Class notes from a course on the age of complexity

Dec. 24, 2012 | The Financial Times p8.|by John Lloyd

The British have made a fetish out of muddling through. Caught unawares, suffering setbacks, mustering individual and national will and then, against the odds, defeating the enemy is deeply ingrained in the national myth. It is a source of pride that disorganization is transformed into magnificence.

Now some have developed an anxiety about muddling through, and the lack of strategic thinking among leaders in public life.

General Sir David Richards, head of the British armed forces, recently stressed the need for long-range thinking about the world's unpredictability. Conflict in the Middle East, the rise of China, the slowing of Europe, fierce competition for raw materials, demographic shifts, terrorism and international crime are only some of the vast challenges he sees.

The UK public administration select committee, which scrutinises how the government is run, produced a report in April called Strategic Thinking on Government , in which it declared "we have little confidence that government policies are informed by a clear, coherent, strategic approach".

Similar fears are often expressed about business: that Britain does not produce business leaders and executives with the same grasp of the world's problems as senior corporate managers in other countries - or, more important, of how those issues might affect their companies.

US corporate bosses and high-level professionals attend global strategy weekends, with some serving as cabinet members in presidential administrations.

In Europe, there are France's enarques who have the training and confidence to be equally at home in commerce, public administration or politics, and the multilingual Scandinavians and Germans.

And now there are a generation of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian executives, often with a foreign education underpinning their schooling in a rougher, more competitive view of the struggle for business growth and survival.

Many business schools say they have changed their approach in the wake of the financial crisis. And some globally minded universities with a background in policy are also trying to provide a better sense of world events to tomorrow's leaders.

These include Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

Two years ago, the most cosmopolitan British city's most cosmopolitan institution, the London School of Economics - nearly half of its teaching staff and more than two-thirds of its student body are from abroad - chose to address the anxiety, too. LSE Ideas , a division of the school founded by Michael Cox and Arne Westad, launched an executive masters programme in diplomacy and international strategy. The nine-month course focuses on the impact of global issues on the economy and business, and is aimed at those in public office or corporate executives.

During sessions over the past two years, participants have been given tours of the world's political and economic horizons by luminaries such as Nicholas Burns, a former US undersecretary of state for political affairs. "This is the most complex time for the US in the past half century, and perhaps in our history . . . " he told them.

And Sir David Manning, a former UK ambassador to Washington and foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, said: "There is a strange mood of introversion which parallels the growing complexity of the world."

More recently, former CIA officer Randolph Pherson forced the participants to think through what they would do when faced with dilemmas with huge social ramifications. In one example, they were asked to imagine dealing with the outbreak of the E. coli virus in Germany in mid-2011, in which policy makers were pulled by conflicting demands and panics.

The overall theme for these courses could be summarised as: complexity is all; the most serious decisions are usually taken in the worst conditions; you would rarely wish to start from where you are; and that Pierre Mendes-France's observation - "to govern is to choose" - applies to every kind of responsible authority.

That those who command the public and private summits of the future should be schooled away from the temptation to avoid recognising complexities would be a good deed in a naughty world. Lucy Kellaway is away

By John Lloyd Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition) Lloyd, John. "Class notes from a course on the age of complexity." Financial Times 24 Dec. 2012: 8. Infotrac Newsstand. Web. 26 Dec. 2012.

last updated december 2012