Chris Langdon and Nik Gowing on why we must “think the unthinkable.”

HiBL final logo with straplineThinking the unthinkable has to be routine for leaders across business, finance the public and third sector, given the scale and pace of change that all organisations are facing, argue Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon.

Why did so many at the very highest levels in leadership roles fail to anticipate the financial crash of 2008,  the current migration crisis, or since January  2014, President Putin’s takeover of Crimea, the precipitous fall in oil prices,  the rise of Islamic State,  the threat of cyber-hacking,  or the migration crisis?  What is it that inhibits the current generation of leaders  from thinking the unthinkable?

Since February, we have conducted in depth, off-the record conversations with sixty of the highest level leaders and their advisers from  business and finance, government, the military and the humanitarian sector,  and members of the coming generation of leaders, the millennials.  Throughout we have been  in listening mode and deliberately non-prescriptive.  Our aim  has been to accumulate a revealing new data set of frank assessments from the highest levels.  Our report, “Thinking the Unthinkable: a new imperative for leadership in the digital age” was  published last month by the Churchill 15 Twenty First Century Leadership Programme, set-up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston’s death.

Leaders were  remarkably frank about the new frailities and the dilemmas of how to adapt smartly their own skills and organisation to cope with what most – but not all – saw as unprecedented social, political and economic upheaval. “Some CEOs are scared stiff. We must be disruptive taking risks and challenging the status quo,” said Paul Polman Unilever’s CEO, one of the few to go on-the-record.

So why now? The most salient point from the research is that a convergence of previously ‘unthinkable’ events  has left leaders with a sense of vulnerability, never before experienced,  Worse still, lessons may have been drawn,  but for most part they have not been acted upon.

One of the most telling interviews was with 27-year-old Aniket Shah, a remarkable millennial who has already had careers in banking, asset management, and is now in international development. He told us: “all these organisations or institutions that we once held in high esteem and sort of revered tremendously, are actually dying a very slow, but painful death. Now we find ourselves… slightly stunned, slightly stultified… We look up and we know exactly what these people do as we live in a transparent world. And we say: ‘You know what? The emperor has no clothes and we can do this a lot better’.”

It is clear from many discussions  with millennials  that Aniket speaks  for many next generation of high-fliers who are showing by their career choices their negative view of a future in corporates and government.  Aware of this,  a number of chief executives said they wish to engage with generation Y’s concerns.

Almost all interviewees confirmed that a culture of conformity was the key obstacle and limiter that contributes to the failure to think unthinkables.  As a result we heard how many organisations are increasingly afflicted by a ‘frozen middle’.

Organisations must be totally restructured  to address the scale of “wicked problems,” – ones which  cannot be solved by a leader  alone. This  requires new forms of more adaptive leadership to build resilient organisations where challenge and collaboration are built into the culture. Thinking unthinkables must not be  a career killer.

Without exception, all the  insights shared confirmed a clear direction of travel. Indeed, many urged that we dig even deeper because of the scale of challenge,  which we now plan to do. At this first stage, however, we did not consider it appropriate to come up with solutions.  Given there are more than 23,000 books covering leadership currently on Amazon uk, there is no shortage of proposed solutions!

How do we make a difference?

Comments are welcome to: chris@thinkunthinkable.org

All good wishes,

Chris and Nik

Chris Langton

Chris Langdon is  head of ‘Reconciliation through Film’. He is the former MD of the Oxford Research Group.

Nik Gowing

Nik Gowing, is former News Broadcaster at the BBC and ITN. He is now a Visiting Professor at King’s College  London.