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Meta-systemic Thinking

To create meaningful and lasting global change, our leaders must embrace a higher level of cognition: one which allows them to perceive the world as it truly is, appreciating its intertwined intricacies in all their detail.

When we look at the world, we find ourselves in a period of unprecedented complexity. The world is changing at an astonishing rate: the entire planet is interconnected in ways that it has never been before. It is hard for us to make sense of our world in a single day, let alone what it means for tomorrow. Individually and collectively, our uncertainty about the future — indeed even the present — is mounting. History is truly in motion, unfolding before us at a pace we can barely keep up with, leaving us to wonder about what will come next.

We are at a genuine crossroads: what was once familiar is becoming increasingly foreign and unpredictable. There is a pressing need to move at right angles to all that has defined our worldview up to now. There is a real challenge to build resilience and adapt; the price for trial and error is now too high.

In less than twenty years, the rules of the game have radically changed, threatening many long-held assumptions regarding how the world works. There is no clear road map or instruction book that easily reduces the complex variables and major decisions that leaders increasingly face. Partial and piecemeal approaches to tough problems adopted by current leadership structures are proving ineffective. Leaders themselves acknowledge the severity of the challenges they encounter in managing issues of paradox, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity on the global agenda. New leadership solutions are required now more than ever.

The leadership crisis isn’t merely a matter of inadequate training in the realities of global change. It also concerns the fundamental capacities, which leaders bring to their challenges. How clearly, and with how much wisdom, do they see the world around them? How well can they marshal the necessary capacities in themselves to implement effective solutions?

Whether personal or planetary, the need is to be more resourceful in the face of uncertainty — all stemming from mounting complexity. Whether you lead a nation, a business, a community or a family, you are under increasing pressure to apply new capacities to the way you take action in the world.

What I perceive so clearly is that the systems we human beings have built — our governments, our businesses, our ways of sustaining our lives — are not sustainable and, in fact, are headed for collapse. I hasten to add I am not speaking apocalyptically, but extrapolating from current trends. One simple example is to consider our reliance on petrochemical fuel: this is a finite resource which will run out relatively soon. Yet there are no major initiatives to overhaul our transport infrastructure, particularly in the field of air travel, to arrange a functional alternative by the time we will need one.

As many others have observed, it is easy to see that leaders are really struggling to provide solutions to the global-scale problems facing humanity: poverty, environmental degradation, population growth, food production and clean water. It also isn’t difficult to see that the problems are going to become more complex and more difficult for leaders to resolve. Our leaders, trained in conventional ways of operating, are ill-prepared to think and act in the radically different ways required to solve such problems.

I began thinking about the sort of leaders who would be able to solve those big problems — how do they need to think, how would their minds work if they were to make a serious impact on such complex problems?

Through extensive study and research with renowned theorists and practitioners in evolutionary science, human development, adult development and consciousness development over the past 15 years, it became clear to me that humans have reached a point where they need to adapt in order to survive on this planet. The adaptation required is a change in psychological management, and this is a quality leaders must attain if they are to have a meaningful effect on change at a planetary level.

First they need to see that the current social, emotional and cognitive capacities that typify today’s leaders are ultimately the cause of global problems at the expense of the planetary civilisation as a whole. Second, they need to recognise that in order to successfully resolve the complex problems that are threatening the planet, they need to radically enhance their own development, in particular their cognitive capacity. Only leaders with a systemic understanding of how the world functions are best-placed to make the greatest impact. Individually and collectively, leaders need to move beyond the limiting analytical mental models that have played a central role in creating the current crisis.

Leaders need to develop higher cognitive capacities that enable them to understand and manipulate the complex, interpenetrating systems that generate the problems. It is only by mastering the ability to build mental models of how these systems will unfold through time that they will be able to identify optimal courses of action.

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