Time of the foxes

2013-09-04 00:00

I RECENTLY had a conversation with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor who was in South Africa for an alumni meeting. He said he was surprised that MIT had not come up with the idea of adding flags and probabilities to scenario planning before Chantell Ilbury and I had, because MIT normally comes up with new advances on any aspect of strategy first.

My answer was simple. In the United States, he and his academic colleagues were brought up in a society that assumes it is in control.

We live on a continent where people know they are not in control. Our thought processes, even in the case of the brilliant minds at MIT, some of whom have won Nobel prizes, are to a certain extent determined by the frame of reference in which we are raised.

U.S. citizens, or at least the ones who form the ruling class in fields such as politics, economics and industry, have a culture of control, which influences the decisions they take, even when those decisions are about the rest of the world. Increasingly, this culture is out of sync with the actual control the U.S. has over world affairs which, like Britain before it, has been declining over the past half century.

In Africa, we naturally look out before we look in. We survey the world around us first, knowing that we are only in control of the responses to the changes we see happening outside, which could impact our lives in one way or another. That is why so many of Africa’s ordinary citizens are innovative, because they have to be. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. It is the reason so many world firsts are being achieved in places such as Kenya for new applications for cellphones. There was never the extent of fixed-line coverage in Africa as there was in Europe. Now local businesses are vaulting over generations of technology to spearhead, for example, the use of smart devices as electronic wallets capable of making payments at retail outlets and transferring money to distant relatives. In the words of Ilbury and myself, we are natural foxes in Africa. British and U.S. leaders, until now, have fallen into the hedgehog category, following the advice of Jim Collins in his book Good to Great — that you will only move from being a good leader to a great leader if you believe that “anything that does now somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance”. In other words, focus on your vision and create a world to suit your vision. Look in, then look out —the exact opposite of a fox.

David Cameron and Barack Obama have in the past few days changed all that. They have both looked out at the polls, which suggest that the public does not have an appetite to get involved in another war in the Middle East. Instead of going it alone, which Tony Blair and George W. Bush would have done, they decided to seek the opinion of Parliament in the UK and Congress in the U.S. before proceeding with military action against Syria’s rulers.

The British Parliament has already voted against the idea at this stage and we will await the outcome of the debate in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Nevertheless, by changing the process of going ahead with military action from a unilateral one to one involving consensus, the two leaders have adapted their strategy from their initial instinct of immediate retaliation to a wiser, foxier, and ultimately perhaps a more nuanced and successful alternative.

In a region where the Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter: where your ally becomes your enemy and your enemy becomes your ally; where intelligence can just be a body of lies; where atrocities against civilians are a daily occurrence; where Iraq and Afghanistan have shown there is no end game of a stable democracy in which car bombs are a thing of the past; where Israel is in a perpetual state of readiness for any attack and where any peaceful settlement is a distant mirage; and where sectarian and religious divisions cut the deepest trenches on the planet’s surface — you have to have the bright eyes, the agility and the adaptability of a fox to survive.

You have to look out, then in. You have to understand that however good your radar system is, there will always be black-swan events that take you by surprise.

Above all, you must recognise that you are never fully in control of how events unfold and the best option may turn into the worst option in a matter of moments. Your mind must change in a flash. Welcome to the age of foxes.

Obama and Cameron are beginning to understand that we live in a complex world where the key is to be a visionary hedgehog with a foxy instinct and to be vaguely right, rather than precisely wrong. — News24.

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