Leaders need to think the unthinkable

Blindsided by the general election, Brexit and Trump, bosses are falling victim to their own conformity, say Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon.

by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon
Last Updated: 23 Jun 2017

The extraordinary UK election result demonstrates just how out of touch leaders have become. Theresa May’s calamitous miscalculation to call an election that only she thought was necessary exposed in the most brutal way her flaws and frailties as a leader.

Yet May is not alone. She is just the latest high profile example of how the current generation of political, corporate and public service leaders are struggling - and failing - to understand the scale and nature of global disruption.

As with the Brexit result and Trump’s rise in the US, our top leaders were not prepared to think the unthinkable, or address the unpalatable even though the evidence was there. Why do they find this so difficult, and why do those working for them apparently fail to inform them adequately about signs of what is looming? 

We have interviewed hundreds of top political, corporate and public service leaders in our major ongoing research project Thinking  the Unthinkable. The findings confirm how scared they are. Our overarching conclusion: the conformity which got them to the top in many ways disqualifies from understanding the enormity of change that is happening around them. That conformity means most refuse to accept how much they need to adapt. Almost all are in denial.

Our project continues to ask leaders about their human capacity to handle the increasingly overwhelming disruptions created by unthinkables. Their answers in 1:1 interviews are usually frank and disturbing. They are overwhelmed. Processes are hobbled by institutional conformity, group think, risk aversion, reactionary mind sets, denial and, above all, the fear by many who work for them of speaking out of turn and making a career-limiting move.  

This explains why leaders in both politics and the private sector misjudge the public mood and the signs of unthinkables. The factors we identified are not new. But the cost in this digital world of instant public feedback is. It is now seen as potentially existential for their organisations and careers. As we heard one prominent CEO warn fellow C-suite executives: ‘we are in danger of creating angry consumers and angry citizens’. 

That is what happened in the snap UK General Election: Theresa May crafted a reality where she was out of touch. She cut herself off from views she did not want to hear. She believed in her tiny cocoon of advisers who shut down debate and alternative views from top party colleagues or civil servants. Her former communications director Katie Perrior described a ‘toxic and dysfunctional atmosphere’. This culture of top leadership is what forced Britain’s EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers to resign in January, telling colleagues he could not ‘challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking’ or ‘deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them’.

This confirms what we have been told privately and candidly about office culture. Boards are more focussed on governance and compliance than unthinkables. More than ever those serving their bosses feel constrained in what they dare pass on to the top. It explains why so many unthinkables never reach ministers or corporate boards to be considered in the formulating of strategy or policy options.

Remarkably, there has been zero push back on our findings. Leaders have confided to us the loneliness of realising how threatening things have become. They are searching for new reassurance about to how to handle the enormity of the new disruptive impact of unthinkables. They are even pressing us to identify solutions, or at least options for them to consider. Our project is working intensively to come up with the evidence and case studies. But first they must accept there is a problem before – like Theresa May – they learn the hard way. 

Nik Gowing is the former main news presenter for BBC World News. Chris Langdon is the founder and director Reconciliation through Film. You can read the full report here, see www.thinkunthinkable.org  

Image credit: Surrey County Council News/Flickr


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