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Bravo, Macron, for thinking the unthinkable

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Coronavirus

There has been an important new realisation in recent days. It is led by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Leaders should not delude themselves. They are not equipped to think in the bold, dramatic ways now needed to handle the enormous existential threats from Covid-19 to all that until now we have routinely taken for granted.

The FT headlined its Big Read interview with Macron (17 April) ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’.

He told the paper’s editor Roula Khalaf (connecting online from London) and their Paris Correspondent Victor Mallet: “we are all embarking on the unthinkable”. He added: “We all face the profound need to invent something new, because that is all we can do.”

Bravo, Monsieur le President!

Our Thinking the Unthinkable (TTU) project has been saying precisely that for six years. We have long concluded that the conformity which qualifies leaders for the top disqualifies them from gripping the scale and enormity of disruption, then how to handle and cope.

Mindsets, culture and behaviour are too narrow. The sinister realities of COVID-19 have now highlighted that reality and multiplied it.

Over the weekend I confirmed with a high level French intermediary that he had sent a copy of our book to the President with a note of recommendation several weeks ago.

We can’t be sure if our own overarching message to think the unthinkable got through and that somehow it catalysed presidential thinking. But our messages are clearly aligned.

New thinking and realisation

TTU has been interviewing leaders confidentially for six years. Our analysis has warned leaders of the urgent need to break out of that conformity which got them nominated or elected. Most dismissed our analysis. As leaders they knew best. “What are you smoking?” one even asked. “You are being unkind to my friends,” complained another.

Complacency and conformity have ruled. “I was elected” or “I was seen as the best person for the job” was the routine defence. “So why do I need to change?” They were blind or in denial about the narrowness of their blinkered mindset.

Yet stability was already unravelling before the horrific existential threats from COVID-19 hit us all. Our TTU work has highlighted this too many times. We wrote at the start of the year how 2020 required new 20/20 vision.

In these current dark times medically, economically and for the stability of our societies it does not really matter where leaders get their ideas from. The importance is that there is now new thinking and realisation

Heavy lifting, enlightened thinking, big change and the humility to realise all of this (a vital point emphasised by Macron) are now urgently needed. Not in months or weeks, but days.

Importantly, President Macron went on to outline for the FT the new frailties of democracy, globalisation, the even worse threats to sustainability from the climate emergency and the potential implosion of the European project.

Take the trouble to watch the video (with subtitled translation) to see how Macron said all of this. It was a stark, reflective highlighting of the impotence of leaders to chart a confident path through “an existential threat to humanity that will change the nature of globalisation and the structure of international capitalism”.

Yes: the prospects are that sombre. Macron rightly labelled it “a profound anthropological shock”.

That phrase is a smart capturing of all that TTU has signalled, while routinely being accused of being too negative and pessimistic. Yet look at where we are now, with leaderships and those that serve them, often ill-prepared and flailing.

Can leaders rise to this? No, not alone, concludes Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change. He told the BBC’s Today programme on Monday that ministers and civil servants don’t necessarily have the skills to deliver the ‘core tasks’.

They must urgently diversify their skill set by bringing in outsiders who can challenge and add critical non conformist perspectives. The challenges of lifting lockdowns to preserve the economy are acute.

Experimenting safely

This matches our TTU urging for leaders to take the risk of encouraging mavericks to speak up. This includes the NextGen, with important perspectives that are fresh and challenge the status quo.

They can put into top minds new ideas and methods that existing leaders are blind to and possibly don’t feel comfortable hearing. Unprecedented times require the taking of risks and the space plus backing for experimenting safely.

After all governments and corporates have shown they have the blinders on. Boards and top executives have long demanded neat risk registers which don’t have too many risks on them to think about. Unthinkables like a pandemic were usually struck off as a risk too far.

This meant that on coronavirus leaders could not, and would not, think the unthinkable. This is despite the routine warnings about a deadly pandemic of the kind highlighted with a grim reaper on the Economist cover as long ago as from May 2009.

Unthinkable? No for leaders it was unpalatable to accept the evidence and plan accordingly. As President Macron made clear, cultures, mindsets and behaviours must change.

Dramatically fast.

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