Plans are underway to conduct the first ever Global CEO forum in Sri Lanka on 21 September. Its apt theme, ‘leading in turbulent times’ prompts us to ponder on the continuous turbulences that we pass through with associated perils and pitfalls. The Chief Executive Officers (CEO)s around the globe must be geared to become champions of change. It is an opportune time to reflect on leading in a BANI world with special emphasis on ‘glocal’ challenges faced by CEOs with global and local relevance.
A turbulence typically means a state of being disorderly or confused, not calm, or controlled. It relates to an irregular flow of things. Peter Drucker, in his seminal book titled, “Managing in Turbulent Times” states that, a time of turbulence is a dangerous time, but its greatest danger is a temptation to deny reality. He refers to a collision that takes place in human mind. According to him, the greatest and most dangerous turbulence today results from the collision between the delusions of the decision makers, whether in governments, in the top managements of businesses, or in union leadership, and the realities.
In other words, there is a gap between the reality as it is and how it is perceived, the way people want. It points to the fact that human beings typically resist change. Robert Schuller comes to our rescue in stating “tough times never last but tough people do.” Why some people soar while others sink, in going through turbulence, highlights the range of responses available for people.
As Drucker observes, in turbulent times, an enterprise has to be managed both to withstand sudden blows and to avail itself of sudden unexpected opportunities. Therefore, an organisation should have a “sward” in order to spearhead competition by way of exploring opportunities, as well as a “shield” to withstand ups and downs associated with business. Optimally managing the resources is essential in this respect.
Enter the BANI world
Jamais Cascio, an American anthropologist came up with a refreshingly new world view, and he calls it the BANI world. As he argues, the world today is Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible. He writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specialising in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasising the power of openness, transparency, and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society.
I read a recent Forbes magazine article by Jeroen Kraaijenbrink with much interest with regards to the BANI world. As he explains, BANI says something about people and how they have mistakenly perceived the world up to now. In that sense, BANI should instead be seen as a correction, or a reality check, intending to shatter four illusions of humanity’s current perceptions of the world.
Brittle – The Illusion of Strength
Brittle means being fragile, breakable, while seeming firm. It refers to something that is not as strong as it seems. It is illusory strength, the belief that “everything will be alright” and the assumptions that “we all know are true,” except that they aren’t. Brittle refers to the myths that people tell themselves and each other to feel better and more secure.
The world has been around for eons, we tend to negate its indestructibility and durability because of its seemingly infinite lifespan. But it is fragile, and it has always been. The fact that people didn’t (want to) see this, and instead assumed that it was unbreakable, doesn’t change that. And that’s what this “new” concept really reveals: that people finally discover that the world, especially its nature, economy, and peacefulness is a fragile, convoluted interconnected ecosystem. Embracing Brittle means letting go this first illusion, the Illusion of Strength.
Anxious – The Illusion of Control
Anxiety refers to a feeling of helplessness, of being overwhelmed by everything that one faces. It comes with stress and worrying and a fear of not being able to cope with what the world asks—and not really knowing what will come in the first place, thereby making it hard or impossible to make the “right” decisions.
As Jeron observes, anxiety is largely a by-product of information. The more people hear and see, especially bad news, the more anxious they get. Because there’s only so much one can do. And with real-time news coming from all over the world, bombarding us 24/7, it is no surprise that people become anxious—because they’re not in control anymore.
Like the Brittle concept, this says more about people than about the world. Anxiety is a subjective feeling caused by a gap between what one expects and what one experiences. People expect control and for a long time they have been able to hold on to that illusion. The last decades may have been relatively quiet in the Western world, but unrest, war, and crises have always been a normal part of life on this planet. This means people have never been in control. The key difference is that they now finally start realising that (again)—the Illusion of Control.
Non-linear – The Illusion of Predictability
Non-linearity is already a popular concept for a longer time. In innovation, for example it basically says: there’s no simple straight route from A to B. Instead, there’s detours, dead ends, and unexpected outcomes. It’s also part of the common vocabulary in statistics, where it refers to a relationship between two or more variables that’s not a straight line.
The fact that people increasingly talk about non-linearity again doesn’t say anything about the world in which they live. Non-linearity has always been there, and it is a natural feature of any complex system. It is commonly known as the “butterfly effect,” the fact that a chain of cause-effect relationships started by a small event (a butterfly flapping its wings) can result in highly unexpected and disruptive events (a tornado at the other side of the ocean).
This is not something new. It’s a default characteristic of any complex system. What is new and highlighted by the BANI concept is that there is now increased awareness of the non-linearity of our world. This breaks a third illusion, the Illusion of Predictability.
Incomprehensible – The Illusion of Knowledge
Finally, incomprehensible refers to people’s experience that they don’t understand what is going on. They can’t oversee it, can’t grasp it, can’t interpret what happens, and why. This means they can’t find the answers they are looking for and, as far as they do get answers, that they can’t make sense of the answers either.
This comes with a fourth illusion, the Illusion of Knowledge. People might have thought they understood the world. But they never have. It’s for this reason that experts and scientists frequently say things as “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” The world is a mystery, despite the carefully built-up illusion that we understand it. And maybe that’s not something to worry about. On the contrary, it makes the world and our lives worthwhile. Or as Einstein told us: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
BANI and Sri Lanka
Having moved from the COVID “frying pan” to Chaos “fire,” Sri Lanka is a casing point for manifesting BANI. We have a brittle political setup that is supposed to be stable with democratically elected representatives. Needless to state the dire consequences we experience as someone called it a “chase study” than a “case study.”
Anxiety is nothing new to us Sri Lankans. Being indecisive from the leadership end, has resulted in anxiety among masses in multiple fronts. Shortage of vital drugs on one hand, and exorbitant prices of them on the other hand have jointly created much anxiety among suffering millions.
Non-linear path is also becoming increasingly familiar to us Sri Lankans. We have seen that many things do not happen in a straight-forward manner. The obstacles in obtaining the IMF funds are a timely example where the associated complexities creating delays and frustrations resulting in a bumpy ride.
Incomprehensible with the illusion of knowledge is also having a very high relevance here. How some so-called experts came forward to handle economic challenges and failed to deliver is a case in point. The sad truth is that the lack of understanding of the grave issues we face as a nation by the political leaders and their mixed priorities blended with perks and privileges.
CEOs with Ignition against Illusions
“Nobody’s going to fix the world for us, but working together, making use of technological innovations and human communities alike, we might just be able to fix it ourselves,” says Jamais Cascio. Living in a world with BANI 1.0 illusions, we need a BANI 2.0 ignition, by individuals and institutions alike. I would propose it as being Bold, Assertive, Neutral, and Innovative. The starting point could be a committed move from “ego” to “eco” with much consciousness of sustainability as a true servant in action.
The challenge for the contemporary CEOs is to have BANI 2.0 ignition, having properly equipped with both hard and smart (no longer soft) competencies. In being bold, they have to show their risk-taking nature in becoming entrepreneurial. It requires being assertive, without vacillating in taking decisions. Being neutral is the sure way without being prejudiced or biased, in having an open mind in seeking solutions. It essentially requires to be innovative in finding new ways of delivering value, as past success would not guarantee future success. Such a “glocal” response blended with global opportunities and local realities will pave way for sustained success.
“To me, business isn’t about wearing suits or pleasing stockholders; It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas and focusing on the essentials,” so said Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group. The Global CEO forum planned for this week will be a great experience filled with interactive and insightful deliberations. Among the galaxy of veterans, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, as the Chief Guest, reputed diplomats such as Kotaro Katsuki, Deputy Head of the Mission at the Japanese Embassy, and a wide array of CEOs are included. It is expected to perform as a pivotal platform for the exchange of knowledge and networking, in attracting forward-looking, results-driven business leaders from across the globe.
(The writer, a Senior Professor in Management, and an Independent Non-executive Director, can be reached at ajant[email protected], [email protected] or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)