From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?