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I came across this meme on my Facebook feed today and I was struck by the poignancy of it and its relevance to the questions I have been actively working on solving over the last few years. Questions such as : How might we re-imagine global governance for greater inclusion, peace and shared prosperity? Do we really need top-down leadership? With advances made in technology, can’t we just transform governance in such a way that we can all weigh in on the decisions that impact us?

Image : Will McPhail New Yorker Cartoons

The evidence that top-down representative governance systems are failing to serve the vast majority of people on the planet in a fair and inclusive way is now difficult ignore.

In the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report public anger was for the first time identified as a global issue. Additionally, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust is in crisis around the world. The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.

There are unprecedented and increasing levels of income inequality derived from an economic system that primarily rewards capital and profit-making innovation. Recent reports estimate that in 2017 eight (8) men now own more than 50% of the world’s wealth. As a result, populist expressions of discontent, various forms of extremism and distrust of political institutions are increasing at alarming rates across the globe.

This discontent coupled with new and threatening global risks and malignant non-state actors which strain the limits of our current framework for addressing trans-national challenges makes an acute and pressing case for rethinking our approaches to global governance, equity and socio-economic justice.

Moreover, the lack of access to accurate, and reliable data translated in a way that is relevant to the majority exacerbates public mistrust and volatility within the global community and at national levels.

With this as my context and given my almost two decades of work in the area of public sector contracting, governance and anti-corruption I had formed the view that top-down representative governance systems (wherever they existed in theocracies, democracies, autocracies and organisations) were anachronistic, and had become dangerously parasitic on the people they were meant to serve. These systems preserve the status quo of power in a society, regardless of structural failures and regardless of how that power was obtained.

For sometime, I have been exploring bio-governance models as possible inspiration for social and political governance models. With my untrained eye, I considered the growth and development of trees in forests and I observed no top-down leadership model. Where is the leadership in the development of a tree?

Passionate about the possibilities presented by technology for improving bottom-up power, I set about launching a social governance platform in Trinidad and Tobago in 2014 aimed at enlarging civic power vis a vis top-down governance systems through connecting citizen activists with pro bono lawyers to increase transparency, participation and accountability using exisiting legislative frameworks. In that year I also launched an entrepreneurship incubator to empower innovators to gain commercial leverage while taking on societal challenges usually the purview of their governments.

This summer, I continued on my quest to experiment with bottom-up forms of governance by turning to the issue of global governance. Catalysed by the Global Challenges New Shape Competition, my school, U-Solve School of Empathic Leadership & Entrepreneurship hosted the Global Challenges Retreat in the beautiful world heritage city of Bath, United Kingdom. We gathered thirty-seven people aging from 25–70, from 6 different continents, from all walks of life, diverse educational, religious and cultural backgrounds, most of whom were meeting for the first time but all who shared a common interest i.e. a recognition that global governance systems were failing us and a passion to become a part of the solution.

We decided to conduct an experiment in trust. Without trust there is no interdependence.There can be no society without it and there can be no effective leadership without it.

We decided to first place trust in the power of emergence whereever there is life and in the persons who were invited to attend. We invited each person to place their trust in the power of what could emerge in the group if we all showed up authentically. We created an experience which we hoped would help participants to break out of social convention and politeness that is usual at these types of events. We wanted to dig under the hood, get uncomfortable and facilitate each other showing up authentically.

We took people through a three day experience which mirrored the U-Solve transformation process which engages emotional awareness and management, uncovers personal limitations to taking action and invites deeper consideration of your personal engagement with making your respective communities better. The days were long and we did not always tell the participants what to expect. In fact, we broke with the agenda on several occasions as we in U-Solve, as well, were submitting ourselves to trusting in what was emerging from the group of people who were present. We were committed as hosts not to replicate a top-down model in the management of the retreat.

For us, re-imagining global governance was not about telling the UN, National leaders, Multi-National Corporations and other actors how they should govern themselves and us better. For us, re-imagining global governance was about first understanding how do we govern ourselves and our relationship with each other. How do we show up in the world and how do we contribute to perpetuating the dysfunctionality in top-down governance systems?

Only a profound inward revolution which alters all of our values can create a different environment, an intelligent social structure and such a revolution can be brought about only by you and me. No new order will arise until we individually break down our own psychological barriers and are free.


The Retreat was challenging. Some had come with expectations that they would be taught about global governance. Others came with the expectations that they would teach on global governance. Others still, hoped for us to use workshop techniques to come up with an idea or a new model for global governance. After an experience which included laughter, pain, tears, arguments and finally realizations and hope, the group came together on the last night with a shared purpose to create a new community working to develop a new governance model that was fair, respected the dignity of all members and which allowed for bottom solutions to be generated to address global challenges. The Retreat did not in fact end in the three days, some persons changed their flights and stayed on one, two and others even three nights more. We continued to have unplanned sessions and conversations which stretched us, challenged us and also deepened connections and our hopes for what we could do together. We hope to be able to exemplify a mutually caring and responsible society for others to replicate.

That said, six weeks later the going continued to be tough. We met every third Sunday virtually (so we have had two meetings since the retreat) and we communicated daily via skype, whatsapp and facebook. We have lost a couple people who feel that the group is just simply unqualified to be addressing complex issues such as global governance. There are others who are still with us who kept pressing for us to “do something”, to “take up a task” because it seemed the abstract concept of finding a new way to govern ourselves detached from a task is unrealistic and not really of interest. Nevertheless some of us continue to press on with this idea that we have left governance up to others and it is time for us to not only promote a new solution to global governance but to become and embody the solution that we seek.

Perhaps the greatest harvest of GCR 2017 was the realisation and the acceptance that at the root cause of all global challenges was a lack of empathy either for self or the ‘other’, whether that ‘other’ was a person, a thing or an idea.

Strengthened by the work of Iman Stranesus on Crowdocracy and Mark Klein who created MIT Deliberatorium both of whom we approached after the retreat and have pledged their support to our little group to guide us as we experiment and test a leaderless model of governance — or perhaps it is better to call it a “leader-full governance model”.

And so now we are pressing on as a community working on empathic solutions to global challenges. Some of our members are working on a virtual reality film project for building empathy and a ‘gaming for good’ project, others are working in healthcare innovation, diversity education, data governance, women’s empowerment and socio-economic empowerment of at-risk and justice involved populations.

So back to the meme, which probably encapsulates the views of the naysayers best. Are we all really just foolish passengers who want to take over the pilot’s job? If it is true that we cant all be pilots and most of us have to be passengers, is that analogy relevant to the discourse on leadership?

Is a pilot a leader? Here for me the answer is yes and no. It depends on how we define leadership. If leadership is defined as headship, directorship, governorship, superintendency, control, ascendancy, rule, command, mastery, dominion, premiership and sovereignty, then the pilot is not a leader. However, if leadership is defined as service, guidance, direction then the pilot is a leader. The pilot is flying us from point A to Z. We cannot do it for ourselves but we the passengers as a group have a shared purpose in getting from point A to Z. Perhaps the meme interpreted this way provides for us the best explanation for the justification of leadership in modern society.

Leadership is service.

So maybe the question is not so much about top down versus bottom up approaches to leadership but about redefining what we consider leadership to be. This kind of approach will provide great insight for identifying where there is a need for leadership, how we select those leaders and their fitness for the purposes that they are there to serve.

Leadership must be providing some function to the members of a group. Leadership stripped of service is merely dominion.

Is there any purpose of dominion in the form of sovereignty and premiership in modern society? If so, what is it? I am not seeking to answer this question here but to throw it out for you to consider. It is the very question that I turned my mind to in 2014.

Most industries and systems have been disrupted by technology. Our governance systems have been the most resistant to change, perhaps because of the inevitable linkage between leadership in our governance systems and the distribution of power (commercially and militarily) in society. The democratization of media and knowledge has contributed to some of the biggest cracks in our governance systems in recent times (think Brexit, Trump).

Of late, I have found myself becoming a student of the natural sciences and non-linear mathematics. Greatly influenced by the work of Frijof Capra in the Systems View of Life, I am fascinated by scientific developments which reverse the Cartesian reductionist notion of the universe and the human body as machines composed of building blocks and which suggest instead that the planet as a whole, is a living, self organising system and the human body an organism within that planetary organism with every single cell as a living cognitive system. Capra explains the living cognitive systems of cells as a “cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces of complexity, networks and — a new science of qualities”.

This new science of qualities demonstrates that all living systems share a common set of principles of organisation and that there is no such thing as an independent organism. It is all interdependent.

The view of man therefore as somehow being separate from other men and from nature, is at the root of our spiritual, societal and ecological dysfunction.

The real crisis is thus not an ecological one, the real crisis underlying our greatest challenges today is a crisis of perception.

There is no other.

A meta-level view is that we are all interdependent parts of one living organism.

If this holds true then, our task in re-imagining governance and leadership is to understand the functions that will serve us at an individual, societal and planetary level and to identify those in our group who will serve those purposes for the group as a whole. The task for each of us is to ask of ourselves how can we serve the group?

Perhaps, like the beautiful poetry found in the cooperation of our cells, the future of governance lies in us discovering the paths we need to take to embrace biological patterns in our socio-legal and economic systems.

Margaret Rose Goddard

Margaret Rose-Goddard is a lawyer and public procurement specialist. She is currently a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Policy Research, University of Bath, UK and is the founder of the U-Solve School of Empathic Leadership & Entrepreneurship.

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