What it means to lead in a multipolar world

By overcoming our fears and creating a brave space for dialogue, we can relate and lead better

The US Capitol is seen past the US Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, on May 29. AFP
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Until not too long ago, those of us who subscribed to a dominant western narrative lived in the illusion of a unipolar world. We wanted to believe that we had arrived at the “end of history” where, with just a bit more time and innovation, we would enjoy peace and prosperity forever. War, terrorism, discrimination, autocracy, nationalism, intolerance as well as other forms of social, economic and political divide were the unfortunate legacies of an undesirable past, a small bump on our road towards global enlightenment.

As a result of such thinking, we may have become self-righteous and closed our minds. Many of us believed that the world was moving towards a single objective, as if history was pre-ordained. We trusted that our mission was so holy that any detractor would eventually see the light. Even as we embraced volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Vuca), it was mostly applied to short-term challenges framed within a single and stable narrative that, while not linear, was based on inviolable rules of right and wrong.

And yet, for a couple of decades now, we have seen the emergence of those who challenge that narrative. After all, narratives are often self-serving; they shape our thinking in ways that benefit us more than others.

In a not-so-subtle way, we resurrected the distinction between civilised and “savage” people rampant in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those who were not yet like us, we reckoned, would eventually be edified and assimilated, or weeded out by evolutionary imperatives that we had mastered.

From our vantage point, the international world order was stable, the EU project would only move forward, China would eventually become a liberal democracy and accept the leadership of the US. We had little doubt that terrorism and religious extremism would be eradicated once the superiority of secular democratic principles was recognised. Russia would eventually accept a much reduced international role as a commodity provider. And should a pandemic break out, our unified world would quickly co-ordinate to defeat it.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin addresses delegates following the raising of the Chinese (2nd L) and Hong Kong SAR flags (L), 01 July 1997, as Hong Kong returns to China after more than 156 years as a British possession. Hong Kong will mark the 10th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule on 01 July, 2007.   AFP PHOTO / Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD / AFP)
In a multipolar world, respect and tolerance are a prerequisite

We were also confident that hunger and poverty would end within a couple of decades. Political consensus and scientific innovation would save us from global warming. Big internet giants could remain completely unregulated as they had vowed to do no evil. The list goes on.

Then the surprises started to emerge.

Britain said no to the EU. People began to turn their back on globalisation. Covid-19 shows how we still stick to our flags before reaching out to others, and how quickly we distrust science and democracy. Big Tech became the latest exhibit of the constant trade-off between unrestrained corporate profit-seeking and social priorities.

Military budgets everywhere are growing. Millions of refugees are denied refuge in other countries. The US exit from Afghanistan shows that years of fighting and investment are no panacea for extremism, nor are they a shortcut to democracy. France is arguing that it needs to become energy-independent and that French industries should move their overseas facilities home to boost the country’s resilience to supply chain shocks and bolster its independence in international disputes. Most recently Russia, as we all know, started its “special operation” in Ukraine.

How did those of us who sign up to this western narrative fail to anticipate this?

For one thing, we just did not want to see it. Maybe we were afraid that our narrative was wrong or not the only good option. Because we have a comfortable life and do not want to risk it. Because we do not want to sacrifice money today for money tomorrow.

The multipolar dynamics of power has implications for the way we think about leadership and governance. In a multipolar world, a functional use of power requires a way of thinking beyond the unipolar. Rational behaviour does not just accomplish goals; it also leads to unintended and interdependent consequences. Multipolar leaders acknowledge that each actor is anchored in a set of values and contexts and thus have their own, often different, purposes.

In a multipolar world, respect and tolerance are a prerequisite. Accepting others’ values and ways of thinking without necessarily agreeing with them is a sign of strength rather than weakness. We need that strength to be able to hold conflicting ideas without succumbing to the comfort of an easy answer. We are not advocating for moral relativism but what we call multipolar morality.

In a multipolar world, embracing diversity means being open to opposing or different views, genuinely accepting and learning from them, and facilitating efforts to arrive at mutually acceptable outcomes. We need to let go of unipolar thinking or risk the world passing us by, or worse, risk believing that we are entitled to use power or violence to bend others to our will. Companies must also take this reality into account.

Fear is the biggest emotional obstacle to a multipolar leader. To be a leader is to have the courage to go first and show the way, in spite of fears.

There is enough space inside ourselves to choose our perspective freely. Exploration forces us to mature our emotional reactions and develop the courage to be ourselves while aiding others to contain their own fears. It allows us to be even sharper in our decisions because we take them in full conscience.

European Council President Charles Michel, centre right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, centre left, leave the Europa building after an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders to discuss Ukraine, energy and food security in Brussels on May 31. AP Photo

We can learn to be grateful and humble about our imperfections. We can learn to express our point of view without expecting others to change theirs. We can also learn to apologise. In so doing, we become better at identifying right and wrong in more nuanced and accurate ways. The more risks we face, the more we ought to engage in collective multipolar processes that embrace our inevitable shortcomings.

The dominant western narrative owes its success to its emphasis on individual freedom, fair process and tolerance of beliefs. It is founded on secular representative government that protects citizens from religious or political persecution, ensures equal opportunities (not results) and upholds rules to protect those who think or act differently than the majority. This narrative is based on an evolutionary and self-correcting process that constantly scans for weaknesses or different ideas and then attempts to improve on them.

The problem is not the western narrative but its current unipolar leadership. Every narrative, organisation or person can fall into this trap. We can reduce the distance between polarities by facilitating dialogue and giving everyone a voice. In a multipolar world, multipolar leadership may help to bring about peace and prosperity, for one and for all.

A version of this article first appeared in Insead Knowledge

Marc Le Menestrel is Affiliate Professor of Decision Sciences at Insead

Horacio Falcao is Professor of Management Practice at Insead

Published: June 19, 2022, 6:38 AM