Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable icon

Deeply Dark Times Ahead – be positive

We face dark times. Very dark times. All of us.

They will be darker times than almost all of us can visualise or have ever experienced.

But few seem to realise the true enormity of what we all confront, let alone how to come to terms with this. For the vast majority of us it is unthinkable. Everyone is struggling, especially leaders. Both alone and together we must prepare ourselves for a sombre reality akin to the uncertainties and brutality of war. Not a war with weapons that kill. But a war of societal upheaval that opens up a rift valley of anger and resentments which in turn creates division, dissent and deprivation.

Stability keeps unravelling

For multiple sinister reasons the stability we have grown up taking for granted is unravelling. The bottom is falling out of much that we have grown to assume. Worse still, this is happening at a very high speed that few of us are streetwise enough to understand and accept, let alone grip. Especially most leaders.

Panic is already accelerating. The implications of what we face are far worse than what most of us managed to survive in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The immediate impact is in both our pockets and our heads. The money we have is losing value faster than any of us can imagine or ever believed possible. Our brains and self confidence – long tuned for success and achievement – cannot handle the new levels of adversity and uncertainty we all now face in the coming weeks and months.

Small numbers of us will benefit and even thrive. The vast majority are sleepwalking fast towards potential catastrophe.

Unthinkables are smashing through our comfort zones as the system creaks then implodes. Most will only realise the scale of upheaval when it is too late.

No experience of adversity

What is coming is especially difficult for those under 40 or 50 years old. They have never experienced this level of adversity that is hitting their ways of life, homeland, communities, and all they take for granted.

Closing eyes and a belief that somehow we can ignore what is fast overwhelming us are simply not options.

Everyone at every level must not just think unthinkables. They must think the unpalatable. The evidence of what lies ahead is stark and cannot - indeed must not - be avoided.

Leaders must think dramatically differently or realise their shortcomings. If they don’t they should not cling on. They must allow themselves to be replaced by others with greater vision and an appetite for being bold, for taking risks and being innovative.

The science, data and evidence are starkly evident for whatever is racing towards us. The scale will be shocking. So will the pace of turbulence relating to all we know and assume.

The speed of implosion and fragmentation will be at a rate that shakes us all. This will shred and fragment our own self belief that we can - and will - retain all we have achieved. We must all assume that it won’t.

But we have to ask: out there are there enough leaders who want to do this or even have the skills?

Do leaders really get the scale and implications?

Certainly chairing and listening to two dozen European ministers from as many countries in a public forum a few days ago left me fearing that most are nowhere close appreciating the vast scale of what is looming. Nor do they truly grip the public expectations that pre-emptively they – those who govern – must be on the front foot in a visionary way in order to deliver the necessary solutions at high speed.

Reflect for a moment. Think back to the start of February this year.

Let me ask: were you contemplating the horrors of inflation at maybe 18% per annum? Or gas and fuel prices skyrocketing to 8x or even a staggering 15x? Or food in short supply, and certainly more expensive? Or a northern hemisphere summer frazzled by the highest temperatures ever recorded?

You were not then. But you are having to now, under intensifying public pressures as daily the reality worsens.

That is why these are darker times than you have ever faced before, and why you must search your capacities to find new, achievable, resilient, affordable ways forward.

It is not just the shocking implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They are dark and sinister enough for maintaining peace and stability in our world.

Putin weaponises chaos

Putin’s core driving principle is to weaponise chaos and destabilise all who defy him. That means all of us.

To achieve that he has the single minded determination for a very long haul. We have to realise this, and match it. None of us can afford to take the risk of showing the weakness he is determined to create.

But Putin’s despicable adventure into Ukraine is only one element. So much else that we take for granted is folding in on itself.

Wealth. Values. Work and jobs. Stable food supplies. Relative geopolitical stability. And because of the fast deepening climate emergency, the conditions which have allowed us to inhabit this planet in ways that abuse nature and we take for granted.

This is not about being pessimistic gloomsters. It must be about being realistic and looking for positives, even if of a very different dimension to what we are used to.

End of abundance

The analysis by President Macron of France goes far further than most leader dare say publicly. It is at the heart of why these are dark times.

He bravely and vividly labelled these ever darker times as “the end of abundance” and the end of “carefree time” which will carry a “price”. As a result, we must make “certain sacrifices as we fight to defend it”. I remind you of what I have reported already: Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki described in February “the end of a two decade, geopolitical nap” [light sleep] that has caught out leaders who assumed the nap would continue indefinitely.

For this reason there is no point wishing or hoping things will magically get better in the foreseeable future. We face the opposite.

The new head of the British Army dramatically labelled this our 1937 moment. That year was two years before something even worse: a world war. So the current evolving misery will keep stretching the elastic to what we must assume will at some point be a breaking point.

It is tempting for all of us to seek refuge in reassuring phrases that somehow capture what is happening. But there is no “new” normal. In fact there is no normal, apart from disruption.

So don’t assume you are being clever by clinging to out of date concepts. Don’t cling to the conformity that got you your job or where you are. Conformity is an extra enemy.

There is no longer a box to be “out of”. Instead there is a deepening anarchy of concepts, but few if any of them really fit or resolve the societal eruption that is underway. And none of them will do so for a considerable length of time.

So all of us must prepare and plan accordingly. Disappointment and anxieties are new realities we must live and cope with. Survival is the imperative for each of us.

Work out the strengths you have

That means hunkering down and calmly making an audit of all that we have, whether material goods and money or the human resources we all need to marshal to endure the dark times that are already here but worsening fast.

Don’t assume you can minimise or remove the implications by way of a nonchalant swipe of the hands, or shrug of the shoulders while muttering some equivalent of “Inshallah”.

Attitudes and mindsets which are conditioned and shaped by the usual rocket fuel of self improvement, and the assumption that by and large most things always get better, are being upended by hand brake turns and the jamming on of brakes.

The smart ones among us know they cannot and will not be perfect. They realise they must be more humble and pragmatic than ever. They know they must examine their vulnerabilities, own up to their shortcomings then change their mindset and behaviour in every way possible in order to reflect and accommodate the new, dark realities.

Those choices will be hard. Very hard. Especially for political leaders who believe ex officio they have a right to be admired and respected. They don’t and will not. What must be assumed to be an extended crisis that defies all efforts to resolve it will find them out and reveal their flawed assumptions about their power.

Be positive and a ‘solutionist’

But there is one overriding imperative. We should all be positive and become ‘solutionists’.

Tackling and confronting all these realities does not have to mean negative responses. The most productive way of overcoming adversity is to be positive and share experiences of being so. Then we can all learn and gain self confidence. This is even if this requires sober decisions and changes in direction you never believed you would have to make one day.

And it all requires levels of courage, self questioning, self challenge and soul searching that are well outside the usual comfort zones. But they will bring strength in dark times.

Lessons from the Cuba missile crisis

Critical inspiration for all of this comes from 60 years ago. That was the 13 day international crisis in October 1962 over Soviet nuclear weapons in and around Cuba. It spawned the phrase Thinking the Unthinkable that our work has adopted for the past eight years, with due credit to its author Herman Kahn.

President Kennedy was being warned that the USA was threatened with the unthinkable : nuclear war. He could not believe it. Moscow had deployed four nuclear submarines. They were lurking between Florida and Cuba just 90 miles away. But where?

Nuclear war was only averted by the rogue decision of the Soviet flotilla’s chief of staff Vasili Arkhipov. He ignored his commander’s order to fire nuclear torpedoes against US warships. That heroic act of defiance saved us all. But he lived out his life in a Russian career backwater with the importance of his bold action unacknowledged.

We now face an ominous parallel to Cuba 1962.

It is feared that Russia will contemplate using theatre nuclear weapons to eliminate the Ukrainian build up of new military capabilities that threaten the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s military doctrine specifically allows going nuclear if the Russian state, or Russian interests, faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.

Unthinkable? No unpalatable. The evidence is already there.

The mirror images now of those unthinkables then in October 1962 explain why these are dark times.

Very dark times.

We are once again perched perilously on an edge few can imagine. Enjoy what you have while you can. Then think through positively what you must do next.

Dark cloud
Dark cloud