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  "Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future": World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2002

Annual Meeting Faculty were invited to contribute essays on the Annual Meeting theme "Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future". The six core themes of the Annual Meeting were:

Here the perspective from Moisés Naím, editor in Chief. Foreign Policy Magazine.

Read the essay: 
[Redefining Business Challenges]

The combination of the terrorist attacks and the steep economic downturn has greatly heightened the world's awareness of its economic and political fragility. Also of its social fragility. While poverty is not the cause of terrorism (otherwise most Brazilians or Chinese would be terrorists and no Irish or Basque terrorism would exist) the attacks have also focused the rich world’s attention on the desperate poverty that afflicts billions of people. Opinion leaders in wealthier countries are also more focused on inequality and on the sociopolitical fragility created by the many divides among peoples and regions.

Yet, there is another fragility, an intellectual fragility, that while less visible is as dangerous. Decision-makers have always been vulnerable to the seduction of bad ideas that become popular and are embraced by influential elites. Now, new technologies, globalization and the pressure to respond boldly and quickly to unprecedented threats have increased this vulnerability. Bad ideas have become more virulent as they can now spread faster and farther before their flaws are exposed. Moreover, the blank checks, political, military and economic that have been granted to those in charge of responding to the crisis make bad ideas even more dangerous as massive resources can be devoted to implement them.

History is full of examples of ideas that become fashionable and influence policy only to subsequently fall into disrepute or to be replaced by other ideas with more elite appeal. Some, like Communism or Fascism are big, all-encompassing visions of society, indeed of the world. Others are narrower and more specialized. The “Dependency Theory” of underdevelopment, the effect of Asian values on the economic success of the East Asian Tigers, the Laffer Curve, the “indisputable” superiority of Japanese management, the “Limits to Growth” or investing in Internet companies with no foreseeable profits, are ideas that enchanted decision-makers and commentators for a while and then faded out of fashion. Others, like “Star Wars” are making a comeback. Supplying the mujahedin with Stinger missiles during their war against the Soviet Union seemed a much better idea in the 1980s than now. But then even good ideas are sometimes quickly displaced as other emergencies drive them out of favour. In the 1990s, financial crashes made the need for a new “Global Financial Architecture” a popular idea. Today, only a few experts talk about it. In 2001 crashing jetliners in the NY twin towers has made the “war on terrorism” an even more popular idea. Will it remain as popular a few years hence?

While the cycle of emergence-adoption-rejection (and some times re-emergence) of ideas with policy consequences is an historical constant, its speed is accelerating. This acceleration contributes to a policy volatility that may retard the adoption of more stable and effective solutions or, worse, it increases the probability that influential individuals and institutions embrace bad ideas. Proven policies that take too long to have an effect are also more vulnerable to being replaced by new untested initiatives which bear the promise of rapid results.

Thus intellectual fragility has been boosted by the cheaper, instant electronic communication that facilitates the global diffusion and discussion of new ideas. At the same time, cheaper communication and information also makes the scrutiny of new ideas quicker and broader as the analysis and debate of new ideas have become truly global. Nonetheless, speed of communication and the volume of information make this scrutiny shallower as the time to learn, ponder and react to the massive inflow of new ideas is compressed and as the exponential growth of the “noise” in the system makes it harder to filter such noise out. Moreover, bad ideas can also get a pass thanks to the surging demand for solutions to new, pressing problems. Corporate leaders pressured by hyper-competition, politicians facing impatient electorates with high expectations that are also boosted by increased access to information or government officials needing to respond to unprecedented emergencies fuel the demand for new and quick “magic bullet” solutions to important problems. While sooner or later bad ideas are caught and discarded, some do find their way into public policies. As these bad ideas are more likely to be shorter lived than some of their predecessors in the pantheon of misguided policies, this accelerated cycle has become an added source of volatility to an already unstable environment.

There are no failsafe, simple solutions to the heightened vulnerability of decision-makers to embrace counterproductive intellectual fads and bad ideas. But as the terrorist attacks have shown, knowing that one is vulnerable is a good first step to find ways to become less so. We need to be as alert about our augmented intellectual fragility as we are about the terrorist menace.

February 18, 2001

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