Not Back to the Future: Trust and Leadership in a Radically Uncertain World

May 19, 2021

Where can our leaders turn when the world is gripped by the radical uncertainties of war, global debt, China’s economic crisis and American instability? Does the solution lie in the past such as a new Marshall Plan, Keynesian economics or 1990s neoliberalism? The bad news for nostalgists is that the influential economic historian Adam Tooze answers that question with a resounding ‘no’. However, in a fascinating event held in London in May 2022, Adam did point to four effective ways forward. Read on to discover what they are…


The second VISION New Thinking seminar took place on Thursday 19 May 2022 in London. Leaders from across business and government in the UK, Ireland, South America and the USA joined Adam Tooze and a panel of thought leaders to consider the uncertainties at play today and the role leaders might play in shaping the future. Read on for highlights from the event or click through to watch the whole event.

VISION’s CEO Billy Glennon opened the event by asking the deceptively simple question: “What is going on in the world?” He offered a few personal examples of how the local and the individual were entangled with the global and systemic, whether it be the daughter unable to return home because of contracting COVID-19 overseas, or the Jamaican fish farm without fish because its fish meal was stuck in Ukraine.

Billy went on to welcome Adam Tooze, who is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis chair at Columbia University and Director of the European Institute. He introduced Adam as a historical thinker with a difference: a historian who understands that we must reinterpret history in the light of what’s happening now. Billy invited the audience to join Adam in seeing history not as a collection of static facts but as a shifting tapestry of interpretation from the constantly changing perspective of the present, and how that can help us to anticipate the future.

With this in mind, Billy introduced a distinguished panel to discuss the topic with Adam and the wider audience. The world of business was represented by two senior executives deeply involved in the essential restructuring of global energy and water infrastructure. Alistair Phillips-Davies is CEO of SSE plc and a pioneer of some of the world’s biggest clean energy capital projects. Martin Bradley is Head of EMEA for Macquarie Asset Management, one of the largest infrastructure investment companies in the world. Joining Alistair and Martin was Dr Jennifer Cassidy, stipendiary lecturer at St Peter’s College, Oxford University and a global expert on international governance and digital diplomacy.

Adam introduced his talk by echoing Billy Glennon’s view that history is alive. “The history that really interests me is the weird thing that happens between yesterday, today and tomorrow,” he said. “The way in which today becomes tomorrow’s yesterday and the way in which we constantly, therefore, have to reorientate ourselves. And that is a deep philosophical problem but also an eminently practical, political and economic problem.” While taking up the challenge of anticipating where we would be in the future, Adam went on to propose why “for absolutely fundamental reasons, it is so incredibly difficult at this moment to form a coherent and intelligent take on where we’re going to be 12 months from now”. He described four radically uncertain risks whose outcome and impact are incalculable.

First, after describing the historical parallels between President Biden’s signing of a second LeaseLend policy to support Ukraine and the start of Second World War, Adam suggested that we are “fundamentally underestimating the violent dynamic that’s at work”. Yes, there are safety checks in place but the logic of the LendLease is heavily hypothetical and the incalculability of the risks is irreducible. The upshot is that apocalyptic war remains a real possibility.

Second, COVID-19 is far from over. China, while appearing to be the great victor of the first wave is likely to be the great loser of the second. Its failure to protect its elderly by vaccination means that its conscious deflation of an anticipated real estate bubble met with an unanticipated collapse in the market that is sending shock waves into the global commodities markets that rely heavily on the Chinese real estate market.

The third radical uncertainty is related: how will central banks read contradictory signals of energy shocks, economic deceleration and accelerations and adjust interest rates to avert social crises and pay off “epic levels of global debt”? As Adam says, “the leading investment managers in Europe are fully processing the politics of Europe and taking a negative bet, a pessimistic bet, on the capacity of the Central Bank to steer inflation in Europe right now.” Referring to George Soros’s reflexivity, he described a situation where the actions of the ECB, the Fed and other central banks constrain the possibilities of what they can do in the future without any certainty of their effects.

That, in turn brings Adam to his fourth radical uncertainty: how will the USA, as the leading superpower, shape up to its global and domestic leadership challenges? He painted a picture of a failing Democratic presidency that bet on a big programme and lost, and a resurgent Republican Party but one that has no vision for how it will tackle the macro-challenges of our time: climate, social unrest, China and trade.

Turning from these radical uncertainties to consider how leaders can shape a response to the systemic risks “about which we have been warned”, Adam set out three ways we cannot “go back to the future”. First, the desire for a new Marshall Plan or Bretton Woods on behalf of both the left in the shape of Yanis Varoufakis and the right, like Klaus Schwab, has to be seen as comfort blanket nostalgia. We are not in that world of large-scale organised politics and collective will, and grand pan-governmental new deals have to be seen as wishful thinking. Second, despite superficial cost of living similarities, we are not in the world of the 1970s and Keynesian planned economics will still be seen as tyrannical interference by arrogant bodies too distant from on-the-ground realities. Finally, however, we are not in the 1990s any longer either. Indeed, we are better advised to see the free-wheeling neoliberalism of that era, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as a cause of the current crisis rather than its solution.

So, if we can’t go back to the future of the 1940s, 1970s or 1990s, what can we do? Adam recommended as our starting point that business leaders should:

Deal with the specific rather than hope for a general solution.

– Accept that the hopes of the world’s population rest on their shoulders and responsibility will increase rather than decrease.
– Accept that government will not leave them alone.
– Reinvent the public-private partnership to plunge into tackling concrete needs in the contemporary world.

In closing, he invited the audience and his panellists to consider how they might build trust by bringing honesty, clarity of purpose and focus on the transactions they make and the value they create for all parties in those transactions.

The panel and audience picked up these last themes enthusiastically. The panel noted examples of the blurred lines between corporations and government. For instance, Google and other digital corporations, as well as energy companies and banks, have long had close relationships with government, and influenced and been influenced by China and other countries. Now however, nation-states are beginning to establish separate embassies in Silicon Valley and the entanglement is growing.

This entanglement of commerce and politics led to a lengthy discussion on the theme of trust in multiple arenas. For instance, trust from customers and communities in corporations not to greenwash, to show conviction, be transparent and accept their responsibilities for the hopes with which they are entrusted. Trust from local populations in national governments and central banks to help afford the slow crash and precipitous price rises. Similarly, trust from investors in countries to establish stable investment environments enabling them to afford the trillions of dollars investment required for the long build-back and transformation of infrastructures. Trust from populations in health providers using their personal data to improve outcomes and inform insurance and other service providers. And from a more cultural angle, trust between countries and cultures very different from one’s own or trust in so-called “strong man” national leaders not to become tyrannical or totalitarian.

Emerging from this discussion, numerous challenges for building trust were discussed. Conversations ranged over the virtues of accountability, responsibility and fairness; the need to resist othering and hold cynicism at bay when dealing with each other; how to develop the listening, awareness and anticipatory skills and capacities to sense how situations are developing; and finally, how to develop the individual and collective agility to launch new ventures fast and burn failing business ideas quickly.

The conversation closed with the idea that authentic trust must be built in the expectation that things will go awry and with the commitment not to fall into resentment if and when they do. And perhaps paradoxically, in considering such deep trust, the conversation did go back to the future – back to the deepest past when exchanges, even commercial exchanges, were first risked.

Click here for the full text of Adam’s speech.

If you would like to explore any of the topics or themes from VISION’s New Thinking Forum 2022 in greater detail, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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