The world is not manageable

Development Policy10 Jul 2013Reinier van Hoffen

Imagine the world was a cooperation: what business model would serve us best to achieve sustainable development? And how would that foster durable and positive linkages between different ‘departments’ or continents? Would we need department managers or leaders? And what kind of ‘management information system’ would be  required to ‘run’ the world? 

During my studies at Wageningen University in the 1990s, remote sensing emerged as a promising new technology for geo-information science. Satellite imagery offered seemingly unlimited potential in sensing what was going on in a particular area or region without physically visiting it. In the development landscape it seems that more and more people have developed skills in ‘remote sensing’. Techniques to store, retrieve and interpret data are becoming increasingly sophisticated while people actually assessing field situations are declining in number. As a result, fewer people than ever are able to integrate all the information provided or have some clue about how it all hangs together. Data saturation, validation challenges and ever increasing levels of complexity obscure the ‘remote sensing methods’ practiced by scientists, policy-makers and the desk offices of development agencies in the ‘advanced economies’. The benefit of analysis is taken at a very high level of abstraction and is profitable to a very small number of people in government and business circles.

Complexity and business leadership training

In my view the complexity of data has taken over from bold leadership. Leaders are no longer able to take decisions if they are not supported by a trustworthy dataset. And some of these datasets show worrying trends on key sustainability indicators like water, food and energy. Scenarios have been developed by, for instance, the scenario team at Shell to determine what the world will look like in 2050 and beyond. Demand for food, water and energy with nine billion people inhabiting the planet will be staggering. Nevertheless, political leadership has never changed faster than in the last decade, with some influential people seemingly reluctant to take responsibility for running public offices. There is good reason why governments increasingly look to the private sector to provide the kind of leadership they cannot deliver. However, are these corporate managers sufficiently trained as political leaders?

Bad leaders

In her most recent publication, business training expert and author of several management books Barbara Kellerman refers to what she calls ‘the end of leadership’. In an earlier book she exposed ‘bad leadership’, showing how it is often accompanied by coercion. Without checks and balances, she says, power will certainly be abused. Kellerman’s colleague Professor Jean Lipman-Blumen identifies the insecurities of followers as the main determinant of leadership. Lipman-Blumen emphasizes the need to favour collaboration over bowing to authoritarianism, creating short-term coalitions instead of long-term alliances and forming enterprises to which people want to commit themselves. She identifies a good leader as someone who puts the group’s goals ahead of their own. For the followers, she provides ways to identify toxic leadership and to overcome anxiety.

Independent parties

If Kellerman’s analysis is right, businesses have been spoiled by leadership training that aims at self-efficacy instead of the servant leadership of Lipman-Blumen. According to Kellerman, leadership rhetoric included the implicit assumption that developing leadership skills is a medium for achievement, in that it will bring you money and power. However, Kellerman says, this has led to a crisis of confidence in those charged with leading wisely and well, causing instability in governments and the rise of populist parties. Voters no longer believe that their governments are serving the public interest, while political parties seem to cater only for specific groups in society rather than for society as a whole. As a result, populist parties like UKIP in the UK, the PVV in the Netherlands and the Progress Party in Norway are gaining unprecedented victories across the political establishment. It is not difficult to guess what impact this is having on development cooperation.

Old and new thought leaders

With the role of the state being reduced, the market is being called upon to play its part. But what kind of leadership is the private sector embracing? Social entrepreneurs like Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Elkington of Volans are pointing to the need for a stronger connection with self and our most inner values for radical change or breakthroughs to happen. These streams of thought are making headway in Dutch and European business and government circles. However, what does this do to followership, so clearly identified in business education as a chronic shortcoming? Will multinationals produce world leaders that support a transition towards sustainability? Or will they continue siphoning off their revenues to islands in the Pacific? And what about business owners in Main Street? Will they be willing to share their income with the less privileged? From the rise of populist parties in Europe, it may be understood that not only the rich, but also the middle classes would rather cater for themselves and want their governments to do the same.


  1. Kellerman, B. (2012) The End of Leadership, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  2. Kellerman, B. (2004) Bad Leadership: What it is, How it happens, Why it matters, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005) The Allure of Toxic Leaders: why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians – and how we can survive them, New York: Oxford University Press.