By Donella Meadows
–February 15, 1990–
There are maybe a dozen world leaders. There are several thousand leader-analysts, who tell us what the leaders are up to, what they’ll do next, and when they’ll fall. Mikhail Gorbachev continues to surprise them all.
Just as the analysts are predicting his downfall, Gorbachev stuns everyone by leaping out ahead of events — and getting away with it. Who would have predicted that he could declare the end of one-party rule in the Soviet Union and actually persuade the one ruling party to agree?
As far as I know there is only one analyst who understands leadership like that. His name is Russell Ackoff. In 1974 Ackoff wrote a book, Redesigning the Future, in which he described four styles of leadership. Three of them — inactivism, reactivism, and preactivism — cover the range of American presidents going back at least as far as FDR. The fourth, interactivism, is the essence of Gorbachev.
George Bush falls clearly into Ackoff’s category of INACTIVISM. An inactive leader sees the world as generally fine. Any strong move in any direction will make it worse. The goal of inactivists is survival and maintenance; they are true conservatives. Insofar as they make progress at all, they do it incrementally — making very small changes, very slowly (Bush on disarmament).
To keep anything much from happening incrementalists tie up new ideas in knots of bureaucracy. They commission studies, committees, and special commissions (Bush on the greenhouse effect). Says Ackoff, “On those rare occasions when an inactive organization takes action, it is almost certain to be understaffed and underfinanced. This minimizes any possible impact it might have.” (Bush on drugs, Bush on education, Bush on homelessness.)
According to Ackoff, “the only organizations that can survive inactive management are … protected from their environments by subsidies that assure their survival independent of what they accomplish. The most conspicuous examples … are universities, government agencies, and publicly protected monopolies such as utilities.” And the Communist Party of the USSR before Gorbachev.
To a REACTIVE leader, things are changing too fast and in the wrong direction. Reactivists not only resist change, they want to unmake previous changes. Reactivists, says Ackoff, are “moved more by their hates than by their loves.” They dislike complexity, reduce difficult situations to simple slogans, and grasp at panaceas, magic formulas, which, if repeated often enough, will restore things to order. Get Government Off Our Backs. It’s Morning in America. No New Taxes. We know reactive leadership well; we spent most of the past decade under it. Reactivists don’t ride with the tide like inactivists, they try to swim backward against it. Reactivism, says Ackoff, is seen most often in obsolete corporations and declining nations.
PREACTIVISTS try to get ahead of the tide. Alert and competitive, they put their energy into predicting and preparing, trying to deal with problems before they get out of hand, looking for opportunities. They don’t want to maintain or go backward, they want to forge ahead.
Preactivists use logic, science, and experimentation more than intuition, judgement, or common sense. They are fascinated more with technology than people, more with hardware than software. They are forward-looking, but in a strangely unempowered way. They see the future as uncontrollable. One can foresee it and prepare for it, but not direct it. One can make changes WITHIN the system, but not change the system.
Liberal Presidents with brainy think-tanks, like Kennedy and Carter, have been preactivists. Preactivism is the normal stance of many large corporations and, most of the time, the military.
INTERACTIVISTS like Gorbachev don’t want to ride with the tide or oppose it or beat it to where it’s going; they want to redirect it. They are interested not in predicting the future but in designing it. They try to prevent threats, not just prepare for them; to create opportunities, not just exploit them. Their goal is more than survival or growth. Says Ackoff, “they seek self-development, self-realization and self-control.” They are not conservative or liberal but radical, idealistic, visionary.
An interactive leader is willing to change a system from top to bottom to achieve an important goal. He or she acknowledges complexity, tries to work with both technology AND people, and is more likely to cooperate than compete. Interactivists think big; they “consider the world, not merely their neighborhood, to be their arena.”
An interactive leader creates change so fast that he or she must always be responding, seizing new opportunities, dealing with upsets, dancing constantly with the exigencies of the present while working for a visionary future. Gorbachev is a master of this dance. He keeps us gasping with amazement as he responds to and shapes events more than any other person on the planet — for better or worse.
Interactivism is a dangerous game. It shakes up everything. It opens up the possibility of achieving dreams — and the possibility of crashing failure. Russell Ackoff’s admittedly biased description of it makes clear that he thinks (and I agree) that it’s the only game worth playing.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990