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Japan’s Mission Impossible: Choosing between a rock and a hard place

March 17, 2011

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of choice, able to make decisions. It is also the case that in leadership, for example, a key understanding necessary for any aspirant is that the ability to make the right decision isn’t what counts; it is the ability to make any decision at all. All leaders know that there is something arbitrary about decisions, because we never have all the information, never have certainty about anything unless we are prepared to deceive ourselves, never have the luxury of knowing perfectly that we are right. The kind of certainty I often oppose in argument is a manifestation of hubris, and we all should know where that leads. (Weird how many either don’t know or keep forgetting).

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching events in Japan with a growing sense of horror and sympathy. Meanwhile, rather like vultures, the punditosphere is awash with commentators attaching their own baggage to an event already burdened with considerable significance. I am minded of the caution historians are supposed to display – that history is not something that occurs (or can be analysed in a proper context) in one’s own lifetime – and it is clear only that nothing is clear, nothing can be said about the impact and future implications of events in Japan at this time, except that it is a disaster for Japanese people, and that building a nuclear power plant in a zone riddled with fault lines and plagued by constant earthquakes is not a good idea. Isn’t armchair hindsight wonderful?

There are three components to this tragedy. Two of them – the earthquake and tsunami – we can only wonder at, so far are they beyond our powers to intervene. I’ve been in a very minor earthquake (in California) and it leaves one with a sense of insignificance few other experiences can approximate. Ditto a thousand mile wave-front, 30 foot high, travelling at motorway speeds.

The third component, however, is of a different order: man-made.  The other events touch us from a distance, but the wave-front of the nuclear disaster reaches everywhere. I’m not going to attach any baggage of my own here, and my position on nuclear is now so equivocal it isn’t worth writing down. I will say my position on nuclear power has not been changed, merely cast in a more powerful light, a sharper focus. Other than that, I draw no conclusions and offer no analysis of events in Japan.

What I will observe is the cumulative significance of events like this, and the way they affect our ability not to make the right decision, but any decision at all. It seems clear that administrations in the developed world are becoming grossly equivocal; their actions so contradictory, the next decision will effectively undo the last. Plans are abandoned as fast as they are drawn up. Debate promotes vacillation more than conviction: democratic opposition is so polarised that much of what government achieves is the worst kind of compromise.

Nor do I mean this as criticism, just observation. After all, in a world whose foundations are built on cheap energy, whose economics are predicated on a model that pollutes and corrupts (us and the environment both); in the harsh light of peak oil; of climate change and global terrorism; of boom and bust – how can any of us know how to proceed, what the best course of action is, given that the number of variables in the equation are vast, and they change faster than we can keep track of: ‘Events, dear boy, events…’ as Macmillan described the driving force of change in society.

* * * *

When I read, more than a decade ago, that China would predominate, I had no idea quite how true that was. I keep thinking about this distant and impenetrable country. I acknowledge I know very little about it. Yet what decidedly unreliable information I do have tells me that it is a dictatorship that can make the hard decisions, just as it is for a captain of a ship, a general commanding an army, a film director or a conductor leading an orchestra. My experience in business too, is that companies led by strong individuals can produce outstanding results that board-led ventures rarely get close to. It’s why Steve Jobs is rich beyond comprehension and Apple products some of the most innovative, and just so damn nice to use.

China may get things right; it certainly knows how to get things horribly wrong.  In the end, it may not be their ability to make the right decisions that matters, but any decision. For there is another aspect to decision making, and it is one of commitment. Decisions are often validated not by their rightness, but by the determination to make them work. Decision makers learn from experience that all plans come to naught when the first shot is fired. Some turn tail, sullen and distraught because the plan broke. Others react accordingly, with the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps China has more of the latter.

Then again, maybe it’s just that the Chinese leadership is not held politically responsible, for in a dictatorship there is no opposition to hold an administration to account. Chinese leaders cannot escape social responsibility, however. As all dictators discover – and Gadaffi  and other M.E dictators are remembering – a populace under a repressive regime will always find ways to air their grievances. Tiananmen Square is not something the Chinese want to repeat, given their new found prominence on the world stage…but they will if they have to.

Meanwhile, back in the west, what do we have? Administrations paralysed by indecision. Riven with confused and conflated dissent, where political tropes are mixed up with science, technology, social aspiration and consumerist imperatives, our leaders are carried hither and thither by the prevailing trade winds, the course determined with a keen eye on the career horizon rather than any notion of greater good.

What I have observed during recent events in Japan is that decision-makers suffer collateral aftershocks as they, and the public, wrestle with the choice between the nuclear rock and the renewable hard place. It’s like this in every sphere now: between fossil fuels and climate change, between excessive consumerism and moderation, between religion and science, between meat and veg – bloody hell, is everything a choice between the lesser of two evils, the best worst choice? If it is, how can anyone make an informed decision?

And if we can’t make informed decisions, there are only two options. Make ill-informed decisions, or make none at all. Leaders are held responsible. I’m not sure I’d want that responsibility given the kind of choices we need our leaders to make right now. We need men of courage, conviction and determination, leaders who can make those tough choices without fear of the political consequences, and with a greater concern for the electorate than for the expediency of tenure, their decisions based on the ever-fickle meanderings of focus groups. Such pandering reminds me of the joke about the politician who, when he sees a vast crowd rushing past him, says: “I must find out where the people are going, so I can lead them”.

Things have got really tough, and are getting worse. In every aspect of our lives, destabilising influences are at work. I suspect we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks we are currently on a rising gradient of life’s quality. The measure of success now is not improvement, but stability and holding on to what we’ve already gained (while trying to distribute the benefits a little more evenly). To achieve some measure of predictability, we need leaders who really can lead. Let me know if you come across any – or any daft enough to go into politics.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. john mann permalink
    March 17, 2011 8:05 pm

    “is everything a choice between the lesser of two evils”? – yes, because we’re gradually painting ourselves into a corner.

    Toodle pip.

  2. May 16, 2011 5:52 pm

    We need men of courage, conviction and determination
    Perhaps a couple of women too. Some wisdom, integrity and empathy wouldn’t go astray amidst the determination and courage.

    But I take your point.

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