It is time to re-consider some societal fundamentals and have an honest conversation about the legitimacy of power.
Why are we surprised that the Eurozone remains in crisis? That the issue of ‘Palestine’ remains unresolved? That American kids are still being shot in the streets, only weeks after the horrors of Newtown? That austerity lingers where (better) growth can prevail? It is because we are mistaking power for leadership; power for authentic authority; power for a real hunger for change? Is it because the power status quo offers a comfort blanket, shabbily knitted by the devil we know and that ‘power’, if not corrupted, has certainly become inert? Is it just simply because our leaders have failed us? It is because we are looking for trust in institutions which now lack relevance and for trust in people who have de-based both the ‘t’ word and, quite often, the trust principle itself?
These failures are not personal. They are systemic.
Power, as currently constituted in business and in government, is locking and blocking: too often locking the wrong people in the wrong roles to ultimately make probably the wrong decisions; and blocking the emergence of a new leadership and the credible authority we need to liberate us from this prevalence of crises. Re-imagined power, leadership and authority perhaps lie with the young and (often) dis-enfranchised; not, by deign of fate, with the older elites. Maybe power and authority could do with skipping a generation or two. Power, as currently constructed, is losing its legitimacy.
It is time to re-think our historic power complexes and to question existing ‘gatekeepers’ and institutional authority at a most fundamental level. The Social Contract, once always implicit and occasionally docile, now needs open re-consideration and a more explicit affirmation of the relationship between rulers and the ruled, citizens and state. A revised Social Contract should be re-calibrated away from traditional authority and in favour of the citizens within, as society becomes more social, more complex and more democratized by technology and access to information. Plato and Aristotle; Rousseau and Hobbes; even < Rawls; none of these had really to contend with the implications of a properly empowered citizenship – with either the transparent accountability of the web or the contention of business empires of scales that out-strip the GDPs of entire nations. The new conversation needs to be open, honest and immediate.
This is more than a rage against vested interests. ‘Progress’ can no longer be entrusted to those who simply sway with happenstance in a world which is properly shifting. To ignore these shifts is to have learned nothing from the trauma and crises of the past half-decade – from the financial sector to the environment and the uprisings of the Middle East. Whatever the bounce-back seersayers of the financial markets may now predict, these have been seismic and irreversible changes. Re-imagined power, authority and legitimate leadership needs to reside elsewhere if a real change is going to come, especially as more millenials enter the workplaces and polling booths – increasingly unemployed, debt-ridden and uncertain about future security. Millenials can recognize the shifts that the swayers ignore. They are active and activist; loyal to companies and loyal to brands – but equally capable of a new, creative destruction.
There is something apparently fundamental in human nature that leaves us enslaved to the power complex of authority. We feel comfortable with the power we know. We are passive acceptors – often paralyzed by our own fear of future -and so anchor ourselves in a failing past. We do not drive to change things either through apathy or because we (wrongly) believe that we cannot change things or that only those in ‘power’ and ‘authority’ can precipitate the change we crave. We create our own, misplaced mystique around authority. The consequence is a gridlock of progress and an entrapment of enlightened citizen values within a probable future and not one of real possibilities. In so doing, we cede the magic of our imagination to a world of ‘status quo plus’. It is depressing in all senses of the word. We, the citizens, need to be the change.
Even the more liberal of thinkers often remain perversely – if unconsciously – attached to the trappings of authority. We implicitly accept our legacy institutions and benign power structures: United Nations or Parliament, Civil Service or multinational employer. Radical thought is required: we need new bankers before we need new banks – and we need those same bankers to start thinking as citizens first and as bankers, second. We are otherwise complicit in the acceptance of leadership ‘norms’ and are then surprised at the frustrating lack of societal progress this engenders. Yet if we can intellectually grasp the increasing re-distribution of influence (top to bottom; west to east; north to south), then surely we can understand the need for a parallel re-distribution of leadership and authority? What we lack is the engineering skills to make this happen; the operators to sit alongside the prophets to make it real. We lack a roadmap for the future.
The swayers are the traditional gatekeepers -managers, executives, producers and broadcasters: controllers, if not owners, of the modern means of production. Few of them are real leaders. This era of vertical quasi-leadership is fast eroding, philosophically, but those in charge are understandably clinging onto control (because they can). Few are challenging them in peaceful dissent because the ‘new channels’ remain in their relative infancy. Organizations similarly recognize the need for more profound change but remain comforted by the historical structures that cocoon them. They, too, are ultimately fearful of the shift to a possible, not probable, future. Why rock the boat (especially when you are sitting on the inside)? Bravery is an absent friend.
Politicians and business leaders meanwhile emanate mixed messages – proclaiming trust, engagement and even progress. They may intellectually understand that the ground beneath them is shifting, but respond not with like-minded shifts in attitude and policy but instead meander in comfortable and recognizable sways – thus giving all the appearances of change but in effect manipulating or simply re-framing the status quo. They remain the protectorate of old power and window dress the future as they prepare for re-election or re-appointment. Four or five year Parliaments and/ or four or five year CEO tenures militate against the reform and the progress society needs for the long-term. It has been forever thus. Power is as self-protective as it is seductive. Mild changes may be only cosmetic but are nonetheless often met with critical acclaim, in the absence of radical solutions. Everyone needs to be seen to be doing their bit to save the world.
But the swayers will not save the world.
Take Climate Change. The factual truth confirms a tectonic shift that demands urgent and radical action – but the response is all sway. Launching a re-cycling initiative; reducing water consumption; introducing Plans A, B or C. There is of course nothing wrong with doing the right things – but even ‘extreme swaying’ is not going to save the planet from its own meltdown. Business’ approach to carbon reduction has to be fundamental, not merely compliant. Governments need to start addressing issues of reduced demand, not alternative supply.
Take Diversity. We hear endlessly compassionate words about the need for greater access and greater opportunity in the workplace and in politics. These tick the boxes of responsibility and action but they ignore the more fundamental truth – that a failure to aggressively address the access issue is a denial of a pool of the future talent, future leadership and future authority that can actually make the world a better place. Homosocial reproduction flies in the face of citizen inclusion and a more explicit social contract. It conspires to support the traditional authorities of power, not to liberate the new ones.
Take ‘leadership’ within corporations. More frequent Town Hall meetings and the occasional webinar are not the answer to an engaged workplace citizenship. They are instead a mass representation of implicit authority, where ‘presence’ is mistaken for full engagement. They might even be seen as pacifiers for the employed masses. They fail to feed the growing hunger of employee activism, holding corporations to account to ‘do the right thing’. Instead, let networks of Citizen Supervisory Boards help re-orientate corporations and shape a new, sustainable capitalism.
Across business and politics, beyond the initial conversation, a more explicit form of consent is now required – driven by citizens activists with citizen values. To originate this, our failing society urgently needs a new and constant, re-generative dialogue that seeks the active involvement of the crowd, and not just the crowd’s implicit acceptance of the status quo, through its passive presence and acceptance of authority. Corporate monologue should not be tolerated as leadership. The shifters are those who embody ethics rather than speak or learn them; those who properly embrace diversity; those who move beyond compliance; those who insist that all leaders pass the five tests of trust; those who are prepared to think the un-thinkable, even if it means that they, the ‘controllers’, now need to relinquish control; those who are prepared to accept that local might in fact trump global; and those who properly understand that real shifts can never occur while in constant pursuit of short-term (shareholder) goals.
Leadership can be co-created and consent made explicit. The legitimate power of the new will replace trust bestowed from above with trust and leadership properly earned from within, where the real wisdom of the crowd prevails and where capitalism itself is re-imagined with co-operative citizenship at its heart – far beyond the soundbites of a Big Society.
The 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos was characterized by some as little more than ‘unbearable vanity’ – a mountain-top meeting place for the ultimate swayers. Contrast this with the visceral bloodshed in Egypt, where real, non-militant voices are fighting so hard to be heard and to be properly represented, second time around. The mass plea is for recognition, involvement and moderation: to change things for the better; to establish civil and civic democracy. Revolution does not always have to foster extremes.
History teaches us that popular movements will eventually win through. Old elitists cling to old power through aggression alone, active or passive. In this sense, the streets of Cairo are now alive with the fight against a silent acquiescence, long suppressed. Two years ago, Tahrir Square showed what is possible when the popular voice is first heard. In Egypt, once again, we are seeing an emblematic battle play out: activists must break the hierarchy before the hierarchy breaks the truer citizen need.