Are we solving the wrong problems?
Most people probably have heard or read one or more of these change imperatives: Evolution or extinction. Change our ways or perish. Be creative or be damned. Innovate or bust. Grow or die. Species maturation or collective suicide. Daunting, but true! But, how did mankind find itself at this crossroads where, as Eric Fromm fears, “one wrong step could be the last step.” Better, what is needed to resolve our present predicament and to achieve a viable and sustainable global future everyone wants to see? That, in my thinking, is what leading change in the 21st century is really about. To lead change for the future we have to make sure we are not solving the wrong problems.
Disaster metaphor after disaster metaphor portrays “a planet in peril.” Tragic but common descriptions are: “Apocalypse”; “Armageddon”; “Breakdown of our cultural pattern.”; “Bubble economy.”; “Crumbling modernist times.”; “Disillusionment of entire populations.”; “Disintegration of our society.”; “Imminent collapse of our civilization.”; “Impending convulsions and chaos.”; “Malfunctioning socio-political-economic system.”; “Massive breakdown of individuals, institutions, and societies.”; “Also massive dislocation in the affairs of humanity.”; “Massive failure of modern civilization.”; “Sinking Titanic.”; “The end of civilization.”; “Tottering on the brink of disaster.”; “Unsustainable direction of modern society.”; “World problem.”; and so on.
No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of the modes of thought.
– John Stuart Mill
Psychological and social problems
Widely reported psychological and social problems include: “emotionally disturbed children”; “troubled youths”; “turned-off students”; “busy-yet-bored employees”; “outwardly successful, and yet emotionally troubled executives”; “drug-dependency”; “ever more people today [who] have the means to live but not the meaning to live for”; “the forgotten four-fifths [who have neither the means to live nor the meaning to live for]”; and “most of us [who] go to our graves with our music still inside [unplayed, unheard].” The familiar cliché, “If you are not scared, you are not listening,” captures the mood of people everywhere.
Reactions to the global situation range from passive resignation to naïve optimism. The one extreme people who interpret the modern crises as signalling the imminent collapse of civilization. The other extreme is those who seem to believe that things will sort themselves out somehow. Between the two extremes is the growing number of individuals and social movements that are proffering an assortment of proposals to avert the ultimate catastrophe.
Viewing problems as a crisis
Conventionally, the world has viewed its problems as “economic crisis,” “social crisis,” “educational crisis,” “financial crisis,” “political crisis,” “environmental crisis,” and so on. Based on that perception, several sectorial remedies have been proposed and tried. The long history of failed development, despite the enormous commitment of effort and resources, coupled with the visibly deteriorating human and environmental condition, suggests that we may not be tackling the real crisis (or crises) but, from all indications, the effects rather than their underlying cause. In effect we are solving the wrong problems.
The more I get to understand the modern crises and the global predicament, the more I agree with E. F. Schumacher that “we are suffering from a metaphysical disease, and the cure must, therefore, be metaphysical.” Schumacher’s “metaphysical disease” refers to the deeply flawed but generally accepted system of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions by which, through which, and with which we live and experience the world (even if we are not always aware of the all-pervading impact of those ideas on our behavior and our actions).
My understanding of Schumacher’s “metaphysical disease” thesis is that (contrary to generally accepted view) the dreadful situation the world is facing is not “economic crisis,” “social crisis,” “political crisis,” or “environmental crisis,” per se. It is not separate crises, either. And it certainly is not due to the so-called human depravity, as it is sometimes presumed.
Holding misleading assumptions and beliefs
Our fundamental problem, as Ashley Montagu argues, is the inadequate and misleading assumptions and beliefs we hold about ourselves and, concomitantly, the institutional patterns and operational relationships (economic, social, political) we have built on those assumptions and beliefs. Montagu writes:
It is highly important, indeed urgently so, that we consider the possibility that our traditional ideas concerning the innate nature of man may be wrong and damaging, for I am convinced that underlying much of man’s malfunctioning … is this unsound conception of human nature.
– Ashley Montagu
Two sides of Montagu’s statement are these: First, the chaos the world is experiencing is rooted largely in inadequate and misleading perceptions of human nature that underlie modern economic, social, and political thought and actions. Second, the modern crises and global predicament are not likely going to be resolved within the framework of the prevailing understanding of human nature.
Leading change in the 21st Century
Leading change in the 21st century need not, and cannot, be prescribed. The issues and possible leadership platforms are countless. Potentially, they are as many as there are individuals aspiring and willing to lead. Choice of issue or platform depends on what the individual leader, or would-be leader, considers important or urgent; what he or she believes will give meaning to his or her life; and, in particular, what the leader wants to give the world as his or her contribution.
However, to the extent that Montagu’s observation is valid, the best hope of resolving the difficulties the world is facing and of building the much-desired viable, humanly fulfilling, and sustainable global civilization is, first, to correct the mistaken beliefs we hold about ourselves as humans and, second, to conform public and private actions to our authentic essence.
“Correct the misleading beliefs we hold about ourselves”: That, it would appear, is the fundamental challenge of our time, the central project of society and, by implication, a necessary and important consideration for modern change leaders.
Analysing the deepest thinkers
Analysis of the work of the deepest thinkers of the ages, past and present, provides a useful starting point for correcting the misleading beliefs we hold about ourselves. The result of the analysis challenges, even refutes widely held conceptions of human nature. These are individualistic, self-centred, competitive, adversarial, materialistic, and consumption-driven. To the contrary, an overwhelming body of evidence powerfully and persuasively demonstrates our quintessentially creative nature, driven primarily to develop and to contribute one’s unique abilities to the greater good.
Anecdotal evidence further suggests that the more people come to grips with their true nature as humans and their place in the harmony of nature, the more socially and ecologically responsible they are likely to become. Ipso facto, the more socially and ecologically responsible people are, the less acquisitive, the less consumption-driven, and the less adversarial they are likely to be. Of course, the less adversarial and the less consumption-driven people are, the better for a finite Planet Earth and for posterity.
Summary – are we solving the wrong problems
“Beware continuing solving the wrong problems,” the title of this article, aptly summarizes the intended message. Considering the large number of life-threatening, evolution-or-extinction crises the world is facing vis à vis scarce and rapidly dwindling resources, there is an urgent need to rethink the human predicament and strategies for its resolution. From the point of view of this article, there is no more urgent leadership task, no more enduring legacy. A metaphorical statement by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (former Nigerian military/political leader) illustrates the stark alternatives humanity is facing. Says General Babangida:
You should avoid the fatal mistake of the proverbial dinosaur which lived on its past glory refused to learn new methods, failed to adapt to changing times, and which, ultimately, had to face definite extinction.
Given the daunting situation the world is facing, I am convinced that the men and women who lead institutions and organizations are increasingly going to be evaluated not on the basis of their “charisma,” lineage, educational qualifications, bank accounts, material possessions, or social status; but on the basis of the power of their ideas – creative, transforming, mutually-beneficial, life-enhancing, and humanly-fulfilling ideas – to shape a future that works for all and that is both viable and sustainable.
There can be no sugar-coating the global predicament and the attendant imperative: Fundamental change, or the fate of the dinosaur! That, plainly, is the “metaphysical” challenge to anyone who would lead change in the 21st century.