“I’m sorry *if* I offended you”: How to apologise better in an emotionally avoidant world

As we gear up for a referendum on a Voice to Parliament next year, I’ve been wondering if we need to have a better look at the way we say sorry.

We live in a highly binary and individualistic world that struggles to repent well. Yet we are increasingly aware of – and flummoxed by – bad faith efforts at the gesture.  

Witness the fallout from former Prime Minister Scott Morrisons’ baffling response speech to being censured last week in which he refused to apologise to the nation. I reckon we ache to do better; we want true healing. 

We could start with looking at the way we so often insist on whacking the Almighty Absolving Qualifier “if” when we issue an “I’m sorry”. I’m sorry if you’re offended/upset/angry. We go and plug one in where a perfectly good “that” would do a far better job.  

But an “if” negates any repentant intent. Actually, worse. It gaslights. It puts up for dispute whether the hurt or offence is actually being felt and whether it is legitimate. Attention switches to the victim’s authenticity and their right to feel injured. Did you actually get hurt? Hmmm…. 

Things get even more disconcerting when the quasi-apologiser thinks they have done something gallant with their qualified “I’m sorry”. And will gaslight you again if you pull them up on the flimsiness of it. What, so you can’t even accept an apology!  

I had a rich, senior businessmen do the if-sorry job on me recently. “I’m sorry if you’re angry,” he said in a really rather small human way. Rather than standing there miffed, I replied, “Great! Yep, you definitely fucked up. And so I’m definitely and rightly angry. Now that’s established, sure, I’ll take on that you’d like to repent.” 

I heard a well-known doctor on the radio the other morning very consciously (it seemed) drop the if from the equation when he had to apologise for making remarks about a minority group (in error) in a previous broadcast. “I’m sorry I said those things. I was wrong. I’m not going to justify myself. There are no excuses. I was in the wrong,” he said. It was a good, textbook apology and he probably wouldn’t land in trouble for it. 

But, and it immediately begs, is that the point of an apology? 

For the wrongdoer to stay out of trouble? For them to neatly right a wrong by going through a small moment of awkward, vulnerable exposure? 

What about the victim? Where do they sit in apologies?

I recall listening to a radio discussion where all this was dissected. The point that grabbed me at the time was this: In our culture, the responsibility of ensuring that an apology is effective in bringing closure to a conflict mostly rests on the victim, the person being apologised to. No matter the calibre of the apology, it’s up to the person who has been wronged to be all “that’s ok, we’re sweet” about things. They are effectively responsible for making the perpetrator feel OK in their awkward vulnerable moment. (And to keep the pain shortlived.) 

And so a successful apology rests in the victim’s readiness to forgive. 

Which is all the wrong way around. At an individual-to-individual level it’s cheap grace. The wrongdoer gets absolved with so little accountability involved. 

At a macro level, say with injuries like racism or sexism, we can see the setup is about a minority class forgiving, or bowing once again, to the powerful. 

I managed to find the expert who’d led the discussion –  Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a New York-based Rabbi and scholar who’s written a book on the matter, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, a title that says it all, right? 

Ruttenberg argues we are doing apologies inadequately and in a way that fails to repair the damage done precisely because we privilege forgiveness over repentance. 

So how to apologise like you mean it

Drawing on the 12th Century philosopher Maimonides, Ruttenberg sets out five steps to a proper apology. 

1. Confession

The wrongdoer fully owns that they did something wrong. There’s to be no blabbing of great intentions, or how “circumstances” conspired; no “if” qualifiers. You did harm, own it! Ideally, she says, the confession is done publicly.

2. Start to Change

Next, you the work to educate yourself, get therapy etc. Like, demonstrate you’re in the process of shifting your ways. You’re talk and trousers! 

3. Make amends

But do so with the victim’s needs in mind. What would make them feel like some kind of repair was happening? Cash? Donate to a charity they care about? 

4. OK, now we get to the apology!

The point of having the apology sitting right down at Step 4 is so that by the time the words “I’m sorry” are uttered, we, as the perpetrator, are engaged and own things. The responsibility is firmly with us, not the victim. By this late stage in the repenting process we are alive to how the victim felt and genuinely want them to feel seen. It’s not a ticking of a box kinda thing. Plus, we’ve taken the responsibility for bringing about closure, or healing, out of the victim’s hands. 

 5. Don’t do it again

OK, so this is a critical final step. But there’s a much better chance the injury won’t be repeated if the person who did the harm has complete the preceding four steps, according to Ruttenberg and Maimonides. 

Does forgiveness have to happen?

I went and read some related essays by Rabbi Ruttenberg just now. The other point that she makes is that whether or not the victim forgives the perpetrator is moot. When you apologise like you mean it (as per the five steps), I guestimate that 90 per cent of the healing required for closure has been done by the perpetrator. And it happens regardless of whether the harmed party forgives, because the harm-doer sat in the issue and committed to change. The spiritual or emotional or psychological shift has already occurred. 

I should think that, looking at it from a victim-centric perspective, this opened space allows the harmed party to feel more comfortable to forgive, should they choose to.

It’s a win-win, regardless of whether the aggrieved waves the forgiveness stick. 

(The Rabbi notes that in Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, there is no compulsion for the harmed party to forgive.) 

What *if* we offend or harm unintentionally?

I was presented with the above ethical quandary while writing this. Someone on social media commented that she’d wanted to approach me recently but felt she couldn’t because she had two kids in tow at the time. She figured I’d judge her for being a “procreator” given my climate activism work and anti-consumption stance. It was an unfortunate assumption. I had only last week written about how bringing population growth into the climate crisis blame-fest is wrong, ethically and factually (it’s not how many we are, it’s how we live). 

Of course, her self-conscious pain was real. But did I need to repent if I’d done nothing wrong, and certainly not intentionally (indeed, I’d not acted, in bad faith or otherwise). 

I decided there was still a very good opportunity to switch out an “if” for a “that”. I replied: “I’m sorry that you felt….”. And I was. I didn’t want her to have that impression of judgement from another, nor to feel so self-conscious. I was sorry in the broad sense of feeling bad for her. Feeling sorry can be a sense of tapping into a collective regret for the way things are, even if you are not directly responsible. 

The real opportunity here was to take on responsibility for healing any hurt, and to speed it up. If I’d listed out and justified why this person was mistaken (wrong) in feeling as she did, I’d have also missed an opportunity to be raw and open to the broader pain of the human condition. 

Doing good apology is essentially an act in correctly apportioning the tasks required to get the outcome that we are all after, which, for most adults, is growth, intimacy and expansion. Ruttenberg makes the point that some indigenous cultures work to this (more mature) style of repentance (as opposed to cheap grace), as well as various radical restorative justice movements. I note that the authors and elders who contributed to the Uluru Statement from the Heart often remind us that the document is an invitation to all Australians to grow into our next era.  

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Is it always necessary to forgive an apology?


Ethics on your bookshelf

Ever wondered what we’re reading over at The Ethics Centre? Well here’s your chance! We asked some of our thought leaders for their best ethical reads this year.

 

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

To take a break from reading so much non-fiction in prep for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, our FODI Festival Director, Danielle Harvey returns to her first love – fantasy. This re-imagining of the rise to power of the Hongwu Emperor in 14th century China combines gender, rebellion, power and faith in a powerful and fun novel.

 

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Our Senior Philosopher, Dr Tim Dean recommends this startling collection of science-fiction short stories, which is as philosophically stimulating as it is deeply engaging. Chiang is one of those precious few writers who genuinely groks both science and philosophy, and does both of them justice without compromising creativity or narrative. His ‘what if’ worlds are plausible and provocative, exploring themes like freedom, fate, existentialism, memory and moral responsibility.

 

How to be Perfect by Michael Schur

Whether you’re a philosophy buff or you have no idea who Plato is, our Youth Coordinator and philosopher, Daniel Finlay says Schur’s writing will have you laughing, learning, thinking and reflecting all at once. This is an engaging and entertaining introduction into lots of aspects of moral philosophy, with plenty of anecdotes and comparisons to keep you from feeling like you’re in school.

 

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Making decisions we can be proud of means that sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to or have the patience for. After reading Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, our Director of the Ethics Alliance and the BFO, Cris Parker realised how easily we can be distracted, how desperately we can crave reward and that how the technology we take for granted is contributing to this. Stolen Focus identifies the ways we can lose our capacity to make choices and provides techniques to change that. The challenge for us now is actually implementing them!

 

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

Our Executive Director, Dr Simon Longstaff says in exploring some of the worst decisions made in human history, The March of Folly reveals the root cause that lies in one of the great enemies of ethics – the baleful effects of unthinking custom. In this historical survey, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman grapples with the pervasive presence through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government.

 

John AshberyCollected Poems 1991-2000 

Philosopher and Ethics Centre Fellow, Joseph Earp doesn’t think that ethical education is complete without poetry, nor is poetry complete without John Ashbery. Ashbery is a strange, elliptical writer, who fosters attention, and shows us the rewards of paying attention. Which is where the ethics of it all comes in – what is the ethical life, if not one where we pay attention?

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Should you celebrate Christmas if you’re not religious?

Religious holidays like Christmas are not just for believers. They involve rituals and customs that can help reinforce social bonds and bring people together, no matter what their beliefs.

What is Christmas all about? On the one hand, it’s a traditional Christian religious holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God. On the other hand, it’s a commercial frenzy, where people battle crowds in vast shopping centres blanketed in themed decorations to buy disposable trinkets that are destined to be handed over to disappointed relatives straining, but failing, to smile with their eyes. 

Either way, if one is not overly devout or materialistic, Christmas might seem like something worth giving a miss. And if you’ve lost your religion entirely, it might seem appropriate to dispense with Christmas traditions.  

The same applies for major holidays celebrated by other religions. If you do abandon Christmas – or Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan, etc – you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to participate in a ritualistic practice that is about more than the scriptures suggest, and certainly more than the themed commercial advertising represents.  

This is because religious holidays like Christmas are not what they seem. They are not fundamentally about spirituality, as they purport to be. They’re certainly not about boosting economic activity, even if that’s what they’ve become. Rather, they’re about bringing people together to create shared meaning.  

Anyone can benefit from this effect if they participate in the rituals and traditions of a religious holiday, including people of that religion who are no longer believers, as well as those outside of the culture who are welcomed in. 

Do you believe in Santa Claus?

Religiosity is in decline in most countries around the globe, Australia included. In fact, Australia is in the top five nations in the world in terms of the proportion of self-declared atheists. And “no religion” is the fastest growing group, jumping from less than 1% of the population in 1966 to 38% in the latest Census figures from 2021. These numbers are even higher for young people, which suggests the move away from religion will continue into the future. 

For the ‘new atheists,’ this looks like a good thing. Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris famously argued that religion is dangerous force that spreads unscientific beliefs and perpetuates social divisions. They have urged people to drop their spiritual beliefs and embrace a secular rational lifestyle.  

There are merits to their arguments, but their bundling of religions’ problematic metaphysics with the traditions and rituals they promote overlooks that the two are not necessarily connected: one need not believe that three wise men tracked a mystical light in the sky to the birthplace of Jesus so they could give him gold, frankincense and myrrh in order to hand over a present to a loved one. It’s like how we already agree that one need not believe in Santa Claus in order to stuff the odd stocking. 

The other thing the scorched Earth version of atheism overlooks is that the decline of religiosity has corresponded with an increase in social fragmentation in the modern world. Many people feel a sense of social isolation and disconnection from those around them, even if they live in the midst of a metropolis, which is contributing to the growing crisis in mental health. 

This is not a new phenomenon. A similar pattern was observed by sociologists such as Émile Durkheim and Ferdinand Tönnies in the late 19th century. They attributed it to the rise of individualism over community as modern societies expanded following the industrial revolution. The erosion of community meant that individuals were left to seek their own meaning and purpose in life, as well as forge their own social connections.  

This lean towards individualism affords each person some freedom in choosing what is meaningful for them, but it also involves a lot of work; it’s no mean feat to single-handedly create a grand structure to make sense of the world, to inform what we should value and what morals we should abide by. And there are many forces that are only too happy to sell their own vision to the individual, including all manner of pseudo-spiritual causes, conspiracy theories and self-help gurus. But the strongest force today is capitalism, which sells a vision of work and consumption that is superficially appealing but which many find to be ultimately hollow and unfulfilling. 

One of the mechanisms sociologists identified that helped to ameliorate the individualistic tendency towards social disconnection and isolation was religion. But it wasn’t the spiritual dimensions of religion that did the most work, it was the rituals and traditions that brought people together to reinforce social connections and create shared meaning.  

Rituals like gathering for an annual feast with family, which signifies a break from everyday consumption and gives us an opportunity to show care and respect for others as we feed them. Or gift-giving, which motivates us to think carefully about the most important people in our lives – who they are, what they care about, what they lack – and encourages us to find or make something, or use our wealth, to bring them joy. Even singing carols has an effect. The act of singing in unison is a potent way of bonding with those around us, and even the habit of complaining about our most hated Christmas tunes can bring people together. 

Come together

There are many more rituals involved with Christmas, and many analogous rituals associated with the festivals of other religions.  

While their surface details and spiritual justifications may differ, at their heart they’re all about one thing: bringing us closer together. They’re a form of social glue that is arguably much needed in today’s world.

While the differences between traditions can be a source of division, and the rise of multiculturalism and sensitivity towards other cultures can be a source of reservation when it comes to participating in rituals that are not ‘our own,’ we still have a lot to gain by continuing to practise festive rituals, even if we no longer subscribe to their supernatural pretexts. We also have a lot to offer if we welcome those of other cultural and religious traditions to share our rituals, and if we remain open to learn from and share in theirs. 

On the surface, Christmas looks like it’s about spirituality or like it’s been co-opted by the market. But deep down, it’s one of many religious festivals that we can draw on to enrich our lives, ground ourselves in our family and community, and a way to create meaningful experiences with others to help us all live a good life. 

Join Dr Tim Dean for The Ethics of Holidays on the 8th of December at 6:30pm. Tickets on sale now.

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What do holidays mean to you?


5 stars: The age of surveillance and scrutiny

While ratings systems may encourage good behaviour on the part of the provider and recipient, it’s a hungry business model that is both anxiety-inducing and untrustworthy. 

In Seth MacFarlane’s off-beat homage to Star Trek, The Orville, the increasingly earnest show becomes a series of cautionary tales. In one episode, Majority Rules, MacFarlane signals the dangers of the real world mirroring the online one. The crew of the Orville attempt to rescue a couple of imprisoned anthropologists from an Earth-like planet, where justice is meted out based on a system of public votes. In deep trouble, the public will determine their innocence with a ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’. 

I didn’t love the show, but Majority Rules lingers in my mind because even though determining a person’s freedom by public votes seems ludicrous, isn’t this happening daily online already, to varying degrees of severity? 

There is, of course, the modern-day equivalent of the stocks. But instead of passers-by throwing fruit and jeering, people find ways to do it in 140 characters or less, hashtags optional.  

But seemingly more innocuous judgments are made elsewhere, and they affect how we live, work and engage with others. When you consider the services and experiences that make up your daily life, how many of them involve ratings? Businesses rely on reviews from Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor and so on, as do we as consumers.  

And of course, your transport and food delivery apps depend on them. The meal you ordered through a delivery app arrived soggy and not at all like it looked in the photo? Blame the rider who didn’t pedal fast enough, bypass the restaurant. Your food was terrible and the low-paid delivery rider is the low-hanging fruit. They get one star. Hated the music your Uber driver was playing? Give them a poor rating – though you should know, with Uber they can give you one back. 

In November this year, it was reported that a study from the University of Bristol and University of Oxford found seven out of 10 gig economy workers were in a constant state of worry about negative reviews and the impact they would have on their livelihood. The lead author and sociologist, Dr Alex Wood, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Future of Work at Bristol, noted: “It was shocking how workers expressed continuous worry about the potential consequences of receiving a single bad rating from an unfair or malevolent client, and how this could leave them unable to continue making a living.” 

This anxiety over ratings is understandable. It’s not that criticism is a fresh concept (in the arts world, we are constantly subjected to review). But in the gig economy, not only can customer-generated scores sink or boost workers’ reputations, they culminate in an advertising and rewards system. The better you’re rated, the more accolades you receive, often in the form of badges that signal that you are a superstar. It’s a clever marketing tactic, because as consumers we follow the high ratings, but it’s also a way to encourage good behaviour all round because often apps rate both provider and consumer.

Ratings systems are surveillance and compliance systems, a very public message board, which mostly empower the consumer. But these ratings can also be used to falsely entice us.

Years ago, I employed the services of transcribers on a gig website. Despite having a catchy price point, the cost of the service, quite rightly, rose according to the needs of the job. And yet, the work was not done to a reasonable standard. I chose not to leave negative reviews, but the service providers pushed me to so I relented and gave them four out of five stars. I understood: they were trying to make a living. Then they sent me messages asking (borderline haranguing) me to change my review to a perfect score.  

They were jockeying for work but cutting corners then demanding positive reviews. I gave in, feeling guilty, knowing that they were boosting their reliability to secure more work they didn’t seem capable of actually completing.  

Meanwhile, try leaving an honest review on AirBnB, and you will understand why so many places are given rave reviews but fall short. No one wants to tell the truth when they are being judged back.  

What a circular mess. 

How can we trust ratings systems like this? Can scores be trusted given how freely, and sometimes anonymously, they can be applied? Meanwhile, even though ratings systems can be a useful barometer of a service provider’s reliability or competence, they may also be completely false endorsements. Increasingly, we are being warned about fake reviews, which set out to uplift or destroy a business. It pays to read comments carefully rather than rely on the rating itself. 

We are increasingly being taught to assess every service or experience, and it is not a thorough, or necessarily fair, feedback system for either party to a transaction.

No longer are workers simply ‘freelancers’ if they are self-employed; in a world of food delivery and transport services, of competitive freelance websites like Fiverr and Upwork, everyday commerce has been twisted and turned into a thriving, cut-throat marketplace. One where workers’ rights are blurred, where bad reviews are doled out hastily, spitefully or truthfully, but without any oversight to ascertain their veracity.  

The gig economy has long been examined for its flaws. Despite the opportunities and ease-of-access a casualised, sharing economy creates, with it comes crushing downsides: the dilution of employee rights, the lowering of fees just to secure the gig – and with that, quite likely, standards. Skilled workers get edged out of industries when they are undercut by less experienced people willing to do the job at a fraction of the actual cost.  

Ratings systems encourage good behaviour but we are becoming hyper vigilant and more critical in the process. While business is booming, this explosion in feedback is not making us better workers or customers. Time will tell if this is, ultimately, bad for business. We already know that it is taking its toll on providers.  

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Should we be assessing our experiences?


Who’s afraid of the strongman?

Donald Trump has announced his second run for presidency in 2024. With a reputation for both passive and active violence, and a disregard for democratic integrity, the prospect of another Trump presidency is feared by many. But for others, his re-election would mark the promising return of a strong, capable leader. How do we begin to make sense of these contemporary communities which seem to either fear or revere their elected leaders? And are there ways such polarised receptions can ever be avoided?

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat knows just how Trump, operates. He’s following the strongman’s playbook, one that has four guiding features. Strongmen put their personalities at the front of their politics, they embrace machismo norms, relish in corruption, and do not shy away from the power of violence. We can use these insights to sniff out the strongmen lurking in systems of governance. Ben-Ghiat emphasises that we should be strongly motivated to do just this, as there is ‘too much at risk not to try’.

Cultish personalities are formed around these political leaders as they work to present themselves as ‘a man of the people’. They emphasise their standout character while simultaneously asserting themselves to be no different than the common citizen.

Their embracing of machismo, Ben-Ghiat explains, is reflected in hypermasculine behaviours, showcasing these examples with shirtless photos of both Trump and Putin. Women, they say, are ‘the enemy of the strongman’.

Corruption in the case of the strongman is of both the ‘moral and professional’ variety. We are told that the strongman commonly grants pardons which ‘free up criminals for service’, channelling those who some may take to be immoral offenders into positions of political power.

To convey their relationship to violence, Ben-Ghiat directs us to the presence of weapons in recent Republican political campaigns in the United States, telling us that these men ‘think they look strong, but it is really a sign of insecurity’. The strongman is making up for something.

Ben-Ghiat tell us that a contemporary commonality of these men is that they are often democratically elected, and that they pose considerable threats to the democratic systems in which they embed themselves.

Trump’s rallying tactics and his subsequent role in and commentary on the 2021 Capitol riot may be taken as emblematic of these strongman features. His mass appeal has been argued as being largely derived from ‘performative’ techniques that obfuscate his political goals or capacities more broadly. Trump continues to claim the democratic integrity of the United States to be under threat, asserting the actions of the Capitol rioters as warranted given the presence of electoral fraud in the country.

In these ways and others Trump seems to aptly align with Ben-Ghiat’s constructed, strongman persona. Impeachment, ongoing congressional hearings and public scrutiny evidently do little to undermine Trump’s confidence and his desire to reobtain the political power he once held.

There are mounting concerns that this phenomenon is not isolated to the United States. And that politicians globally can be seen as working to strengthen centralised systems of political power in ways which align with authoritarian leadership regimes. Could there be a risk that even the most historically democratic governments could begin to shift in comparable ways? If so, what could be done to manage that risk?

Pursuing political instigators of harm is a coherent goal and a strong incentive to Ben-Ghiat’s work. State leaders, even when democratically elected, are fashioned with powers that endow them the capacity to do both a world of good, and a world of harm. Many people were directly harmed by policies of the Trump administration; even more were harmed from the uncertainty his particular presence in office brought into their daily lives.

Ben-Ghiat recognises these sorts of harms and aims to call out the various features which they take as both forging and propagating them, egotistical, corruptive, and violent figureheads. When bundled together, these form the strongman, and for Ben-Ghiat the strongman should be our target.

If the goals of this work are the management of uncertainty and the desire to retain confidence in our capacity to uphold democratic structures and installed systems of justice, and we are sympathetic to these goals, we need ask what Ben-Ghiat’s approach to achieving them misses, or more poignantly, what it risks.

Bertrand Russel, not unlike Ben-Ghiat, was similarly sceptical of politicians. He remarks, “since politicians are divided into rival groups, they aim at similarly dividing the nation…”. Importantly distinct from Ben-Ghiat however, Russel’s scepticism is namely directed at the two-party political system as it stood in early 20th century Britain, and the impact this system has on the wider populations who comprise it.

Features of Ben-Ghiat’s strongman criteria are not in opposition to Russel’s characterisation of political figures more broadly. Yet Russel’s evaluations of these harm attend more heavily to the relationships that citizens, or voters, have to these politicians.

“The power of the politician, in a democracy” Russel writes, “depends upon his adopting the opinions which seem right to the average man”. For Russel, both the best and the worst of our politicians are reflections of and responsive to the ideas and sentiments of the populations they operate within.

The risk of Ben-Ghiat’s approach is that attending so heavily to the strongman, determining what he is and is not, may unhelpfully be turning our gaze away from our communities who, as Ben-Ghiat remarks, oftentimes democratically elect the very figureheads they and others wish to repudiate.

Sources of harm do not always come to us wrapped up in neat and tidy (shirtless) packages. Tirelessly seeking to group together ‘bad men’ can diminish our capacity to see other less precise but perhaps more pervasive sources of harm.

Comprehensively managing any risk a strongman may pose to our society will only be minimally addressed by stringing together various features that are said to necessarily render that man strong.

There is certainly time and space for the sort of work Ben-Ghiat dedicates themselves to.

Though if we are committed to protecting systems of democracy, and to ensuring that basic rights are genuinely upheld, we may be best served by turning our attention away from contemporary figureheads and towards those who cast their votes in favour of them, and to those systems of governance that forge and foster polarisation.

Naming and shaming the strongman, however accurately, will do little in the face of many who take his central features to be admirable strengths. Let us ensure that our pursuits of certainty and stability do not come at the cost of neglecting to engage with those around us who evidently have different assessments about just how risky a strongman really is.


Tune into Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s full FODI 2022 discussion, Return of the Strongman

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What makes a strong leader?


Sir Geoff Mulgan on what makes a good leader

Sir Geoff Mulgan has had a world of careers. Currently Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London, Mulgan discusses trust, power and what makes a good leader.

“There’s a risk in any relationship of power that it can amplify your vices as well as your virtues – vices of vindictiveness or meanness, of spirit or dishonesty. And I’m sure there’s some of that in me, probably because of my character faced by pressures and threats I’d be more likely just to run away and resign, rather than to become a sort of evil Adolf Hitler in the bunker type but you certainly see this in many other people.”

Geoff Mulgan has spent his entire career musing over the question: what makes a good leader? And not only that, but how you cultivate those skills and that mindset without becoming …a psychopath. This thinking prompted Geoff to write a book on this subject, in which he critiques the strong traditions within Christianity and Chinese philosophy. He explores the idea that what constitutes a good leader essentially depends on the ethics of the individual – that, if only you could find the right person for the right job everything would go swimmingly… through his vast research and experience, Geoff says this is completely wrong.  

“We are creatures of our context. We are far more likely to be good leaders if there are constraints and pressures, if what we do is visible, if there are balancing forces and many people. Even apparently quite good people, if they can get away with things, will get away with those and they may start quite good. But five, ten, let alone 15 years later, if they’re still in power, they become evil monsters and again and again we see that at the global level.

Are leaders scared of wisdom?

It’s in a leader’s interest to elicit a sense of awe and respect in their followers. They should be in possession of higher knowledge that can justify to those who work for them that they are worthy of that position. According to Geoff, that is why no leader can ever be completely transparent as they need to maintain this sense of mystery about their workings.  

“As a leader I think you have to maintain an opacity, a sort of mystery about your knowledge and wisdom. You see it very clearly in how people talk about Putin or Modi or Xi. They wanted to project onto them this sort of genius, brilliant tactical, strategic genius, which we couldn’t understand. It’s sort of beyond comprehension, but we just sit back and admire it.

And Geoff sees this behaviour amongst business leaders all the time – “the hagiographic magazine articles and books trying to cultivate an aura, a mysterious magical genius around their insights… which then suddenly collapses when the share price drops.”

Declining trust in institutions

When Geoff was working within the British government he said one of the biggest concerns internally was wavering trust in public institutions.  As a result, he lead a large scale project under former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair asking the question: what could be learnt from how public institutions had lost and regained trust? He found the learnings for rebuilding trust were simple: 

  • Publicly acknowledge and apologise when something has gone wrong 
  • Articulate your moral purpose 
  • Perform your core function competently 

The key positive that Geoff took away from this research was that: the problem of trust and trustworthiness is actually a fixable problem if you acknowledge it clearly and if you have the courage to really deal with it on these three key dimensions.  

Is it possible to lead without getting your hands dirty?

“One of the weird things about leadership is you need a dual mind all the time of apparently opposite qualities –  arrogance and humility, toughness and sensitivity, which need constantly replenishing and keeping in a balance… And if you drift too far in either direction, you won’t function very well.

Geoff set up a young leadership training program in the UK, called “Uprising” and he explains the two dualities that he endeavoured to instil in the course which are:  

  • You have to be tough and have a thick skin. You’ll need to do things that are unpopular and unpleasant like firing people and closing things down and you need to be psychologically prepared to do that.  
  • On the flip side you also need to maintain your sensitivity, and not allow the aforementioned thick skin to destroy your ability to be kind and virtuous.  

The second duality is: arrogance and humility 

  • Anyone becoming a leader needs to have a sense of arrogance, they need to believe that they are genuinely better than a million other people who could fill the role. Arrogance isn’t a bad thing, it’s a necessary thing to overcome setbacks, the personal attacks, the social media trolling and everything else that comes with being a public figure. 
  • But you also need to be humble. The humility to constantly learn and be open to new ideas. 

In his experience, it is the young leaders who can manage to keep both of these sets of dualities in harmony who are the most successful.  

The leaders of the future

We have a difficult few decades ahead of us, one that will be characterised by the accelerating climate crisis, widening inequality, austerity, and increasing inflation. Geoff believes that we will need to elevate the best people into positions of power if we are to emerge from the other side of this tumultuous time unscathed. His biggest fear is that, over the next few years the sorts of individuals who would make excellent leaders will shy away from the job because it’s too risky or too damaging to their private life, or just too difficult, and so we must persuade and elevate these individuals who possess that duality of arrogance and humility to put themselves forward and act.  

“At the very heart of leadership is some sense  of obligation and service to the whole community you are part of, realising almost everything you have has been given to you by others… Very little is created by yourself. And that gift requires a gift back.”

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above

 

Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy & Social Innovation at University College London (UCL). He was CEO of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation from 2011-2019. From 1997-2004 Geoff had roles in UK government including director of the Government’s Strategy Unit and head of policy in the Prime Minister’s office. Geoff advises many governments, businesses, NGOs and foundations around the world.  He has been a reporter on BBC TV and radio and was the founder/cofounder of many organisations, including Demos, Uprising, the Social Innovation Exchange and Action for Happiness.  He has a PhD in telecommunications and has been visiting professor at LSE and Melbourne University, and senior visiting scholar at Harvard University. 

 

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Is it possible to lead without getting your hands dirty?


Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz on diversity and urban sustainability

Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz is the CEO of Mirvac, one of Australia’s largest and most respected property groups. Driven by the company’s purpose, to Reimagine Urban Life, Susan talks about how we can redefine the landscape and create more sustainable, connected and vibrant urban environments, leaving a legacy for generations to come.

“When you’re in high school you can only imagine doing the jobs you can see – you can think about being a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer because those jobs exist. But I always say to my own children that the jobs that they’re going to do don’t even exist yet.”

Susan’s parents took a huge risk when they migrated from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Australia, during the Winter of Discontent in 1978 which was characterised by widespread strikes in the public and private sector. At the time she didn’t think much of it, but upon reflection admires the sacrifices her parents made to give her a better life. First in her family to attend university, Susan completed an undergraduate law degree, but upon completion the notion of being a full time lawyer didn’t appeal to her. Deciding to study urban geography, completing a thesis on the migration of Icelanders to Australia, she says it was this rather left field thesis that set her on the path to become the CEO of Mirvac.

“In one of those moments of serendipity I called my university supervisor and  said “what does someone like me do for a job?” And he said he’d had a call that very day from Knight Frank, who were looking for a researcher. And I thought, I don’t know the first thing about real estate, but I can analyse, I can write, so why not? And I jumped into real estate and 30 plus years later I’m still in the industry, having worked all around the world for iconic companies. And it was all just that one moment, one phone call to my supervisor launched me off in this direction.” 

Striving for a more diverse workplace 

“At Mirvac I have tried very hard to ensure we are as gender diverse as possible, and not just gender diversity, gender is just one element of it – we have a full diversity and inclusion effort going on all the time.”

The academic research into diversity is clear: diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones. It’s proven across cultures, across times and across industries. Susan believes that business leaders must be absolutely conscious at all times about diversity within their work force, because if you don’t play close attention, people default to the practice of hiring those most like them. The problem is, that while some elements of diversity are easily marked, diversity of ideas and thought is a lot harder to measure, she says, “it’s not just about having 50% females at the table, it’s a lot deeper than that. You can only measure the things that are obvious, like cultural background or sexual orientation or gender. You can measure those things, and just hope that they all bring some diversity of thought.”  

“I’m very, very proud that at Mirvac we have a zero like for like gender pay gap and have maintained that for six years. And it is very hard to maintain if you if you take your eye off for one minute, the gender pay gap, with all the best intentioned in the world comes creeping back into the organisation.”

What keeps Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz up at night?

“The pace of house price growth is simply unsustainable, many multiples of times greater than wage inflation, which is very anaemic. So it is something that does need urgently to be addressed.

Housing affordability is one of the most important challenges of our time, and Susan believes the problem lies with supply, “We simply don’t do enough dwellings for the growth of household formation in this country. It is a very serious problem and better or worse in different parts of Australia. When thinking about solutions to the housing crisis and how we might build the cities of the future, Susan has proven that she thinks very much outside the box, conceiving of the idea of “a house with no bills”. “Imagine if you could live in a house and never pay another energy or water bill. Wouldn’t it be transformational for millions of people. What if we could design a different way of building homes so that we were creating no waste?”  

A shift towards a more sustainable future

“The business of business is not just business. It is a lot broader than that. People sign up for a noble mission.

Ten years ago when Mirvac launched the “This Changes Everything” sustainability strategy, with the goal of being net positive in waste water energy by 2030 (without yet having the technology to do so) people thought she was mad. “senior members of industry said you should never set targets that you don’t know how to meet”. Despite the opposition, Susan doggedly pushed on, and fast forward to 2022, Mirvac is now net positive in scope one, and in scope two emissions are 9 years ahead of schedule. She speaks about how rapidly the notion of sustainability is changing at every level of business from the C-suite to the consumer, “our residential customers who ten years ago, if you were talking to them about sustainability upgrades in their home or apartment, they would hear corporate spin and greenwash. And now they buy sustainability upgrades because they have a desire to live in a more impactful way and with a better impact on the planet.”  

“Mirvac people generally don’t wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to go generate some earnings per share today. But they do get up in the morning and think about the legacy that they’re going to leave, how they’re going to push forward design and how they’re going to think about how we can design out our waste from our sites. Those are the things that get Mirvac people motivated, and they’re an extremely passionate group of people dedicated to leaving the world a better place than when we found it.”

 

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above

 

Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz was appointed Chief Executive Officer & Managing Director in August 2012 and a Director of Mirvac Board in November 2012. Prior to this Susan was Managing Director at LaSalle Investment Management. Susan has also held senior executive positions at MGPA, Macquarie Group and Lend Lease Corporation, working in Australia, the US and Europe. 

Susan is a Director of the Business Council of Australia, member of the NSW Public Service Commission Advisory Board, a member of the INSEAD Global Board, a Trustee of the Australian Museum Foundation, and the immediate past Chair of the Green Building Council of Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from the University of Sydney and an MBA (Distinction) from INSEAD (France).  

 

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Tim Walker on finding the right leader

Tim Walker was Former Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over twenty years. Balancing its long and distinguished history with a reputation as one of the UK’s most adventurous and forward-looking orchestras, Walker discusses what it takes to grow a profitable business and find the right leader.

Tim Walker was nine when he started learning how to play the piano, and it was only upon attending his very first orchestra, that he realised how much more fun it was to play with other people. So that night, when he arrived home Tim promptly begged his parents to let him start learning the violin too. As a child, Tim was part of the youth orchestra at school, but after a while found it wasn’t really for him… but it was the notion of managing an orchestra, a job which still had that sense of creativity and community which had stolen his heart.  

Finding the right leader

“Yes the conductor holds the musicians together but he or she is also using his or her knowledge and intellect to take the written note of the composer and turn it into something that communicates with us in the audience in a very visceral sense, I would say, because it’s not only something that should hit the heart, I think it also needs to hit the head as well.

While the musicians in the London Philharmonic Orchestra are some of the most talented in the world, it’s the addition of the right conductor that really helps the players shine. The conductor’s role is to unify all the players to one single interpretation of the music, and while the experience of being in a symphony is entirely collaborative, someone needs to ensure everything is flowing seamlessly. But finding the right person for the job hasn’t always been easy. Traditionally in the 19th and 20th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for a conductor to lead with an iron fist, however as times have changed, so too have conductor styles.   

Growing a profitable business

“Interestingly, the London Philharmonic is one of the few orchestras in the world that actually made money from international touring.”

Before Tim joined the London Philharmonic, the company was solely focused on pursuing profit – the board justified each decision by demonstrating how it would contribute to the bottom line. According to Tim, many people make the mistake of thinking just because the individual elements of an enterprise can pay for themselves, then the sum total will be a sustainable enterprise. However, Tim says there are some avenues that need to be pursued not because they generate profit, but rather because doing those things positions the orchestra for the future. As a result, under Tim’s guidance the London Philharmonic recorded all the national anthems for the London Olympics and played at the Queen’s jubilee, not because they were profitable – but because they intrinsically felt like the right thing to do.  

Do people still care about orchestras?

“I think, the people do take for granted a lot of the music in their lives as being sort of like wallpaper. I remember when I was talking to somebody who may not know the London Philharmonic, but as soon as I say we recorded all the soundtracks for The Lord of the Rings, suddenly they understand… But they don’t really.”

Over Tim’s twenty year tenure as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic, he reveals the hardest part of the job was just keeping everything going. The dilemma is though some would argue that enjoying art is a necessity, music is not the equivalent of food and basic services, so the purchasing of a concert ticket is something that in times of financial stress slows or stops altogether. “You can’t let the institution die on your watch… you’re responsible for 150 full time and 75 part time employees all dependent on ensuring that they can pay their mortgages and put bread on the table.”

Tim highlights that these last few years with COVID-19 have been particularly challenging as audiences are not flocking back as they had hoped.  

 Tim believes the way to forge a path out of the pandemic is to remind audiences that real people are making this music. The need for live music will never go away, but when you have 200 people whose livelihoods rely on ticket sales, then large orchestras won’t be around for a long time unless we start buying tickets.  

“When you care for something, you’ve also got to care for how it’s maintained. So there needs to be a cost to care. And the care for orchestras is in people making the effort to actually go to concerts and appreciate what they have.”

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above

 

Timothy Walker CBE AM Hon RCM was Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He was formerly the founder and Chief Executive of World Orchestras and prior General Manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Mr Walker was on the Board of the International Society for the Performing Arts and was Chair of the Association of British Orchestras.   

He was an inaugural member of the Australian International Cultural Council, and has served as a director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Henry Wood Hall Trust and the Rachmaninoff Foundation.   

Mr Walker has an honours degree in Arts, a Diploma of Music and a Diploma of Education from the University of Tasmania and a Diploma of Financial Management from the University of New England. He has been a consultant to the Australia Council, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, The Australian Ballet, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Orcquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo. 

 

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Roshni Hegerman on creativity and constructing an empowered culture

Roshni Hegerman is one of the most awarded strategic thinkers globally. Currently JPAC Market Maker and Experience Director across sustainability and people with Oracle, she discusses creativity, psychological safety and how to construct an empowered culture.

When Roshni was a little girl growing up in India, she didn’t have dreams of being an executive or a director, she had much more humble aspirations to be a social worker. Though her parents didn’t feel it was a career path that could support a family long term, Roshni had her heart set on working with people at a local level.  

With this in mind, she studied sociology and psychology in college, but then drifted into journalism and communications, which is where her marketing and communications career really begun. Although, she never did realise the goal of becoming a social worker, the ethos of social work and community has informed all of her decision making she says, “I get realy excited by the power of ideas and how they can connect with people and actually drive either a shift in perception or a shift in behaviour or give people a different lens to kind of view the world through that they wouldn’t have typically viewed it through.”  

Be a radiator, not a drain

“I think that the traditional sense of creativity probably isn’t as valued as it could be. I think the use of creativity is to innovate and to do things differently and to think about how you’re going to connect in and change things in a positive way. So from that perspective, I actually think that creative thinking is the only thing that cannot be automated.”

Roshni believes that in the modern workplace, as we shift full speed into the world of automation, creativity and the capacity to think outside the box will actually be the most important skill set for young leaders and changemakers of the future.  

One of the things that has stuck with her throughout her professional career is to “be a radiator not a drain”. Rather than be a drain she says, sucking the energy out of the room by sticking to the rules and following traditions, we should be radiators – empowering others, generating ideas, and inspiring new ways of thinking. “I think people are starting to realise that if you’re going to continue to do the same thing and get the same result, and the end and it’s not a positive one, then something has to change.”  

Roshni often reflects on her professional practice asking a few key questions:  

  • How can I use my influence to be more of a radiator?  
  • Is there a more interesting or different direction we could consider?  
  • What’s stopping us from being more passionate about a project?  
  • How can I generate enthusiasm in my team?  
  • Embrace new and innovative ideas 

She suggests that if you can be more of a radiator in your workplace, then people will naturally gravitate towards you, there will be less resistance to your ideas. 

People who feel safe have the best ideas

“It’s when you feel like you have to meet a quota and you have to get something done that you tend to revert back to what you know and you don’t feel safe to kind of go out of that box and try something different. It’s when you have an organisation where employees feel safe to kind of give something a go and they’re empowered to be able to do that.”

In order to truly embrace one’s inner radiator, one must feel safe and confident within their team to share their ideas without fear of criticism.  

Throughout her career, Roshni has explored the idea of psychological safety in the workplace environment. She suggests as leaders it’s important to create a space of safety in the workplace that allows people to feel more open to being more vulnerable whilst confident enough to have their ideas challenged.  

She says, “I think it is very important to create an environment where where you don’t feel threatened by the ideas that you have. There needs to be an environment that allows you to feel at ease with sharing kind of a strong point of view, regardless of which direction you come from.”

Roshi works hard to identity the natural unconscious biases that stop team members from being curious because they believe they already know the answer. She emphasises that it’s important to consciously ask pointed questions and embed curiosity and innovation into every element of organisational structure and process in order to force people to look at things from a different perspective.  

“I think it helps create a culture of discovery, empathy, curiosity, and opens up different possibilities of pathways that could be considered. So that’s one of the things I feel really excited by is going, ‘how do we consciously think about these things and what can we do to ask the right questions so that we are having the right conversations so that we can engage people’s curious mind to think about things differently?”

 Contributing to a better world

“You need to be willing to have a lived experience. You can’t just say that you care about indigenous people or homeless people. You need to see it from their perspective and understand what they’re going through in order to be able to help in the way that they need you to help them, not how you want to help them.”

Despite diverting from the pathway to a career in social work all those years ago, Roshni maintains that the notion of caring for others and celebrating a sense of community has never left her. It’s important to consider the lived experience of different people, rather than assume what people need, you should strive to constantly be out in different communities and speaking to people directly in order to enrich your own perspective.  

Roshni suggests it all comes down to realising that at the end of the day, we are all humans who want to be treated with dignity and respect. She believes in giving those who are underrepresented a voice, and a platform so they can get the help that they need. Her advice for the business leaders of the future is:  It’s important to understand that it’s not all about you, that the world is about others, that you occupy it with. So how can you actually help make things better, not just for yourself, but for the people around you?

 

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above

 

Roshni Hegerman is a force of nature with an unstoppable passion to move businesses and people, creating positive impact and change. Roshni currently is JAPAC Market Maker, Experience Director, with Oracle across Sustainability and People; and is founder of her own strategic creative consultancy, PinchofMasla. Roshni is global citizen unafraid of traversing new and unchartered terrain, in fact she relishes in it – working and thriving in United States, China, India and now Australia – with three beautiful children in tow. Roshni helped launch the iPhone in China, start-up BBH and BBDO in India; grow Coca-Cola’s footprint across Asia. 

Roshni is a champion for diversity and inclusion and one of the most awarded strategic creative thinkers globally. She has started her own Women in Leadership networking group – “Ladies that Lunch,” to bring like-minded female leaders together to make meaningful change and collaborates closely with Igniting Change and Campfire X, tiny but meaningful organisations that spark big positive change. Roshni launched “Creating Meaningful Change” while at McCann Australia, a 365-day initiative, that puts conscious inclusion at the centre of the agency’s strategic and creative operating system. 

Roshni believes that magic is found in the intersection of humanity, creativity and technology. 

 

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Sylvie Barbier and Rufus Pollock on failure and fostering a wiser culture

Sylvie Barbier and Rufus Pollock are the partners in business and life who strive to build wiser future through culture, space and community. With a unique and innovative approach to business, the pair uncover the realities of being a leader, the importance of failure and fostering a wiser culture.

As a performer, Sylvie Barbier has a real passion for community. Her work is a tenacious exploration of the idea of “art as a conversation” and it’s these thematics of life, discussion, and unity which has equipped her to establish the Life Itself initiative. Together with her partner Rufus, a creative technologist and economist, the two have built a collective based in the half way space between Silicon Valley and the Plum Village in the South of France, which is engaged with creating a weller and wiser world.  

On defining leadership

“There is an incredible thirst for leadership, not necessarily leaders – but for leadership.”

The world is in a moment of transition. There is an impending climate crisis, widening inequality as well as a huge amount of disunity and civil unrest, and Rufus believes that we must harness this specific moment in time to interrupt our current archaic notions of what constitutes a leader to craft something new and innovative. He suggests, “we are at a cultural moment where leadership is badly needed, but hugely undermined in part because of these past traumas that we are healing from.”  

The reality of being leaders

“There’s always going to be a problem, you’re either not doing enough, or you’re doing too much and being oppressive.”

Having led multiple different initiatives through tech, art and community, both Sylvie and Rufus have learnt a lot about the process of leading. Now that they jointly lead Life Itself, they are encountering a whole new suite of hurdles and challenges as part of running the collaborative residency programs. The programs bring a collection of thinkers, creators, technologists and spiritualists together over an extended period to time to debate and engage with the challenges of the modern world.  

Rufus says the hardest part is finding the balance as a leader, “invariably after three months there is some sort of crisis – someone is imposing too many rules, someone has to cook too often – and ultimately you are trying to facilitate the group to engage in a transformation and face these issues, what people must learn is that we need to engage with failure. We have an allergy to failure, but it’s these breakdowns which are the most valuable.” 

When leaders fail

Capitalist culture dictates that when a company has some major failing – it is generally the CEO who must hand in their resignation. That the decks must be cleared for fresh blood and new ideas to flush out the old. However Rufus fears we may have gone too far, suggesting that we’ve descended into conducting “ritualised executions” when we decide someone needs to take the blame – just because the leader has left their position doesn’t mean the company will be any better off. Rufus suggests that it’s important to identify the source of the problem, and to think about the duties and responsibilities of leaders more holistically.

In reflecting on their own careers both Rufus and Sylvie acknowledge that they have made some mistakes, and at times mismanaged things. As he continues to learn about leadership, Rufus has let go of trying to achieve everything himself, saying, “leadership is about creating a space in which other people can flourish. I think more and more for myself, based on a huge number of errors, it is the act of creating space versus doing it myself which is central.” 

Sylvie agrees, adding her biggest obstacle was she had a tendency to pursue ideals without being grounded in the reality of the world and the reality of who she is. She explores her issues with reconciling these two ideas, “sometimes I felt that the vision I had almost became a burden because it was my responsibility to make it happen. And if it doesn’t happen it’s my fault.”

In the past she was characterised by the ruthless pursuit of intangible goals, but found she was ultimately dissatisfied with this way of leading because when she achieved these goals she would immediately need to move on to something else and it felt particularly dissatisfying.  

She concludes, “the world is already perfect the way it is, it doesn’t need to be any different than the way it is right now. And in a moment of radical acceptance, I realised I was already in paradise.” 

 

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion above

 

Sylvie ‘Shiwei’ Barbier is a French-Taiwanese performance artist, entrepreneur and educator. Her work synthesizes Eastern and Western philosophies and aesthetics. She co-founded Life Itself to build a wiser future through culture, space and community. Her performance art pieces are contemporary rituals, where the audience is invited to take an active and interactive role. She uses language such as Koans as a bridge for the mind into the spiritual realm, by pushing us beyond the bounds of the intellect into a space of greater wholeness and connection.

Rufus Pollock is a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and long-term zen practitioner. He is the founder of Open Knowledge, an award-winning international digital non-profit. Formerly a Shuttleworth Fellow, Ashoka Fellow and a Mead Fellow in Economics at Cambridge University. His book the Open Revolution sets out a vision for a open, free and free information economy and has been translated into multiple languages. As a co-founder of Life Itself he brings curiosity and rigour to ongoing inquiry into how we can create a radically wiser, weller world for all.

 

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How do you choose the right leader?