It has become a commonplace to describe the world in which we live as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In this context, considerable energy is devoted to adaptation and change.
However, beyond shared concerns with the survival and growth of the collectives of which we are members, there seems to be little that enjoins the myriad change efforts that consume such quantities of individual and collective energy. That is, despite the effort devoted to creating common purpose within organisations, there is little effort, or even appetite, for creating common purpose – or, indeed, commons – at the broader social level.
This would present little cause for concern were it not for the fact that the expenditure of energy in the service of private visions is not having altogether wholesome consequences for the biophysical systems in which we are nested and on which we are dependent.
This should give us pause for thought about the value of conceptions of ourselves and our shared interests as more than the mere aggregation of private interests. Of course, doing so is quite unfashionable in this age of liquid modernity, which eschews shared visions and the idea of striving with collective purpose towards national and global ideals.
One such ideal is that of the common, public or greater good, which is defined as that which is in the interests of all, or most, members of the community.
I want to explore the idea that our ability to perceive and understand ourselves as members of ‘the public’ has declined in recent decades and that the very idea of ‘the public interest’ has much less purchase today than it once had.
Learning how to think and talk about the public interest and to develop a culture that enables the long-term public interest to be realised is a key leadership challenge.
Identity and continuity
As recognised long ago by the great American psychologist William James, one of the core aspects of the human self is the need to experience the self as a unity that moves through time and space. That is, beyond the obvious physical and psychological changes that occur over the course of a lifetime, we need to experience the sense that we are the same people as we were in the past and will be in the future. This sense is called self-continuity.
Although this need to experience a sustained sense of self is a generic feature of the human psyche, our understanding of who we are, were, and will be is nevertheless constructed in the company of others. An individual cannot develop a sustained sense of self in isolation from a larger social ‘community of minds’ bound by a common language, beliefs, and identity.
Our understanding of ourselves is thus characterised both by a sense that we are unique and distinctive from others, called the personal self, and a sense that we share attributes with others, called the social or collective self.
Further, in the same way that we need to experience personal self-continuity, we have a comparable need to experience collective self-continuity – to feel that the groups of which we are members have a history and a culture of which we can be proud and to believe that these groups will persevere over time.
Think, for example, of the immediate and extended families to which we belong, the football clubs of which we are members along with other generations of our family, and the communities in which we settle to raise our children. Crucially, and this is a theme to which I will return, experiencing and imagining ourselves as members of groups with shared interests and a collective identity, as well as a shared past and a common future, undergirds the collective mobilisation required to enact joint projects for the future.
This insight is, of course, not new. Indeed it is understood and practiced assiduously in many organisations, particularly those that aspire to build values-based cultures. However, it is not with such collectives and collective mobilisations that I am interested in today’s talk. Rather, I am more interested in exploring our relationship, as individual citizens, to a more abstract, non-corporate collective and its shared interests. I am referring, of course, to the public and the public interest.
Wither the public interest?
In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence and entrenchment of many complex problems, which have called ‘wicked‘ (e.g., social exclusion) and ‘super wicked‘ (e.g., climate change) problems. Although the histories and the causes of these complex problems differ markedly, what they arguably have in common is that they are sustained by the pursuit of private over public interests, immediate over longer term interests, and the interests of present generations over those of future generations.
This narrowing of the range of interests that we care about to our immediate, private, interests impairs our ability to understand the complexities of the social and natural systems in which we are embedded and, by extension, the complex challenges encountered in these systems. It impairs our ability to see the world for what it is. In consequence, quick fixes tend to be applied to our problems instead of systemic solutions.
Our tendency to discount or devalue the interests of those that are psychologically distant from us – whether other people, future generations, or indeed, our future selves – constitutes a type of psycho-cultural syndrome that impairs our ability to perceive our shared interests. This syndrome also impairs our ability to act in the service of these interests, manifest as an unwillingness to support changes, whether to our personal behaviour or public policy, that might damage our private interests.
In his recent analysis of what he called “the great Australian complacency,” the economist Ross Garnaut argued that we must soon decide between a business-as-usual and a public interest approach to our problems. Whereas the business-as-usual approach preserves the status quo, the public interest approach requires that we change our minds and our behaviour as evidence demands, so as to bring about a more wholesome balance between our private and the public interest and the interests of present and future generations.
We call leadership in the service of the longer-term public interest Leadership for the Greater Good.
What is the public interest?
A useful interim proxy for ‘the public interest’ or ‘the greater good’ that we might use as we learn, once again, to think and talk about these concept is the ideal of sustainability or, more concretely, ‘sustainable development’, defined by the so-called Bruntland commission as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is by now a well-known, if rather abstract, vision for the future of the world and humanity.
Conceptually, this vision of the public interest imagines that we will experience fair, high quality relationships among present generations, a sense of historical and cultural continuity between past and present generations, and vividly imagined connections between present and future generations.
Practically, this vision requires that ‘we’ – all current voters, for example – endorse policies that partly constrain our present and future collective selves. This might involve incurring certain costs now so as to create the possibility of benefits for our future collective selves and, more importantly, future, unborn generations.
More colloquially, this vision requires that we have shared sense of the world that we want to leave to future generations, such as our grandchildren, and an understanding of our responsibilities as the prevailing custodians or stewards of this world.
However, although this vision for the future of the world and humanity sets out an ideal, if abstract, state towards which a future global society might strive, the idea of striving with collective purpose towards an ideal state at the national, let alone global, level is incongruous with the ethos of our prevailing ‘liquid’ modern age which eschews shared visions and social projects.
Whereas a hundred years ago, the idea of modernity meant striving for perfection; today, in our liquid modern age, it means adapting and changing compulsively with no final state in mind and none desired.
Yet, the sustainability-related ideal of the public interest that I have just outlined requires that we have a final state in mind; namely, to organise our extractive, consumptive, and restorative practices in such a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Furthermore, because this is a social project, not an individual one, enacting the policies required to bring about this idealized civilizational state requires, especially in democracies, broad social support. In requires, in other words, a sense that we belong to the same imagined community that we can draw upon to mobilise collective support for future projects that promote the public interest.
The challenges that liquid modernity poses to our capacity to imagine our shared interests, let alone to act with collective purpose in the service of these interests, are enormous.
In the time remaining, I will do three things. First, I will provide more detail about the meaning of the term ‘liquid modernity’. Second, I will argue that liquid modernity’s emphasis on flux and flex, rather than continuity and stability, can visit harm upon us by undermining our ability to maintain a sustained sense of self. Third, and finally, I will offer some thoughts about the importance of leadership that cultivates an understanding of ourselves as members of groups and communities beyond corporate collectives so as to promote the perception of our shared interests, and collective action in their service.
On change, flux, and liquid modernity
According to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term ‘liquid modernity’, the transition from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’ modernity involved the shift from a time in which humans sought to create a well-ordered world of stable structures to a world in which the very ideas of order and stability no longer have any purchase.
In this world, as we so often hear, change is the only permanence and uncertainty the only certainty.
Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a detailed account of the emergence of liquid modernity, some broad-brush outlines are nevertheless warranted. Given the centrality of the themes of change and continuity to this talk, it is useful to begin at time in the twentieth century when order and stability were of primary concern to us. I am referring, of course, to the period immediately after the Second World War that lasted until the early 1970s – a period sometimes referred to as ‘the Golden Age’.
In his 2006 Boyer lectures, former Reserve Bank Governor Ian MacFarlane characterised this period as one preoccupied with “the search for stability.”
Although MacFarlane’s focus was on the development of an approach to macroeconomic policy that could ensure stable economic growth, the search for stability described, more generally, our response to our shared experience of vulnerability and insecurity throughout the first half of the twentieth century when the world, as we knew it, collapsed.
Although the specific stabilising policies and institutions varied from country to country, these stabilisers reflected a belief in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good, as well as a significant role for the state and the public sector.
At the international level, agreements, such as the Bretton Woods currency agreements, were established, which effectively constrained, and thus stabilised, the monetary and fiscal policies of member countries. The search for stability was therefore as much a national project as an international one.
At the level of individual men and later, women, the bureaucracies of big national institutions, whether business or government, provided an important social context for the personal experience of order and stability. Although these bureaucracies were not regarded uncritically – evidenced, for example, by claims that they held individuals in an iron grip – these institutions did nevertheless possess the modest virtue of providing people with a relatively stable environment within which to construct their understanding of themselves and the course of their lives.
Further, given that people could often expect to remain in their places of work for many years, perhaps all their working lives, and could expect to accrue skills, status and income incrementally, but consistently, over time, these organisations afforded people the opportunity to develop a stable, extended sense of individual and collective identity across time and space in the company of others.
When the Bretton Woods agreements broke down in the early 1970s following the oil shocks of the period, national constraints on investing weakened. Wealth that had once been confined to national enterprises or stored in national banks moved much more easily around the globe, aided by advances in information and communication technologies. In turn, many big corporations began to reconfigure themselves to meet the demands of new international investors who were more intent on short-term profits in share prices than on long-term profits in dividends.
Although a full account of the economic, political, and organisational changes that occurred during this period is beyond the scope of this essay, the point that I would like you to take away is that, in this transition from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’ modernity, many of the stable structures within which people experienced, and expected to experience, their lives, melted away.
Permanence gave way to change and certainty gave way to uncertainty.
Related to uncertainty is risk, and our experience of this has also changed. Whereas risk was largely shared between governments and corporations during the time of solid modernity, in the transition to liquid modernity this risk was largely transferred to individuals and their families.
This phenomenon, which has been termed “the great risk shift” by the political scientist Jacob Hacker was especially pronounced in, but not exclusive to, the United States. In consequence, we have now entered what the late historian Tony Judt called “the age of insecurity.”
This period has also witnessed the fraying of the social fabric, a phenomenon that was described early and perspicuously by the sociologist Robert Putnam is his seminal book Bowling Alone. Putnam documented how Americans became disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and their democratic structures. Like the great risk shift described above, this fraying of the social fabric has occurred in other developed countries, including ours.
The challenge posed by liquid modernity to self-continuity
I suggested earlier that developing a sense of self-continuity requires that we are nested in stable networks of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Given this, the challenges posed by liquid modernity to our capacity to experience self-continuity start to come into focus. So too, I hope, do the challenges posed by liquid modernity to our ability to imagine and act in the service of our shared interests.
The influence of these social and cultural changes on the qualities needed to flourish in today’s unstable, fragmentary social conditions has been profound. As argued by the sociologist Richard Sennett, flourishing in these conditions is partly contingent on one’s ability to address three challenges.
The first challenge concerns how to manage short-term relationships, and the self, while migrating, nomad-like, from task to task, job to job, and place to place. Without a long-term frame within which a person can make sense of her experiences, Sennett argues she may have to improvise her life narrative, or even do without any sustained sense of self. The second challenge, according to Sennett, concerns talent; specifically, how to develop new skills as reality’s demands shift. In the modern economy, the shelf life of many skills is short and workers now need to retrain many times throughout their working lives. The third challenge, which is related to the previous two, concerns what Sennett calls “surrender”; how to let go of ideas, skills, people, relationships, and even identities.
Sennett concludes, appropriately I think, that most people are not like this. Rather, most people value the experience they have lived through and the relationships they have formed with ideas and people and places. Most people need a sustaining life narrative to understand who they are, where they have come from, and where they are going. The ideals of our age thus damage many people who inhabit our culture and can undermine our capacity to develop a sense of individual and collective self-continuity.
Having outlined some of the challenges posed by liquid modernity to our capacity to experience self-continuity, I want to take a moment now to argue for the need to care rather more about self-continuity than we have managed to date. I hasten to add that the reason why I have devoted so much time to describing the challenges of liquid modernity is not because I want to advocate the return of solid modernity, but rather to remind us of what we have lost and what we might, on our own terms, reclaim or recreate.
Stability and continuity matters and we would do well to look back to a time when our forebears were faced with similar concerns about widespread insecurity and vulnerability. After all, this knowledge is part of our historical and cultural inheritance and there may be lessons for us about how we might meet our basic and enduring needs for self-continuity while maintaining, or even enhancing, our capacity for change, especially for change that promotes the public good.
To set the scene for what follows, let me briefly summarise some recent psychological research that has explored some of the consequences of self-discontinuity or, more precisely, the sense of psychological disconnection that some people experience between their present and future selves.
Although research into the consequences of self-discontinuity is in its infancy, the available research suggests that the personal consequences of psychological disconnection can be profound. To illustrate, compared with people who feel strongly connected to their future selves, those who feel weakly connected or disconnected tend to save less, spend more, and behave less ethically.
The reasoning for this, which can be traced to the philosopher Derek Parfit, is that when a person feels disconnected from her future self – such as the self that exists in ten or twenty years’ time – the future self can seem so unlike the present self that she is, for all intents and purposes, a different person altogether.
Understood in this way, and this is admittedly an extreme case, the results reported a moment ago start to make sense. For example, if the future self is a different person to the present self, then it does not especially matter if one spends all one’s disposal income now rather than saving it for retirement. After all, if one puts aside money to fund the retirement of one’s future self, who is unconsciously regarded as a different person, then saving for retirement is tantamount to giving money to a stranger.
The point of all this is to say that in order to behave in ways that have wholesome future consequences, we must be able to imagine that the future recipient of our present actions will be the same person who expends effort in the present. For example, in order for me to save money in the present, I must believe that it is ‘future me’, and not someone else, who will enjoy this money.
Now, here’s the payoff for maintaining your attention all this time: the relationship between our present and future collective selves seems to work in much the same way.
Let me spell it out. In order to incur certain costs now, such as a price on carbon pollution, we must believe that our future collective selves are essentially the same people as our present collective selves. That is, we must believe that ‘we’, at some future time, will be the beneficiaries of the changes that we are being asked to make now that will damage some aspects of our immediate personal interests.
This argument applies equally, although perhaps not with comparable force, to ourliteral future collective selves – such as the selves of everyone in this room that will exist in ten years’ time – and our symbolic future collective selves, such as future generations of our family, future Melbournians, or future Australians.
Experiencing a sense of collective self-continuity, manifest as the sense that we are and will be, in some fundamental way, the same people over time, is thus a crucial enabler of the type of collective mobilisation that we need to imagine and pursue future projects that are designed to enhance the public good.
In much the same way that our understanding of the self as a continuous individual person with a past and a future emerges in childhood through the medium of talk with family and friends, our understanding of our collective selves as an enduring unity with a common history and a shared future also emerges in talk.
It is not for nothing that storytelling has become so popular in organisations that strive to create a values-based culture and a sense of meaning and purpose among its members.
Less common is storytelling that transcends the boundaries of our families and organisations; storytelling that strives for a maximally inclusive sense of ‘us’, which highlights connections and continuities and supports our ability to imagine our shared interests and to act in the service of these interests.
Happily, we are everywhere blessed with people who are engaged in these very discursive acts of leadership, but we would do well to hear, and engage, in much more of it.
Promoting Leadership for the Greater Good, and galvanizing broad public support among citizens for projects that enhance the greater good, depends on it.