
Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.
The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used. As with all things that are perceived as free if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons). With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.
In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that
Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” … A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.
It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000. She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen. This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”
Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.
- The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
- the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
- the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.
These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate – the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.
The key question is
“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business? (Justin Bariso)
As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time. Precisely because of this
we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.
For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply. When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency. To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.
I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.
My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction. As Melvin Kranzberg states
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
We are our technologies and they are us.
There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy. It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.
It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities. If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves. This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.
As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory. This is why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.
This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.
I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community. At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:
- Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
- Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
- Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
- Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?
Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all. As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted. This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.
The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.
For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.