Right now, as the virus SARS-CoV-2 alarms us with minute-to-minute updates and pauses us with extra time, it’s inviting us—compellingly– to reflect on how we will lead in the starting-now future.
Our thoughts jumble as we waken to awareness in this viral 9/11 moment of our global future. “We had no idea.” “There was no way to predict this.” “This could last a long time.” “The epidemic is a black swan, unpredictable and unforeseeable.” “How did this happen?”
And yet, it’s not like we didn’t know. Online you can find TIME magazine covers, Bill Gates TED talks, and numerous resources that have been pleading, for years, “We’re not ready for the next epidemic.” Yet here we are. If this phenomenon is a black swan, a flock of black swans looms on the horizon: scientists say there are hundreds of thousands of viruses that could infect humans, meaning that when they do, we won’t be ready immunologically.
A Future of Disruption…and Adaptation
There are more black swans than just the viruses. As the virus unveils an archetypal example of social disarray from infectious risk, our failure to prepare for the certainty of its arrival mirrors parallel risks in economics, environment, technology, energy, food, health, and commerce. Research on any of these underscores that disruption is inevitable in its arrival, swifter than our perception of normal allows, and unpredictable in its exact time and method.
You have to tip your hat to this thing. It’s showing us how a brainless clump of genes packed into a single strand of RNA with a protein shell can wreck markets, snarl travel, cripple a global economy, rattle governments, and seed denial, blame, and fear. It’s driven an international scramble for toilet paper!
It’s also showing us enormous responsiveness and resilience in people. Italians have emphasized the distinction between physical distance and social distance as they stay socially connected through music in the space between their confined balconies. Ted Cruz is complimenting AOC on social media. Virology labs around the world are collaborating on understanding and stopping it. Mayors, governors, school superintendents, and health directors are stepping up admirably. Health care personnel, at unknown and significant risk to themselves, wade daily into unknown risk to help others. Neighborhoods are self-organizing around protecting and supporting high-risk individuals and creating a sense of community. As the virus has organized and multiplied its effect, people are also doing so, from the bottom up.
The virus is showing us the power of emergence, surprise, and unpredictability. In the world we’ve built so things can move faster—bytes, dollars, images, slogans, trends, passengers–the virus underscores that disruption also moves at speed. It’s revealed that uptake and diffusion are prime currency in the 21st century, that those two things allow something to go from “nothing to something” very quickly.
This change is a table tilter for mental models. Control won’t work; stasis and status quo, while appealing to some, inhibit improvement and innovation as they increase risk. It’s tempting to think we can go “back to normal”; it’s seductive to think we can prevent these black swans and rogue viruses. Relapsing to “the way we’ve done things” is an understandable reflex with strong inertia–and the wrong map. We live in and have further created an open-system world; to lead, organize, and survive, we need to live by open-system principles. Where do we look?
Along with the late-to-recognize consequences, the opportunities are here—the chance to make our food, transportation, energy, and social systems more resilient—for us and for the world we live in. Here’s just one example: How Coronavirus Makes the Case for Renewable Energy. The question is not whether disruption continues—it’s how we will be intentional about creating a more stable and responsive world, small and large, all sectors. The Old Rules aren’t working, defend them as we may. The virus has settled that. Enter the need for a new model of leadership.
Biology as operating system
Shatter ecosystems, and instability and degradation create chaos; it’s as true in the human body as it is in a forest or an economy, as on a prairie or in Syria. Virologists and epidemiologists note that degraded ecosystems escalate the release of harmful pathogens. Ebola, MERS, SARS, and Zika, and Coronavirus are all examples. Biology makes the rules. This reality may seem terrifying and disempowering, but it is perhaps the opposite. Biology is not the threat, but the answer.
In a world of disruptions large and small (enjoying self-quarantining yet while you work from home with the kids and dogs?), the stability and responsiveness we seek can be defined by one word: resilience. Resilience can be thought of as the summed results of the following capacities: adaptation, the ability to respond in a healthy and sustainable way; agility, the ability to change direction or approach quickly without undue penalty; innovation, the ability to create novel change; and regeneration, the ability to grow things back after destruction or degradation. We use all these words—resilience, adaptation, agility, innovation, and regeneration in our business and social lexicons, but we’re parroting a vocabulary rather than understanding the biological operating system underlying the words themselves. Design them into mental models, diffuse them through the processes and practices of your system, and you get resilience at all levels.
The most stable AND responsive—resilient!– systems in the world are biological: human bodies, living populations, ecosystems, each defined in their own way by their (bio)diversity, relatedness, reflexivity, and densely connected networks. Biology is the operating system of this planet, and “healthy ecosystem” defines stability over time and constant responsiveness to micro and macro effects, external and internal. In such systems, we find the following, far from all-inclusive, insights for leading in a disruptive, high-velocity world:
Biodiversity is an advantage. Biological diversity ensures plenty of prototyping and competition for “best answers.” Fundamental conditions and uniformity within populations and “boundaries” ensure common ground for exchanges (oxygen, water, sunlight, population limits). Equilibrium, dynamic equilibrium, the free exchange of materials and information in two directions, results. Crash biodiversity, and you crash stability, responsiveness, and possibility. Whether alveoli in the lungs or honeybees or buyers and sellers in a market, eliminate enough biodiversity, and the system will crash. We have a name for an unchecked homogenous cell line in the human body: cancer. We have the social science to validate that similar dynamics work in teams, companies, and governments. Nature abhors a monoculture. (Someone said this to me once, but I can’t recall who.)
Circularity creates continuous capital and prevents useless waste: the conversion of one organism’s waste into another’s substrate/“capital.” There is no pile of natural resources that is constantly diminished while a pile of refuse/trash infinitely accrues. Everything shifts from side to side in the dynamic equilibrium. Circular economies and thinking are rising around the world; we need more.
Networks are ubiquitous and defined by their efficacy in transmission, not the content of their transmission (the same network that brought the virus allows us to travel easily across oceans). They allow the origin, exchange, uptake, and diffusion of materials and thought. New ideas flourish on the palette of constant innovation (which biology calls “mutation”) fueled by the local contributions of diverse individual nodes. Redundant paths prevent bottlenecks and minimize knockout points, allow parallel distribution, and multiply the points of origin of new ideas and optimize the opportunity to isolate lethal threats. A dense (many connections per node), diverse (different kinds of parts with varying susceptibilities and immunities) and diffuse (widely connected across its population) network is hard to crash and able to adapt.
It’s about the platform
“If you want to win, be a platform,” said Reid Hoffman, the founder of this LinkedIn community (I don’t know him). The virus has used us as a platform, and it doesn’t even have a brain or an intentional thought. In addition to our formidable and ubiquitous technology platforms, our communities—our teams, our companies, our neighborhoods, our institutions—are our platform, and we need to learn to infuse them—via wide and volitional participation– with the principles of biological resilience to create a society that works better, learns faster, and creates abundant vitality. The currency of leadership today is social intelligence at scale, mapped to any combination of known and (as yet unknown) impending disruptions.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Matt Burr and Becca Endicott of Nomadic Learning note, “In a world we anticipate, a world where work never returns to the office, the most important factors for success will be ample trust, mutually agreed-upon norms, good communication, and a strong and validating work culture.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-will-permanently-change-how-we-work-11584380290) Leading in an open-system work culture, an open system economy, means leaders will have to create human cohesion at scale across geography, leveraged by and integrated with, but not subsumed into, technology. For that to work, the “social platform” must be human, not dehumanizing. Going forward, “leading” means to create linked networks of freely participating people whose shared norms create “social gravity.” We have the science and the technology platforms. Leaders now need the focus and the “design know-how” to facilitate exponential social intelligence.
Your individual attributes as a leader still count, but less as a point source than as a facilitator of widely distributed intelligence. Our computing technology already works this way; now it’s time to see “leadership” as the facilitation of optimal technology-humanity communities. Leadership now means the summoning and honing of “clouds and combinations” of mindsets, optimal interaction patterns, and dense, connected feedback loops to create highly sentient, participative interlocking and interoperable platforms. Your contribution compounds as a facilitator of exponential, ubiquitous and ethical ecosystems; your learning must come from being an inquiring, respectful part of one.
This shift has to happen in your team, your organization, our sectors and institutions, entire societies. The 21st century is here—it brings great risk, great opportunity. Will we learn now and cross an inflection point, or will this be one more shared byte of infinite information streaming where we fail to pause, to become more aware, to lead, design, and organize differently?
The coronavirus is causing havoc. Will we learn to respond with epidemic capacity in anticipation of infinite “next times,” or will we be on the run in our own land, flinching at shadows and hoping our old way of thinking magically fits a radically new reality? This is a disorienting time; let us make it a re-orienting time.
If this little thing can go worldwide with all these effects in less than 90 days, then we, too–numerous, intelligent, creative, caring, and connected–can create enormous positive change much more quickly than we’ve allowed ourselves to think. That’s the final lesson of the coronavirus—time. We’re out of time; time counts; the time is now; we can make better time; time to change our thinking. Wherever you are, it’s time to lead with time in mind.
Find Larry McEvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org