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Leadership2050 Edition 2, The Five Paradoxes of Radical Change


Hello everyone and welcome to this 2nd edition of the Leadership2050 LinkedIn Newsletter. Firstly, thank you so much for all of you who have signed up. We are approaching 2000 subscribers’ people from all over the World. Secondly, thank you for all the feedback in the chat and individual messages in which there were so many interesting themes raised. I will seek to integrate them into future newsletters and podcasts, and you will also see some of them reflected below. 

This second edition of the Leadership2050 newsletter focuses on a speech that I will give at a seminar for Oxford University’s Society for Sustainable Business and Entrepreneurship (https://www.osbesociety.com) entitled ‘Is there such a thing as enough?’ The event will focus on conscious consumption and will ask the question ‘How do we reconcile people’s desire for growth with the increasing pressure on the planet and our duty of care for everyone?

This question is at the core of the challenge that leaders will face between now and 2050. We need to see major changes in how we understand economic growth, natural resources, spirituality, psychology and innovation. These changes will bring about shifts in how we consume, the technologies that we will adopt and how governments and companies think about their role in the world. Fundamentally and practically, it will be about the decisions that we take as individuals, companies and governments. 

As I see it, there are five contemporary paradoxes of radical change that need to be addressed and transcended if we are to answer, in a meaningful way, the question posed at the event: 

1.     The psychological paradox – for millennia, most human beings have had to struggle for existence and have never had a deep sense of having enough. This has been manifested in the supply of food, which has been subject to drought and pests, society, which has been threatened by conflict and violence, and housing and shelter, which, until recently, have not been secure from a legal and quality point of view. We have to ask ourselves: has this sense of deprivation created a feeling that we have to continually think about our futures as being insecure and to hoard resources for difficult times ahead? Has this left a legacy in our subconscious that means that we need to continually acquire wealth and consume in order to be secure? 

2.     The innovation paradox – when we look at companies today, we can see that they become trapped by the power of success. More often than not, companies that achieve great success struggle to make radical change whilst they are benefiting from this success. The incentive structures that surround senior managers – shareholder expectations – and an inability to see the world differently are contributing factors to this. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the net consequence of this is that companies that control markets and resources, and thus have a major impact on consumption and the planet, do not have the right incentives in place to move fast enough to address the challenges currently facing the world. What must they do to create the right conditions to make the decisions that the world needs? 

3.     The growth paradox – is it possible to lead a company that does not have growth expectations, but rather seeks to grow to a certain level and then remain there? Many companies find themselves doing this because of internal and external circumstances, but not many succeed by doing it through choice. Entrepreneurship, by its very nature, is about the growth of the new. If we try to keep entities at a certain size, does this mean that they will inevitably go into decline because we are not pushing for them to develop? This is an unexplored area of leadership and strategy and also unexplored from the perspective of shareholders and competitors. Will a lack of growth also mean a lack of innovation and competition? Negative unexpected outcomes maybe the consequence here. 

4.     The resource paradox – when we observe economies around the world, from China to the USA to India, what we see is that economic growth has been the primary means by which people have been brought out of poverty. However, what we have also seen is that the more an economy grows, the more damaging an impact it has on the environment, through factors such as emissions and waste. Therefore, when we look at the population of the world, the need to bring people out of poverty, and the environmental impact of economic growth, what we currently observe is that it is impossible to address these without furthering the damage done to the environment. How do we break this connection whilst still bringing people out of poverty?

5.     The spiritual paradox -–this is perhaps the hardest of all the paradoxes to define and understand, but perhaps the most important to address. There have been two trends that we have seen over the last few decades in what can be referred to as the ‘western world’: firstly, the rejection of formal religions by some parts of the population, and yet, secondly, a growth in their adoption by others. What we are left with is a fracturing of society, leading to an increasing sense of being polarised, and with more challenges around mental health. If we are to move forward, what are the values that will hold us together in a heterogeneous world? And, fundamentally, how do we value the sanctity of all life as we produce and consume, without a common religious framework through which to do so? 

These five contemporary paradoxes of radical change seek to give insight into reconciling people’s desire for growth and the impact on the planet. When we look at the theory of how to work with the paradoxes, the first step is to accept their presence. This can take place at the level of the individual or groups, and through how companies think about their future strategies and how governments formulate policy. 

Being aware and acceptance of these seemingly irreconcilable factors are the first steps in the process of transcending them. What theory then teaches us is that we need to bring them into confrontation. For a company, this is about bringing different voices into its strategic decision-making processes; for governments, it is listening to voices that are normally ignored by different political perspectives; and, for individuals and groups, it is to do, perhaps, with exposing themselves to other individuals and groups with whom they might not normally interact – this is not always easy or comfortable but, if we are to change and move forward, perhaps very necessary. 

The process of transcendence is not easy or quick, but often involves the ‘loosening’ or changing of identities, introducing new values and making difficult and radical decisions. These decisions often take individuals, groups, companies and governments on different trajectories. It is about reconciling aspects that were previously thought to be irreconcilable. 

For more details of this process,  see my paper in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2016/06/lessons-from-companies-that-put-purpose-ahead-of-short-term-profits

Stand by for the next edition of this newsletter, when I will introduce examples of leaders and the companies that they lead, and how they are following this process. I will also be recording a podcast series (also called Leadership2050), which will include interviews with these leaders and which will go into more detail. 

I would like to thank the organisers and the attendees of the event hosted by the Oxford Society for Sustainable Business and Entrepreneurship in May 2021 for running an event that has facilitated my thinking about this topic. 

Finally, you may be interested as to why I am asking these questions?  As a Senior Fellow of Management Practice at Said Business School (SBS), University of Oxford, my research and teaching focuses on how leaders transcend 21st century challenges such as disruptive technology change and the climate crisis. Also, how they create cultures that are diverse, inclusive, resilient and high performing, alongside the ongoing challenge of delivering profitable growth. At Oxford I direct the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, and in this capacity work with leaders from many geographies, industries and governments. All of this has given me a deep understanding on how good leaders create value and bad leaders destroy it, as measured from multiple perspectives. One could argue that never before has this been so important on a global stage. Hence why I am undertaking this work.