It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

– By Jim Hagemann Snabe

Fifty years ago, on July 21 at 02:56:15 UTC, Neil Armstrong was the first human in history to set foot on the moon. For me, this moment stands for the unbelievable power of technology – how it can help us reach the stars, quite literally. The moon landing was also the result of great leadership. A whole society had put its best energies into achieving one great goal.

In the article below, I argue that once again we live in a time of great technological advances. Digitalization, especially artificial intelligence, is transforming our society and economy as never before. However, we’re clearly at a point where we need to rethink the way we’re leading this transformation – in order to solve the problems that really matter in a responsible way.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

These are the first lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and in many ways they describe my assessment of our times. A master of language, Dickens used this set of poetic juxtapositions to illuminate the contradictions within the French Revolution (which is the setting of his novel). Dickens’ prose strongly resonated with his contemporaries, who lived through the First Industrial Revolution. And it resonates just as strongly in our times, the age of the Digital Revolution.

“It was the best of times”

There are many indications that the world has never been better than it is today: over the last 20 years, we’ve halved the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty. Most of the world’s people live in middle-income countries. Most children receive the essential vaccinations, and the great majority, including most girls, go to school.

What’s more, the world’s leaders have made a large promise: the promise that the international community will concentrate its best resources and energies on solving some of our planet’s most fundamental challenges by 2030. I’m speaking of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When these goals were announced in 2015, I saw true evidence that we live in the “best of times.”

“It was the worst of times”

So why be concerned? Well, since the SDGs were defined in 2015, four of the 15 years to 2030 have passed. We’ve made some progress in those years, to be sure, but that progress is not enough to reach the goals we’ve set – for example SDG #2, “Zero Hunger,” SDG #3, “Good Health and Well-Being,” SDG #7, “Affordable and Clean Energy”, SDG #13, “Climate Action”. (See my last article for some more details on this.)

SDG dashboard for the OECD countries. (Source: Bertelsmann Stiftung Sustainable Development Report 2019)

SDG dashboard for the OECD countries. (Source: Bertelsmann Stiftung Sustainable Development Report 2019)

The table above shows a section of the so-called SDG Dashboard. It provides a brief overview of where the OECD countries, most of which are among the world’s wealthiest economies, rank in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For me as a Dane, the good news is that Denmark tops the SDG Index ranking. Congratulations! The bad news is that all countries are far behind schedule when it comes to achieving the great majority of the SDGs. In particular, we’re falling short with regard to the SDGs related to environmental targets like climate change, waste management and life on land and in the oceans. For some of these SDGs, we’re even moving in the wrong direction.

I’m also concerned about the fact that SDG #17 – partnerships for the goals – has been flagged red. We cannot deliver on the SDGs without strong global partnerships! If we project our current progress in a linear way, we see that we’ll reach our goals somewhere around 2090. I don’t know how you feel – but personally, I don’t want to wait until the year 2090 to hand over a sustainable world to my great grandchildren. It’s very clear that we need to accelerate. We need to move from hoping and discussing to innovating and leading.

“It was the age of wisdom”

Digital technologies have the power to be part of the solution. The Internet celebrated its 30th anniversary in March of this year. Ever since its inception, three billion people have been added to the global innovation processThat figure shows the exponential nature – and incredible force – of the digital revolution.

But we need to apply technology intelligently and use it to solve the right problems. Digital technologies have tremendous potential for industrial, large-scale solutions that will help us meet the SDGs. They can help make clean energy available to all. They can help us move from the consumption of resources to the re-use of resources – so-called circular systems. They can also help us shape efficient mobility systems with zero emissions and no traffic jams and affordable, preventive healthcare.

“It was the age of foolishness”

But sadly, we’re not yet unleashing this potential. Our biggest digital innovations have been consumer-oriented. Digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa capture all our actions and opinions, while social media platforms like Facebook collect our data for advertising purposes and can spread fake news and influence election outcomes. This is not a very clever use of technology.

So, what will it take to leave the age of foolishness behind and truly enter the age of wisdom? I believe it’s up to responsible leaders to guide things in the right direction.

Dreams and Details – a new leadership model

What do I mean by responsible leadership in the age of the digital revolution? First of all, I’m not talking about traditional leadership, which is largely based on the power that a leader derives from a title or a role. In this narrative, competent leadership is associated with the ability to define goals and make decisions and subsequently ensure that decisions are implemented and performance goals met.

This approach works well in organizations in which you have formal power over everyone involved and in situations where it’s possible to plan for the future, make correct decisions based on facts and implement decisions on the basis of existing assumptions.

However, this model has been largely invalidated by the paradigm shifts of the digital revolution. In a period of great change, it’s difficult to acquire all the knowledge necessary to make the right decisions, and it’s often impossible to create an optimal plan since some of the relevant factors are unknown. Plans and targets will often prove to be too conservative or too ambitious. In this context, the traditional understanding of leadership risks limiting performance and outcomes to what’s been planned. It only reduces inspiration, courage and the will to pursue larger goals, such as shaping a sustainable planet.

Based on these observations and my own experience in business, I’ve come to embrace a different approach to leadership. It’s called Dreams and Details. In this new narrative, leadership is based on the ability to inspire people to realize and develop their full potential in order to pursue a shared dream. It’s about unleashing creativity, challenging existing assumptions and creating the space to find new and better solutions.

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The dream is what we want to achieve – our ambition. It’s based on an organization’s overall purpose. The word “dream” indicates the importance of going beyond logic to inspire people to be part of something meaningful and ambitious.

The great endeavor formulated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 is a textbook example of what I mean here:

 “We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

John F. Kennedy could have expressed this idea in many other ways. He could have said that the United States would become the world’s leading innovator of technology, surpassing the Soviet Union, and he could have set a number of specific KPIs, such as the number of patents filed, in order to achieve it. Would that have been inspiring? Probably not.

The details define the specific areas that we need to transform and perfect in order to achieve our dream, the areas in which the biggest changes are needed, the most critical capabilities. The leadership model includes creating a mindset and framework that will empower people to ultimately unleash their potential and accelerate the transformation of an organization.

Typically, you need to focus on two or three details that you’re not good at today, but that are absolutely vital if you’re to achieve your dream. Forget about measuring other outcomes! Measure your capabilities in terms of those two or three things that matter the most and need the biggest change. If your capabilities improve these critical details, the results will come as a consequence.

For leaders, this means relinquish a certain amount of control. You don’t have a plan. You don’t have all the KPIs. But you know where you’re going. You develop the things that really matter. Then you let people find the best way. And when you do that, I know from my own experience that you’ll be surprised at what human beings can accomplish.

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Let me conclude with a personal confession: I’m a technologist. I believe that we can use digital technologies to make the world a better place. But do I also believe that technology will automatically lead us to a better future? Absolutely not! Technology cannot and must not lead us. Instead, we have to lead technology in order to shape the future that we want.

Dreams and Details is an essential redefinition of leadership for the inflection point in the digital revolution we are finding ourselves at. It is grounded in the need to transform our societies and strive for a better world. Will the effort pay off? In his Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens was convinced that it will: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from the abyss.” What a great way to put it! I hope that strong leadership to innovate solutions for a more sustainable future will enable us to get there without the abyss. This is our dream, our “moonshot challenge”, 50 years after the first human set foot on the moon.

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