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Superheroes will survive this world in flux - interview with Nik Gowing
Nik Gowing
Welcome to Talking about Thinking the Unthinkable, which is our latest leadership conversation and podcast. I’m Nik Gowing, Founder and Director of the Thinking the Unthinkable project.
These are unsettling times. COVID, the deepening climate emergency, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How have you as a leader or aspiring leader been coping and handling these dramatic new upheavals of the stability we once took for granted? More important, how will you handle what now lies ahead?
Joining me is Tom Fletcher from Oxford, where he is the University’s youngest principal at Hertford College. I’ve always admired Tom as a far-sighted diplomat. He was foreign policy adviser to three UK Prime Ministers. He wrote a compelling and revealing book, The Naked Diplomat. At just 36 he was then ambassador to Lebanon, where he showed how much of it could really be done differently.
His current work is equally compelling. Here it is: a book about 10 survival skills. ‘What is needed for our world in a state of flux?’ A new human capacity for creativity, as he puts it.
Tom, welcome. Let’s explore these 10 survival skills. But I emphasise survival because how turbulent do you think the world really is? You use that word survival. That means literally battling to remain doing what you’re doing.
Tom Fletcher
Well, thank you Nik for the chance to have this conversation. And thank you too for the inspiration that Thinking the Unthinkable has provided for this work.
I think that when we set out to have these sorts of conversations, it was quite a lonely space to be in. And you’ve challenged us throughout to really think about the unthinkable and the unpalatable, and to be much more challenging about ourselves as leaders.
It’s those sorts of conversations that led me to this investigation in the book where what I’m trying to do is to explore what are the skills we really need to share with - actually not just the next generation - but our own generation of leaders needs these skills as COVID demonstrated.
I went away for two years and talked to leaders and business people and young people, importantly, and teachers and activists and refugees, to really get a sense of what are those skills that will take us through this time ahead. Because, as you say, it is about survival. And I thought very carefully about that choice of word. But if you look at these overlapping challenges coming at us - and you’ve described these eloquently and in much more detail elsewhere - this mixture of challenges from climate change to the next pandemic, to the next economic crash, to a generation of people on the move, even before you get into the challenges of automation, and artificial intelligence, it’s no surprise that people feel that life around them is so fragile.
They feel that they’re on such unstable footing that they have such a need: a sense of a need to somehow ‘take back control’, as the famous phrase went.
So I do think this is about survival. And it’s easy to characterise some of the skills that I talk about - being curious learning to live together learning empathy - as slightly soft, fluffy skills. Things that we don’t really test, we don’t really take seriously enough to actively teach or develop in ourselves. And yet, these are the skills that will help us to survive these overlapping challenges that lie ahead of us.
So I don’t think this is a fluffy project. I think it’s absolutely essential that we wake up and start mastering these skills today.
Nik Gowing
Now obviously, you wrote much of the book well before what happened and what is happening still in Ukraine. When you look at the analysis that you’ve given, let me quote you a bit: “Facing these megatrends, it should be no surprise that most of us feel unprepared and apprehensive. That we worry that the world is somehow out of control.” You then say it is. Do you think people realise that?
Tom Fletcher
I think people feel it instinctively, increasingly. I think that’s why you see it in these spasms of anger in elections. You see it in the rise of distrust in anything that looks like authority or hierarchy or expertise. You see it in that growing perception of inequality and the sense that somehow life’s unfair and other people are getting a better deal than us. And I think you’ll also see it in that more existential fear of automation and technology.
We know that we’re going to go through in the next century as much technological change as in the last 43. It’s no surprise that we feel destabilised by that, that we feel that the world is somehow moving too fast for us, because it is.
Nik Gowing
You make a large number of analyses, in which you say very clearly that actually people have not come to terms with the scale of what is happening. You quote one person saying ‘for most policymakers and leaders today, the present is a foreign country’. In other words, it’s alien to the way they think.
Tom Fletcher
Yes, actually, that was a former prime minister who said that to me. So this is at the top as well.
I think one thing that would unite both Barack Obama and Donald Trump is that sense that having attained power it’s so difficult to exercise power, it’s so difficult to govern, it’s so difficult to see through change.
I think one revealing aspect of the latest crisis with Putin and Ukraine is that autocrats like Putin are able to take a longer term perspective than we often are in the West, where we have this roller coaster news cycle and electoral cycle that makes it much, much harder for policymakers to be strategic.
I always imagined that when I got to Number 10, I’d get closer and closer to the centre of power in Downing Street and I’d find a room full of really smart, cynical people moving oil cans around on a huge great map and armies and so on. And I got closer and closer until I was the last person in the room of the prime minister. And what I found was, I was just there trying to get news stories out to you, trying to get items on the Sky ticker, you know, this is before Twitter. Now they’re probably just trying to get things on Twitter.
I don’t know anyone who feels that government, anyone in government, who feels that government is more strategic than it was 20 to 30 years ago, that government is able to step back from that maelstrom pace and noise that makes it so hard to govern.
Nik Gowing
So they’ve come to terms, not just government leaders but also corporate leaders and leaders of the future like where you are at Oxford University now. Do you think they really understand the enormity of what has happened? Because you say very clearly, ‘we now need to anticipate 10 new known unknowns’. A frightening combination. But most people don’t know what to do.
Is it denial? Ignorance? Turning off? What?
Tom Fletcher
I think it’s harder and harder to say it’s ignorance because I think we are… particularly with climate, we can’t say that we don’t know. We won’t be able to say that we didn’t know. So I think it’s often fear. I think it’s also something to do with political accountability and a sense that someone else has got this.
And in a way, my journey since leaving, government has been to try and work out, well, who’s got this? Who is actually coming up with the solutions? Because in my experience at the top of government, government couldn’t do that alone, government was finding it harder and harder to find those solutions. So I went and worked in the world of NGOs and activism, where you’ve got brilliant values-driven people who can see the need for change, that don’t have the levers to pull.
I’ve worked with business, where again, often people have a real sense of how fast things are moving, but assume that someone else will come up with the solution. I’ve worked with people at the highest levels of the UN. And they certainly don’t have the resource or the strategic bandwidth to make change happen. So everyone’s looking around thinking ‘well, someone else has got this, someone else will come up with the answers’.
And, I suppose the bad news, the frightening news, is that no one’s coming over that hill with those answers. And so a large part of the solution does depend on us as individuals with this extra agency and power that this smartphone gives us, finding ways to harness our collective creativity. And that’s why, ultimately, I’m writing in the book about education as upstream diplomacy. If we sort out education, then I believe we will be armed with the skills that will actually help us to respond.
Nik Gowing
I need to get you to answer one of the questions you ask yourself, can we train ourselves to be better prepared for shocks? Because in the last 10 minutes of this, I want to get positives out there for leaders to realise they can change and they need to change the way they think, work and behave.
Tom Fletcher
Yes. And that’s why in the book, I’ve tried to put lots of practical stuff in there. And often this will be based on practical exercises I’ve developed with students.
So for example, the very practical skill of empathy and understanding your opponent’s viewpoint. The ability to do as Mandela did - and if you know the great film Invictus, the moment in the World Cup final when he puts his opponents, the Springboks, shirt on. The symbol of his opponents in South Africa. There are very practical things you can do to practice that skill of seeing someone else’s perspective, of seeing your own Instagram filter on the world.
I think a great superpower is the ability not just to see other people’s filters, but to really understand your own filter.
Another very practical one that you can do is about finding purpose. Where I think an exercise as simple as sitting down and writing your own obituary gives you a sense of the mark that you want to leave in the world. Or even better to sit down and write your own eulogy.
The obituary might say, you had this extraordinary job. Amazing journalist, broke these stories, sat in these seats, interviewed the following people, had the following ideas, wrote the following books. The eulogy will of course, say something very different. And the more that you can align the obituary and the eulogy with how you’re living your life, day-to-day, I think the better equipped you are then to survive these challenges ahead.
Nik Gowing
So if I need to ask you what age should one write one’s own obituary and eulogy?
Tom Fletcher
Well, I’ve just done it with 19-year-olds. We run a course here called Head, Hand and Hertford, and it was day one, I sent them off to the park to write their own eulogies.
Nik Gowing
I should say that one of your key phrases is we need to blend head, hand and heart. It sounds a bit cheesecakey and fluffy to me. But you’re saying this is actually a way which leaders can follow?
Tom Fletcher
Yeah. We tend to emphasise too much the head part of this, the knowledge. Einstein said, why memorise anything you can read in books. Now, why memorise anything you can look up on Wikipedia. The problem is that because you can test that and assess it, we put so much more emphasis on that, whereas actually, it’s the practical skills.
It’s the hand part that’s so important. And the values, the heart. You know this. Ask any business leader: what did they wish they’d known when they were 14. And they won’t say I wish I memorised all of the periodic table. They’ll talk about learning from failure. They’re talking about resilience. They’ll talk about communication, you know, all those other skills that we don’t emphasise enough in our education, or indeed in life beyond school and university.
Nik Gowing
Tom, you talk about the importance of creativity and curiosity in particular. Survival skills. And then you say development, disaster and disruption drive creativity. In other words negatives - like the kinds of things we’re seeing at the moment and experiencing - actually could and will drive the kind of new talents and capability that you’re advocating.
Tom Fletcher
Definitely. And when we were developing this curriculum for the future, it struck me that I was going to a lot of very expensive international schools where they were teaching resilience. And then I was also spending a lot of time with young refugees. They didn’t need to have a class on resilience, you know. They were picking it up as they went along. And so it is often disaster and disruption that allows you to develop those skills.
And it’s why I remain optimistic, at the end of the day, because I do think we have found ways to come through similar periods of peril. And that was before we had this amazing tool, this amazing connectivity that allows us to collaborate and create across countries, across generations, across disciplines. That’s an amazing superpower to have. But it will only work if we harness that; if we create space for that creativity. But also if we create the political conditions, where coexistence is prized, where we spend more time thinking about how we work and create together, and less time learning about the wars that we happen to win.
Nik Gowing
How much do you think the mindset needs to change and how quickly can that be done? Because you talk about how we need to learn all the time to retain what you called a ‘plasticity in our brains’. In other words, to keep the grey matter turning all the time.
Tom Fletcher
These aren’t skills which I would just hope that five-year-olds or 16-year-olds are mastering. I think these are for people at every stage of life.
I was very struck recently, I was doing a talk at University of Copenhagen and half the room were over 70. At the end I said: is this a bad sign that we had only the pensioners in today? And the guy said no, because everyone in Denmark gets three weeks a year free university education. I don’t think that university should be a sabbatical from life. I think they should be focused on that lifelong learning, that constant upskilling. If we didn’t need that 30 years ago, my God we need it now, when you look at what automation will do to the jobs that most of us are doing.
We will have to find ways to adapt to consciously evolve as humans and keep learning new things.
Nik Gowing
What is practically achievable within government, amongst civil servants and also in the corporate sector, right from the top to the bottom, from the board right down to the lowest levels?
Because you talk about how we need to allow ourselves to think the unthinkable - our language - sometimes, and to nurture the individuals who do little else. Because you need, as you put it, to allow time for mad ideas, and the patience for means to deliver them. Mad ideas, different ideas.
Tom Fletcher
Yeah. We need to create space for eccentricity. The great inventions, you know, there’s always an eccentric in there somewhere. You need the loonshots, as someone has written. Those moments where, actually, you just sit in the bath and suddenly you have a eureka moment.
And my concern, actually, with the way that many of us are using technology, or rather being used by technology, is that it crowds out the space for those moments of chance and serendipity that we need if we’re going to make those next leaps forward in handling the climate crisis, or heading off the next economic crisis or finding the next vaccine.
Nik Gowing
Can you really embed the idea of eccentricity into structures like in a civil service where you’ve worked, like in the corporate sector, because ultimately, as we say in all our work, the conformity which qualifies you for a job in many ways disqualifies you for being a conformist.
Tom Fletcher
It’s a really interesting challenge. Actually, it’s funny being in a world now in Oxford where eccentricity is much more highly prized, and where I’m surrounded by…
Nik Gowing
…but do you use that word eccentricity when you’re describing those you see?
Tom Fletcher
I think in Oxford, often, they’d be quite happy to be described as eccentrics. Whereas if you describe someone as an eccentric or a maverick in the civil service, that would be a sign they were probably on their way out.
I think people are conscious now that there needs to be much greater space created for people to think the unthinkable within those structures, within those institutions. But the reality is, and you know I led a review of the Foreign Office in 2016, these aren’t cultures that naturally encourage risk taking. The risks that they do encourage are not risks that much of the world would actually regard as being big, exciting risks. They tend to be fairly small, marginal risks.
So somewhere along the line, in Whitehall - but I’d also suggest central governments elsewhere - need to find a space for those conversations. Strangely enough, it was often in Downing Street, it was often the special advisers. I mean, people always assume that civil servants and special advisers have this sort of hateful relationship in a sort of Sir Humphrey Yes, Prime Minister kind of way. But actually, it was often the special advisers, because they were there for a year or two years, they wanted to get stuff done quickly, they wanted to challenge us. It was often the SPADs who came up with the more exciting, risky ideas, and then the civil servants could try and help implement them.
I would love to see civil servants playing much more of that role too.
Nik Gowing
How does someone, to quote another part of your analysis, the misfit thinker, you say, and the lonely genius inside us all? How does someone inside an organisation who’s made it actually create a space which doesn’t put them a great risk professionally, of being marginalised or kicked out?
Tom Fletcher
I think it is tricky. One broader challenge is the fact that in most policy proposals within the civil service, by the time it gets anywhere near a minister, it has been so varnished by groups and committees and departments, the overall product is very vanilla. There’s no ownership to it, there’s no accountability for that. It might have someone’s name at the bottom, but everyone knows that 30 people have worked on it. So it’s an amazing example of collaboration, but what that collaboration often does is to take out any any real edge to the advice.
You know the old cliches about the advice will tend to be three options, two of which are the same, and the other one is completely unthinkable. So it is going to be quite hard. I think a lot of this is about leadership. I think leaders need to be saying to their departments, I want some exciting ideas here. In my red box, I want 10% of it to be things I’m going to say no to, not 100% of that being things that I can just nod through because it all seems quite straightforward and unchallenging
Nik Gowing
What I’m trying to get to is: you’re lucky, you’re out of government now, you’ve moved on. But there are others who are equally talented, who will be saying to themselves, dare I create a rod for my own back? Look at what happens with whistleblowers, for example.
In other words, not just in the UK, but in many, many parts of the world, there is this need to be compliant, which means you’ll still have a job and get on as opposed to doing what you’re saying is necessary as one of those massive 10 survival skills.
Tom Fletcher
I think that is a real challenge and so part of that has to come from the leadership. Civil service and political leadership demanding fresh ideas, demanding fresh thinking. I think it’s worth looking out for, however lonely, the maverick thinker, they won’t be completely alone.
And so I think it is looking out for others in that space who can challenge you and help you to harness and present your ideas. Looking for mentors who can help you get the ideas in front of the right people. And also putting the caveats in so when you’re explaining that this is an out-of-the-box piece of policy advice, this is not your classic policy submission, it is a bit of fresh thinking. Saying that right up front, so that people always have a health warning on it, is probably another way of making sure that it doesn’t lead you to rapid departure.
Nik Gowing
I’m very struck by one thing you said, it’s about learning, not the right answers, but the right question. How much does that underpin everything that you’re saying about these 10 survival skills?
Tom Fletcher
Absolutely. I mean, I think there’s perhaps a stage of life I’m at, maybe a stage in life we all go through, where you realise the dangers of certainty and the importance of asking the right questions.
I think it’s really important to ask ourselves, am I gaining or losing trust in what I’m doing, the conversations I’m having? Gaining trust, this crucial currency of trust, or losing it? Am I contributing to inequality or to tackling inequality? Am I part of the problem or the solution there? And am I using technology or am I being used by technology? I think those are crucial questions for all of us.
And ultimately, if I was to try to distil this whole book into one question, it’s how do I become a better ancestor?
Being a good ancestor has always been about working out what are the most important skills I can pass on from my ancestors, and values, to my descendants in order to improve their survival chances? And I think that’s a question we must all ask ourselves in these incredibly fragile and unstable times. Because the skills we must pass on are not the same as those that we inherited.
Nik Gowing
Many thanks, indeed. Our time is up. But what I would say is, if you identify anyone who’s got a great story to tell who’s actually challenged and succeeded, we’d love to be part of being with you to understand. Because I think, actually, those numbers, even if they’re small, will encourage others particularly in this time of change. So Tom, many thanks indeed for joining us.