The Menzies Foundation is delighted to be collaborating with Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell AO and her team at the ANU School of Cybernetics to build the foundations for the national and global leadership conversation we must cultivate collectively to address the significant leadership challenges we face in Australia, our region and the world. This white paper builds a bridge between the past and the future, it highlights the foundational importance of a systems perspective, and provides a framework to deepen our collective understanding of the essential leadership attributes we will need to be instrumental in creating an imagined future which optimises the potential of people, technology and planet.

The Menzies Foundation aspires to build a leadership movement which encourages Australians to reflect on leadership, build their leadership capability and contribute to the ‘greater good’. This white paper is an important contribution to this movement. We look forward to working with the School of Cybernetics to elicit your feedback and then develop the experiential platform to build this leadership capability. – Liz Gillies, CEO, Menzies Foundation

Foreword – where are we now in Australia? – Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, Director, School of Cybernetics, The Australian National University

In the summer of 2019, nearly 80% of Australian households were impacted by bushfires, either directly or indirectly1. These impacts were felt across all dimensions of daily life – from the quality of the air we breathed and our mental health, to the availability of reliable information and telecommunication networks, to the relative robustness of supply chains and transportation routes. We discovered a renewed sense of community, an orientation to data and datasets of renewed importance, the stubborn persistence of state-borders, and the importance of partnerships between government officials and content experts. We tuned into daily news briefings, downloaded new apps, and worried about our friends and families, about our country, and if things would ever be the same again. We grieved both for the lives lost and the theft of a certain kind of seasonal pleasure. And then it rained. A lot. And in many places.

Before we could catch our breath, the COVID-19 pandemic started. For more than two years, Australia, like the rest of the world, has navigated the pandemic. Depending on the moment or the vantage, our handling of that pandemic has been successful, farcical, naïve, brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate, reckless, fast and slow. Of course, the pandemic is still ongoing, and the final assessments will be years in the making. The role of government, corporates and NGOs blurred again, as we sought to secure supply chains. Daily or hourly engagement with algorithmic check-in systems became a cornerstone of our new ways of living and governing for community safety and information-sharing.

What is clear now, however, is that the pandemic, like the bushfire season before it, were not simple, single events. Indeed, the marked similarities between the 2019-2020 bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic thus far point to something significant and worthy of further scrutiny. Bushfires and the pandemic are manifestations of complex adaptive systems; systems that encompass ecological, cultural/social/economic and technological dimensions. The challenge of leading in a world full of such systems feels acute. Everything is connected. Our actions today and our experiences of this period — life and death mediated and experienced through individual screens, the use of analytical tools and a broad range of new technologies not present in past global events of this magnitude — will have far reaching consequences in workforces, social dynamics and geopolitics for decades to come. This raises an urgent question we must tackle now, head on: how do we lead effectively in this context?

This white paper addresses the reimagining of how technology, society and the environment are connected, and how we can empower people to lead change towards a safe, responsible and sustainable world for humans, non-humans and the environment, and map the transformations required at individual, organisational and community levels. I hope you find this paper thought provoking and will join us in giving it life through tools, capacity building and transformational experiences. It is not enough to write; we must also do!

 We started with a conversation…

In 2021, we convened a group of individuals with a range of community, academic and commercial organisational affiliations. We sought to understand what questions about leadership they were grappling with now.

An interesting picture emerged, as we circled in on a number of questions…
– What skills will be effective for leading change in these complex and algorithmically mediated environments?
– Will those who lead change be those in traditional leadership positions?
– How do we lead change not just in corporations and organisations, but at a global, national, and community levels, and within ourselves?
– How is leading change across and between all these arenas possible?

These questions bring into sharp relief the need for new ideas, and motivated us in the search for a new way to think about leadership.

We have scoped this work as a cybernetic leadership white paper. It provides an introduction and a way into the relatively new field of cybernetic leadership. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but will address some of the why, what and how of cybernetics leadership, drawing on a selection of the many years of research and applications in the domain from Australia and across the world. Our ongoing work with Menzies Foundation will put the principles from this research into practice in leadership learning experiences – moving to the who, when and where, and critically, how we scale this approach to reach broader audiences and understand its impact in the world.

Stay tuned, next up in this series of extracts, we will bring you – How can we think differently about leadership?