On systems leadership

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis.  I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is”.⁠1

Greta Thunburg

Mobilising people behind a cause creates a pressure for change amplified by technologies to a scale and at a speed not seen before. Our public services and elected representatives, those holders of institutional power, are often powerless to accommodate this and respond effectively. This is the ‘new power’ of networks and movements meeting the ‘old power’ of bureaucracy,⁠2 nowhere more beautifully illustrated than in the words of Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister as he responded to the climate change walkouts reaching Australia: “We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments… what we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools”.⁠3 

To think that only formal, curriculum-based and classroom-centered education has value and that active participation in society on issues that young people care about is not in any way educational is pure old power thinking. Depending on your perspective, this action is either insubordination by a minority determined to challenge existing power dynamics, or it is the welcome emergence of new approaches to challenge a status quo that is no longer fit for purpose. Cultural theory shows us that Scott Morrison was being overtly hierarchical: the rules are there for a reason, they require you to be in school and they need to be enforced. He was dismissing the idea that the solidaristic actions of the young people held any value or power at all, or that by taking part, students were leveraging their own individual agency. Perhaps this illustrates the kind of rebalancing of relationships that is needed as part of a new social settlement. Work that will seek appropriate balances between individual agency, collective action, and institutional legitimacy.

In recent work with a cohort of a dozen innovative businesses, the RSA have been experimenting with what it takes to mobilise a seemingly disparate collective for systems change.⁠4 These businesses represent pockets of innovation in today’s world, and are to varying degrees finding it difficult to gain traction behind their ideas. Yet these ideas are in all likelihood going to be the very ones we need to meet a new paradigm of work,⁠5 along with more besides. Mobilising towards and simultaneously trying to build a new system that meets the demands of the way we work in the future is visionary work. Of course, it’s not just the nature of work that is reaching a tipping point: across environmental, economic, social, cultural and political domains the battle between old power, business-as-usual and new-power paradigms are simultaneously reaching tipping points too. These will play out locally, of course, in high streets and communities across the country, and it is here that conversations need to be had. 

I’d argue that this shouldn’t simply be a government-led conversation, despite recent rhetoric of engaging “with communities across England about their view of who we are as a nation, their vision for the future of their community and our country, and what local and national government can and should be doing to support their community to thrive“.⁠6 It should be citizen-led and government enabled, inverting the current power dynamic, recognising that tweaking the status quo will not enable us as a society and as individuals to address the pivotal challenges ahead. It needs a willingness to co-design a new paradigm, one which has new forms of local democratic legitimacy at its heart. For this might yet be the core role for any such elected body; brokering the appropriate balance between the different contexts in each place and helping local people to thrive.

Such a role requires new power systems leadership, co-ordinating efforts to join up action and thinking local and, crucially, taking a ‘future generations’ view to ensure their places develop along sustainable grounds. If there is no local elected body to be the arbiter of this balance, to broker decisions and to stand up for the needs of the locality in a wider context, who else – legitimately – will? Time to work on this is a luxury we don’t have. We need new forms of leadership and collective action that are not held back by the dogmas of the past, and in this regard perhaps the signs from classrooms across the globe are perhaps encouraging. 

1 https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches#greta_speech_jan22_2019

2 Heimans and Timms

3 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-29/should-kids-be-part-of-activism-and-protests/10566178

4 Economic Security Impact Accelerator

5 In Three Horizon’s language, they are being held back by the status quo of H1 whilst experimenting in Horizon 2. The RSA’s work is to try and accelerate their impact as a collective from H2 towards H3, the new paradigm which they are helping to shape

6 DHCLG “By Deeds and their results: How we will strengthen our communities and nation” July 2019

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