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  • Writer's pictureMichael Johnstone


The research we undertook for our new book “Provocation as Leadership” has shown that real, adaptive, leadership always involves challenging the status quo by “poking a stick into the prevailing paradigm.”

All those we spoke to confronted paradigms whose fundamental elements had not been tested and, therefore, resisted easy modification. Like an outdated computer operating system, the prevailing coding needed revision. In some cases, it took a crisis, an external event, to create a tipping point.

Shimon and Peter, two Israeli kibbutz members, started by helping their community avoid collapse. Then, once they had cauterized the wound, they began a long process of helping to question the fundamental beliefs of the settlement. They understood that the prevailing ideology and core beliefs, forged during the hard days of the kibbutz’s formation, were essential to all members because they defined what being a kibbutz meant. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that each step Shimon or Peter took was deeply unsettling to many people. Even though their proposals made sense practically, they were hard to reconcile ideologically.

The success of Kibbutz Yizrael was built on finding a pathway between survival and adaptation and between pragmatism and ideology. Shimon’s and Peter’s contribution was their willingness to ask, even insist, that their colleagues examine the restrictions of the original doctrine. They needed to keep what was essential and find different ways to express their values and aspirations.

We show how Charlie Massy, a pioneering regenerative farmer, targeted powerful vested interests in the wool industry. And how his and another farmer, Colin Sais’s, promotion of regenerative farming confronted a different paradigm, including their own thinking. At least initially, the enemy was within, and Charlie and Colin needed to disturb their own systems. Once these farmers were sufficiently disturbed, they could dismantle and reconstruct their personal theory of how things work. In so doing, they first changed their internal coding and then the rules of agriculture and management. Charlie’s and Colin’s new philosophy, ethics, and values challenged and unintentionally threatened their peers and locally accepted practice, and even family. It was a high cost to pay that only the committed would choose to bear.

It is no wonder that, as they rejected the old ways, the opposition and criticism they encountered was strong. They became masters of negotiating with the status quo and figuring out when and how to push it, challenge it, harness it, and when to leave it alone. Charlie and Colin discovered that you must get out of the way and create new conditions to foster learning and progress to mobilize change. They faced a typical adaptive paradox. Until your own understanding and perception change, and your mind adapts, you can be blind to what is all around you. Together, they have described the foundations of ecological literacy, encompassing curiosity, observation, pattern recognition, and interpretation, as well as a relentless focus on maladaptive behavior that leads to environmental and human destruction.

David Gruen, the Australian Statistician, was determined not to “waste” the crisis created by Covid-19 and set about creating profound culture change. In 2020 as Covid 9 hit Australia he built on the changes started by his predecessor by quickly implemented a series of rapid but less accurate surveys that provided immediate information to the government and the public about the impact of Covid-19. As with many of our protagonists, the ABS began to change the prevailing paradigm, creating new, more flexible structures, and becoming more responsive to the needs of their community.

The experience of our protagonists highlights two crucial principles of provocation. First, the more rigid and entrenched a system is, the more potent and persistent the provocation needs to be. All our protagonists needed to provoke others for anyone to take heed, and they needed to do so persistently over time. Second, you know that you have unsettled entrenched thinking and beliefs when you begin to get attacked personally. The irrigation industry establishment found it hard to counter the logic of water reform arguments, particularly given the thoroughness of the science, so they attacked government officials personally.

All the stories show us that when a complex system is disturbed, it approaches the edges of chaos, and the disequilibrium becomes visible to people. A drought that denudes a farm of its topsoil, a plague of grasshoppers that destroys a crop, or wild storms that create flooding, are all “edges” of chaos that will attract people’s attention. Here, in Australia, as in many other parts of the world, such events have become more frequent, more severe, and sequential, prompting people to action.

Extracts from Chapter 18 Lessons in the Use of Provocation, pp221-231 “Provocation as Leadership by Maxime Fern and Michael Johnstone


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