Where the *bleep* are we going to?


SEPTEMBER 26, 2016

“We don’t live in an era of change, but in a change of era”, according to Jan Rotmans, professor of Transitions and Transition Management. How are large organisations and their executives coping and contributing? Who are showing Thought Leadership?

One of the persons studying this is Dr Mignon van Halderen, associate professor of Thought Leadership at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. She has recently published the detailed version of her inaugural speech, certainly a good read. She has observed a rise in CEOs and other executives embracing social and transformative purpose as part of their business values and strategies; CEOs of established companies such as Unilever’s Paul Polman and DSM’s Feike Sijbesma, and founders of new social enterprises like Tesla’s Elon Musk.

One common characteristic of these leaders and companies Van Halderen describes is that they are all fully recognising the fundamental changes in the fields of healthcare, work, climate and energy, that are shaking up our society, and can even threaten our very existence. And they are all embracing the fact that they do not have the answers to all of those issues, requiring us to shake loose old ways of thinking and acting. Forget about the famous dot on the horizon, navigate to something wider. As the Dutch designer and innovator Daan Roosegaarde describes it:

“We are searching for a new system, but we don’t know what that looks like yet. It doesn’t matter; this in fact characterises the ‘new thinking’. We search, we experiment.”

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing, as Socrates said :).

How do companies cope with this uncertain, messy and complex reality? How do they contribute to the ‘new thinking’? Van Halderen labels the front runners ‘thought leaders in a society of change’, organisations with the ability to translate their thought-provoking convictions and novel viewpoints on our society into real behaviour and results.


Front cover Dr Van Halderen’s book.

What can we learn from these thought leaders’ unique way of doing things? One point Van Halderen particularly focuses on is how they break down old worldviews and build new ones. She says this hasn’t been studied much before. And that this is remarkable, given that shifts in mindsets are a necessity for fundamental change. How do they share this shift journey with stakeholders? How do they get employees to see the bigger picture and how do they get them involved?

Those were exactly the questions Unilever Europe have asked us to help with. Our solution is featured in Dr Van Halderen’s inaugural publication as an engagement case. In a sense, the challenge was to spread Paul Polman’s ‘sustainable growth’ business philosophy and strategy internally. To make it tangible for every employee, so all are triggered to contribute in their daily work, in their part of the business. Nobody has the complete answers of what to do, our engagement programme co-creates the space for mindset and behaviour changes to emerge and spread. It equips employees to drive change themselves.

Anyway, you can download Van Halderen’s full inaugural publication—including our case—at dutchschoolofthought.com.

Maybe it helps you as an executive in finding some answers. Or comforts you to know that knowing nothing is true wisdom. Especially in this change of era. Which makes me think… maybe I should start a Council of Unwise, a circle of creative people to fuel leaders’ unwisdom and new thinking. What do you think? Would it help?

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