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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic denial: Reframing the unknown

Global Strategies Project

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The impact of the unacknowledged, the unknown and the unknowable on governance at this time is necessarily not an easy matter to discuss. The contribution of Donald Michael (Leadership's shadow: the dilemma of denial) is of great value in this respect. It succeeds in naming problems which recent years have demonstrated to be of greater importance than the issues on which the international community has vainly attempted to focus. It helps to explain why so many international initiatives have proved so disappointing in comparison with the expectations widely projected onto them. It suggests that the intuitive or irrational rejection of many rational projects may not be without justification. The paper is above all to be praised for venturing into domains that few care to explore and establishing their relevance to the challenges of the times.

In opening up this discussion, Michael necessarily leaves many threads to be explored. The challenge of the paper lies therefore in responding to the "what then?". What might prove fruitful in the light of the constraints he indicates? For if dissatisfaction is to be expressed with the paper, it must surely focus on its failure to suggest any way forward -- especially since he acknowledges the dilemmas of producing new answers and truths. As "species" or "products" these feed into what might be thought of as the "answer ecology", or even the "answer economy". Global society is faced with as many difficulties in attempting to manage these as it faces in the case of the planetary environment and the world economy. As the acclaimed key to such management of conflicting answers, efforts at a global ethic seem to be simplistic caricatures in comparison with the complexity people are forced to acknowledge in the Rio process towards sustainable development or in the GATT Uruguay Round.

1. Denial vs Affirmation

Leaders are expected to make assertions and affirmations. Michael outlines some of the less fortunate consequences. Leaders are also expected to establish priorities and in doing so must effectively deny realities which some consider of vital importance -- but which, because they "confuse the issue", may be too much for many (including the leaders) to deal with. In this way leadership could be considered as management of the interface between the acknowledged and the unacknowledged. Such "management" may unfortunately be largely an attribute of the unconscious personality characteristics of the leadership for whom particular forms of denial are needed for a measure of psychic stability.

Michael clarifies how in a turbulent complex environment present skills of leadership are increasingly inadequate in dealing with this interface. This is exemplified by the challenges to the traditional devices of "recognition", "accreditation", and "acknowledgement" by which people and ideas became acceptable to leadership elites. For example, the uneasy relationship between "international NGOs" and the UN system has been thrown into turmoil by the access granted to a far wider range of "NGOs" during the Rio process. It is always much easier to deny relevance (as acid rain showed) than to find ways of comprehending its implications within a necessarily more complex systemic framework. Anomalies tend to be systematically ignored in corporate R & D because of the questions they raise concerning the quality of the research and the researcher, and their potential effects on future funding. A natural reaction is to believe that by not recognizing and researching them, they will cease to exist. As shown by Raymond Peto (When anomalies become the norm, Financial Times, 26 July 1994), although a real challenge for leaders of R & D teams, anomaly research tends to be marginalized.

Of greater significance is the function of leadership in maintaining "official secrets" (as measured by the vast amount of information with various levels of classification), whose implications are systematically denied in public debate. Associated with this is the complicity of leadership in illegal activities, organized crime and various forms of corruption, as exemplified by recent revelations in Italy. The statement by André Malraux that "The truth about a manlies first and foremost in what he hides" is even more relevant in the case of leaders.

Denial has recently acquired increasing popularity as a psychological category -- to the degree that denial of any accusation of being "in denial" is often abusively perceived as an exemplification of the problem. The popular remedy is to "get out of" denial by some form of acknowledgement of what has been denied. This is a dangerously simplistic way of framing the relationship between the known and the unknown. It suggests that everything can be effectively and usefully brought to consciousness -- out of the darkness and into the light. It fails to acknowledge the challenge of comprehending aspects of what Michael suggests may necessarily remain incomprehensible. The nature of this challenge of dealing with "the shadow" is usefully summarized in a collection of 65 articles (Zweig and Abrams, Meeting the Shadow, 1991).

A more fruitful approach might be to accept that if it is necessary (for leadership) to assert "A", then "not-A" may need to be denied (whether explicitly or implicitly). This is clearest in the case of emergencies, which is one reason why leaders are not reluctant to deal with everything in a fire-fighting mode. This justifies failure to deal with what they are then free to define as non-essentials. But in a more complex system, others will at the same time be asserting "B" and denying "not-B". Over time, even those asserting "A" may shift to asserting "P" and denying "not-P". This too may be abused when leaders "shift ground" and "move the goal posts" to out-manoeuvre those that oppose them.

In a dynamic society it is precisely this shifting pattern of assertions and denials that needs to be framed more appropriately for comprehension. It is utopian to depend upon people moving out of denial to ensure effective governance -- especially when to be perceived as an adequate leader a person may have to take on or reflect the forms of denial of the followers. But provided one group asserts what another denies (or a single group alternates over time between denying one thing and denying another), then society as a whole has a means of responding to the many facets of its reality. The question is how to frame this pattern to allow for what cannot be acknowledged or known whether by a particular leadership group or at any one time. There is also the vital question of whether such patterning provides for adequate social coherence.

Use of geometric models has been advocated as a means of carrying such patterns whilst exemplifying the need to embody discontinuity and paradox (see Volume 2, Section TZ). Self-reflexive characteristics need to be built in to avoid the traps of simply producing another answer to compete in the answer economy. But it is more evocative to see such models as examples of metaphors of which there may be many others that can offer complementary insights into the requisite patterning.

2. Consensus and "being positive"

Most collective action, notably at the international level, is now made conditional upon consensus: no consensus, no action. In a society characterized by intractable differences, this requirement is very effectively used as an honourable excuse by those who seek to avoid action (as Bosnia has illustrated). The violence perpetrated during the lengthy process whilst consensus is sought is in no way seen as the responsibility of those dependent on consensual processes -- another problem of denial? Any consensus that does finally emerge tends to be either unstable, tokenistic, or extremely specific. At the same time, obsession with positive information and upbeat reporting, and avoidance of any form of negative feedback, is significantly undermining the ability of people and groups to adapt creatively to constantly changing conditions.

In this sense consensual processes and "being positive" have become, ironically, the ultimate symptom of denial -- the denial that anything has been denied. It is also the denial that any group of significance has been marginalized by such processes. It could be said to be symptomatic of a new form of collective mentalillness. They ensure a "candy-floss" quality to many meetings on difficult issues where "groupthink" needs to be transcended. Difficult issues become feared as were eclipses in societies of the past. People hide from them. Superstitiously they are seen as signs that leaders are no longer favoured by the gods.

There is a need to clarify the nature of any "higher orders" of consensus which, like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes, each transcend the previous level of assertion and denial. Leadership is then the art of packing and unpacking such nested perspectives under different conditions.

3. Solar system metaphor of assertion/denial dynamics

There is a need for metaphors through which the relationship between assertion and denial can be more fruitfully discussed in relation to policy-making. A solar or planetary system model is a classic means for describing the complex experience of light and shadow on planets -- and notably the nature of eclipses. It permits a distinction to be made between assertion and denial in the light of:

  • sun shadow (including eclipses) created by any exposed object during daytime;
  • the periodic shadow of night-time (despite simultaneous sunlight in another time-zone);
  • the shadow created by objects during night-time (moon shadow) or in reflected or "artificial" light;
  • seasonal permanent darkness (or light) in polar zones;
  • permanently concealed zones (like the distant face of the moon);
  • permanently concealed objects (a hypothetical planet orbiting on the far side of the sun);
  • permanent darkness underground.
As illustrations of forms of denial, the first four are essentially temporary. But all but the last allow for the possibility of alternative perspectives (possibly at a later time) from which "shadow-free assertions" can be made. The shifting pattern of assertion and denial is here modelled through the dynamics of the planetary system. (It could be argued that only the centre of the sun offers the possibility of denial-free assertions.)

Whilst convenient in order to enrich the scope of discussion, this essentially mechanistic model is far from reflecting the richness of the relationship between assertion and denial as encountered in many forms of social interaction, notably courtship and bargaining. There are qualities to shadow which any walk in a wood suggests. These are much valued in Japanese interior decoration, for example. In leadership terms these point to the dynamics of being "tentative" rather than engaging in premature closure through "assertion" or "denial".

The implications for processing information in society have been explored in an intriguing study by Orrin Klapp on Opening and Closing (1978). He argues that individuals and groups need to open and close themselves to information, as does the iris in adjusting the amount of light entering the eye according to circumstances. In this dynamic sense, the degree of assertion or denial is also a matter of conceptual circumstance.

4. Governance through confidence artistry

Despite the pejorative connotations normally associated with confidence artistry (as practised by "con-men"), there is much to be learnt from the strategic skills that it implies. Construed in a positive light, it could indeed be argued that governance is primarily the art through which the confidence of followers is transformed by leaders into various forms of action -- however surprising that may prove to be to those whose confidence was used to give rise to it. It is a form of "confidence aikido".

A major feature of confidence artistry is the manner in which it works with the interface between that which has been comprehended and that which cannot be comprehended, between that which is known and that which has been consciously or unconsciously concealed. As noted above, governance too is obliged to work with this interface. Much information cannot be communicated to the public, however attentive. In addition to the reasons suggested by Michael, there are those of: information overload, privacy, confidentiality, complexity, security, competitiveadvantage, public relations, embarrassment and the associated need to "cover-up".

At this interface both leaders and public play on the challenges to comprehension -- influenced not only by rational analysis but also by the taste for risk, intuition and superstition familiar to all gamblers. Traditionally the public will endeavour to conceal from government matters in which interference is unwelcome. Leaders endeavour to conceal matters on which public enquiry might be disruptive to their operations, whether "in the public interest" or for reasons of "national security". For both leaders and the public the best form of concealment is deceptive openness and an emphasis on transparency. This relies on the art of distraction, misinterpretation and disinformation, encouraging the observer to see what in fact is not there -- techniques practised by many species in nature. This whole process is much complicated by the extent to which either leaders or followers are "in denial" and are thus incapable of dealing with some categories of information under any circumstances. In psychoanalytic terms the positive and negative functions of the archetypal Trickster is relevant to these arguments (Andrew Samuels, The Political Psyche, 1993)

5. Leadership: the orchestration of light and shadow

To the extent that the leadership team can embody or encompass the pattern of what can be asserted and denied, the true function of leadership can emerge as the orchestration of shifts within that pattern -- a shifting pattern of light and shadow. The shadow however may be both in the relationship to the following public and in the blindspots of the leadership group at any one time. For governance in a media-oriented society, this gives a new angle to the old concept of a shadow play.

The many possibilities of this shifting pattern are suggested by Figure 1. The cells of the table are clustered into four zones each of which includes those at a lower level (so that Zone III includes behaviour characteristic of Zones I and II):

  • I "Consensual": Here consensus is emphasized, as in any fire-fighting situation. There is no cause for reservations or denial. In the form of declarations and agreements, this mode is the grail of many international initiatives, notably those which are most simplistic or fanatical. Efforts at a global ethic aspire to this condition.
  • II "Schizoid": This is exemplified by situations in which emphasis is placed on agreement in public debate (as in a conference plenary) with reservations and denials being expressed "in the corridors" (or possibly the reverse). This is more clearly recognized in Eastern cultures where there is as much sensitivity to what is said as to what is not said (cf the Japanese distinction between tatemae and honne, between the explicitly stated and the unspoken realities). It leads to conditions in which people say one thing and do something different -- typical of the more cynical at many international conferences. There is little ability to manage both assertion and denial simultaneously as Peter Scott-Morgan demonstrates (Note 7.4) in the case of vain efforts to implement rational strategies whilst neglecting the unwritten rules of any organization. There is a particular problem when both leaders and followers are in denial.
  • III "Inconsistent": With the ability in this zone to work flexibly and simultaneously with both assertion and denial, from which moments of assertion or denial may emerge as appropriate. This can easily take the form of equivocation and fickleness, or be seen as such. There is a problem when both leaders and followers equivocate.
  • IV "Transcendent": In this zone there is an ability to avoid being trapped by either assertion or denial, or by the vacillation between them characteristic of Zone III. From the perspective of this zone ("neither confirming nor denying"), there is greater ability to navigate as appropriate between the options presented by Zones I, II and III. Especially challenging is the condition in which both leaders and followers are able to avoid either assertion or denial. It is the desirability of this condition which is "hidden" within the widespread obsession with simplistic forms of consensus characterized by Zone I. This zone captures some of the richness associated with David Bohm's explicate and implicate orders interrelated through a holomovement.
Figure 1: Relating leaders and followers (public) in terms of patterns of assertion and denial
FOLLOWERS (PUBLIC)
Assertion 

(Agreement)

Denial 

(Disagreement)

Assertion 

and Denial 

(Equivocation)

Neither 

Assertion 

nor Denial

S

Neither 

Assertion 

nor Denial

Public asserts 

but Leaders 
neither assert nor deny

Public denies but 

Leaders neither 

assert nor deny

Public equivocates 

but Leaders neither 
assert nor deny

Both Public and Leaders 

neither assert nor deny

Assertion 

and Denial 

(Equivocation)

Public asserts 

but Leaders 

equivocate

Public denies 

whilst Leaders 

equivocate

Both Leaders and 

Public 

equivocate

Leaders equivocate 

but Public neither 

asserts nor denies

Denial 

(Disagreement)

Public asserts 

Leaders deny

Leaders and 

Public deny

Leaders deny 

whilst Public 

equivocates

Leaders deny but 

Public neither 

asserts nor denies

Assertion 

(Agreement)

Leaders and 

Public agree

Leaders assert 

Public denies

Leaders assert 

but Public 

equivocates

Leaders assert but 

Public neither 

asserts nor denies

Zone I Zone II Zone III Zone IV
The zones correspond to a progression from the necessarily simplistic consensus of Zone I through various higher orders of consensus in which denial is embodied in some way. Clearly of major importance is the extent to which leaders and followers are "in phase" within any one zone, as reflected by the cells on the diagonal. The out of phase conditions typical of most challenges to governance (and confidence artistry) are represented through cells off the diagonal as well as to a richer range of social problems. In contrast, in the responses typical of Zones I or II, consensus tends to be very narrowly focused and much of wider significance is ignored.

It is appropriate to note that Eastern philosophies of governance, typified by the I Ching, would articulate the pattern of Figure I in greater detail to give 64 cells. Indeed its coding system (of hexagrams of complete and broken lines) can be seen as a representation of a dynamic system of complementary combinations of light and shadow (assertion and denial) whereby ruler and people can be related. The progression to higher orders of consensus, through which possibilities of integrating the shadow are embodied, can also be related to the much-cited sequence of "ox-herding" pictures central to Zen Buddhism. The Eastern attitude would however downplay any such linear progress in favour of recognition of the complementarity of the roles played by all conditions represented in Figure 1 or in the I Ching pattern. This is exemplified by Chuang Tzu: "When man understands only one of a pair of opposites, or concentrates only on a partial aspect of being, then clear expression becomes muddied by mere word play, affirming this one aspect and denying all the rest....The wise man therefore sees that on both sides of every argument there is both right and wrong." (see demonstration)

6. Leadership vs Followership

Whilst much can be achieved through leadership, there are dangers in "delegating" to leaders functions which should be carried out by others (as the debate on subsidiarity has demonstrated in the European Union). For then the leadership engages in activities which distract from less tangible functions, and the ability to perform the more tangible functions becomes valued more than the skills in the less tangible ones. These lead to a confusion of leadership with competence and followership with incompetence. But there is also a complicity of followers in the patterns of denial and dysfunctionality of leadership, as is superbly documented by Katy Butler (in Zweig and Abrams, 1991) in the tragic case of the Buddhist community in America during the 1980s when alcoholism and transmission of AIDS by the spiritual leadership was "enabled" by followers (in a pattern familiar to counsellors of alcoholic families).

In the fluid social structures of the future, the challenge will be to work with shifting patterns of assertion and denial, of leadershipand followership. It is how the many forms of assertion and denial are configured together which offers a way forward, not the tendency to deplore denial as the favoured scapegoat for the 1990s. The assertion-denial complementarity needs to be reframed as a resource whose paradoxical qualities define the door to a genuinely sustainable future.

Sustainable communities, emerging through processes of self-organization, may turn out to based on complex forms of co-dependency, defined by many complementary forms of assertion and denial, as phases in a dynamic learning process. When does such co-dependency impede sustainability as opposed to enabling it? In such a community functions of leading and following may need to be constantly redistributed, in relation to assertion and denial, in ways that remain to be understood.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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