Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

The Global Pandemic: A Trigger for Deeply Systemic Disruptive Social Innovation? Or an Inevitable Global Apocalypse?

The Global Pandemic

by Erwin Schwella

Dean, School of Social Innovation, Hugenote Kollege, South Africa

19 June 2020

Our political, social, and economic ideologies and institutions are not adequately dealing with global wicked problems. Leadership must start and sustain courageous leadership conversations, or we will not make progress towards solving these growing problems and the probabilities for an apocalyptic end increase.

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The Global Footprint Network (Network) (https://www.footprintnetwork.org/) tracks the ecological footprint that measures the demand on and supply of nature. This information can help countries to improve sustainability and well-being, local leaders to optimize project investments, and individuals to understand their impact on the planet. Each year, the Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), the date when the human population’s resource consumption exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources during that year. EOD represents the day on which humanity enters environmental deficit spending.

The first calculated EOD was for 1971 and it stood at 29 December. The most recent EOD calculated for 2019 was 29 July. According to the Network, human consumption currently requires one and a half worlds to sustain the global population. This is a source for a myriad and multitude of wicked leadership and governance problems, globally, nationally, and locally.

Enters Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834) again.

Malthus, an English cleric and economist, studied and wrote on political economy and demography. In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus postulated that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the population, but this improvement was temporary as it led to population growth which then restored the original per capita production level. Humans have a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a higher standard of living. This creates the “Malthusian trap” where populations grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want, and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, leading to a catastrophe.

Malthus opposed the popular 18th-century view that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible. Malthus saw population growth as being inevitable whenever conditions improved, thereby precluding real progress towards a utopian society.

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”i

This Malthusian thinking, which is not devoid of criticism, can be linked to the sustainability crisis which has links to the ever-earlier arrival of the EOD. It can also be tied to other global dynamic issues, including scarcity, inequality, poverty, and unemployment. It is also relevant to the post COVID-19 world where a “new normal” for the previous (not so) “normal” complex societal challenges will have to be faced and addressed.

The world will increasingly face common global challenges as is already the case with inequality. Currently the world is an unequal global entity – even more unequal than South Africa which takes a close second in this sad race for the bottom. These conditions will be increased due to the exponential universal and global spreading of the viruses of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and scarcity.

Current societal political, social, and economic ideologies and institutional arrangements, such as capitalism and socialism and their institutional manifestations as these are currently implemented are seemingly not dealing with the global and local wicked problems adequately.

These “new normal” challenges will need to penetrate and defy attempts to use power-based global-access control strategies, such as attempts at isolation and “social distancing” using mechanisms such as sovereignty, the nation state and its outcrops of immigration and border control. Access control will not suffice to keep it at bay, even human-constructed concepts such as the sovereignty of nation states, immigration and border control, Brexit, and Mexican Walls. Or even a re-constructed Chinese Wall.

Crafting relevant leadership responses require answers to a global big question, being:

“How do we:

  • collectively, and inclusively
  • design, and deliver
  • systemic global societal institutions,
  • to create, and share
  • public value effectively, and ethically?”

Getting to the answers, requires “fit for purpose” design and delivery systems which combine systemically-inclusive sets of societal institutions – including, but not limited to the state, business, and civil society – into a global human-centered design system.

The legitimization and legalization as well as the sustainable institutionalization and implementation of such systems will, in itself, be a generator of wicked problems. Not dealing with these matters, however, will be infinitely more amorphously wicked in its medium- and longer-term consequences.

Current societal political, social, and economic ideologies and institutional arrangements, such as capitalism and socialism and their institutional manifestations as these are currently implemented are seemingly not dealing with the global and local wicked problems adequately. And analogously, representative democratic as well as non-democratic non-representative states and governments have difficulty in dealing with the root causes of these societal challenges as well as the crises that manifest from these root causes.

The call to action for dispersed servant leadership globally and locally is to start and sustain courageous shared and inclusive leadership conversations that may change these conditions in all relevant forums and platforms. Unless a growing consciousness of these wicked problems are deliberately built and put on the agenda, there will not be progress towards solving these growing wicked problems and the probabilities for an apocalyptic end increase.

Disruptive and radical social innovation may be required and even then, such social innovation may not occur, or if it does, it may not suffice.

The stakes are high. If these conversations fail in creating a growing consciousness and socially innovative ideas, second and further waves of recurring global apocalyptic crises such as pandemics, famine, global warming, wars, and tsunamis may become prevalent.

A Hobbesian scenario may emerge, where life becomes solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short!

And there may be a war of all against all, as was predicted by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in his book, Leviathan (1651).

iMalthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxfordshire, England: Oxford World’s Classics. p. 13. ISBN 978-1450535540, summary accessed via Wikipedia, last access 15 May 2020.

headshot of Erwin Schwella

Erwin Schwella grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He obtained a PhD in Public Governance from Stellenbosch University and became an academic there in 1981. Realizing the real consequences of apartheid, he became an academic and activist critic. During democratization he served to shape new South African governance institutions. Since taking emeritus status from Stellenbosch he serves as Dean: School of Social innovation at Hugenote Kollege in South Africa. Erwin served as the Chair of the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group.

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