Brainstorming mindsets at high altitude

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The New Mindset - Workshop 1

What do the world’s business leaders talk about when they travel up a Swiss mountain and close the doors? Over the next few days, I’ll let you know.

This year the World Economic Forum is running a series of CEO workshops encouraging members to share their thinking about such issues as the global trading environment, the rise of China, creativity and innovation.

In each meeting, up to 80 CEOs are challenged by a panel of academics or journalists to consider these subjects from different perspectives and to map out future scenarios.

Many business leaders had told the WEF that they wanted a chance to interact more with each other. As the stated object has it: “Workspace sessions are designed to harness the collective intellect of the participants as they listen, learn and collaborate.”

The format certainly differs from traditional Davos meetings. For a start, the stage is not set apart from the audience. All the participants sit on “radiant” chairs in concentric circles focusing all the discussion into a common centre. Everyone is encouraged to pitch in from the start.

The first workshop is devoted to The New Mindset. It starts – somewhat bizarrely - with Bo Ekman, a Swedish businessman who now runs the Tällberg Foundation, playing several pieces of music including Abba’s Money, Money, Money, a snatch of Mozart’s Requiem, the sound track of Cry Freedom, Rage against the Machine.

Each work, he says, represents a different mindset. He challenges each participant to think about which one best reflects their own. Some are unabashed Abba fans – these are business leaders after all. Others opt for Cry Freedom saying that money cannot be made without a conscience.

Ekman, a tall, silver-haired Swede with crystal-clear diction, suggests there are four mindsets in the world today. Each one thinks it has a universal answer and is competing for power:

1) Enlightened modernity: stressing the rational, the market, and democracy. It believes that technology will fix everything.

2) Political: believing that a party, a government, a state can fix the world’s problems.

3) Religious: placing faith in dogma and believing that “our book is the most important book.”

4) Systems: arguing that inter-connected systems have the solution to adaptation.

Which one do people in the audience believe in? Can they co-exist?

Maureen O’Neil, president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, argues for the political saying it is only by free discussion and democratic politics that competing mindsets can ever hope to be reconciled.

But Wadah Khanfar, managing director of al-Jazeera satellite channel, responds that sometimes politics is not enough. The peaceful transformation of South Africa was not brought about by political processes but by individuals who believed in “building bridges instead of barriers.”

He also warned of the danger of imposing seemingly rational political solutions on parts of the world with different mindsets. “We wanted to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But we only have anarchy,” he said. “In the Arab world politics is playing against modernity. Politics means corruption or dictatorship.”

One Indian speaker wondered whether the model for a successful society was a melting pot, or a salad bowl (where the different ingredients mingled), or a mosaic (where the pieces remained separate and protected). Gandhi was championed as someone who practised tolerance, and India – the hot topic of Davos this year – as a country that thrived on diversity and inclusion. “The purpose of big business is not just profit but expansion. But expansion can only succeed with inclusion. If it expands without inclusion it is conquest,” said one Indian entrepreneur.

Robert Trent Jones, the US architect and golf course designer, argued that an era’s tallest buildings encapsulated its prevailing mindset: cathedrals in mediaeval England or the World Trade Center of modern times. The 9/11 attacks were not just a horrendous terrorist act but also an attack on a prevailing mindset by people who lived in the “horizontal world.” He argued that the world’s main challenge today was still to answer billions of people’s basic needs: hunger and shelter.

The discussion accelerated reflecting views from business leaders around the world. Was there a conclusion? Ekman tried to provide a synthesis, arguing for the celebration of diversity and principled pragmatism. The great challenges facing mankind he said were the economy, energy, and the environment (the triple-e equation). And the answer: the DHL solution (democracy, human rights, and the rule of law). “We cannot reconcile the first if we do not focus on governance,” he said.

ends

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