Leadership and the Information Revolution

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Selected excerpts from a special 60-page booklet from the 1997 UN Leadership Academy talks given by Professor Harlan Cleveland, President, World Academy of Art & Science. Mr. Cleveland is the noted futurist and author of The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society (1985, republished in paperback 1989), and The Global Commons: Policy for the Planet (1990). His biography is at the end of this paper.

I am neither a seer nor a sage, so you wouldn’t expect me to foretell the future. But if we can’t know for sure what will happen, we can already make a good guess about something more important, why it will happen. Bear with me for a few minutes, and I’ll sketch, very briefly, what I mean by this. The fusion of ever-faster computers with ever-more reliable telecommunications has spawned creative systems that are already transforming our personal lives, the politics of each of our nations, and the world economy. Information-processed by human brainwork into knowledge, integrated and intuited into wisdom-has quite suddenly become the world’s most important resource.

As far into the future as we can possibly see, information will be playing the prima donna role in world history that physical labor, stone, bronze, land, minerals, metals, and energy once played. And that requires all of us, and especially those with the intelligence, imagination, and inclination to take the lead, to revise all sorts of assumptions we have treated as “solid” but now turn out to be fragile and flawed.

The time is already upon us when symbols, not things, are the world’s dominant resource. In consequence we simply cannot keep using, for the management of future complexities, the concepts that seemed to serve us so well in the industrial era that is fast becoming history. We will have to burn into our consciousness how very different information is from all its predecessors as civilization’s dominant resource:

  • Information expands as it’s used – unlike the other resources that have dominated the recorded history of civilizations.
  • Information is less hungry for other resources. The higher the tech, the less energy and raw materials seem to be needed.
  • Information can, and increasingly does, replace land, labor, and capital.
  • Information is easily transportable – at almost the speed of light and sometimes, by telepathy and prayer, much faster than that.
  • Information is transparent.  It leaks – it has an inherent tendency to leak.

And the more it leaks, the more we have, and the more of us have it.

  • Information is shared, not “exchanged.” An information transaction is not an exchange transaction-because both parties still have it after they have shared it.

These six simple, pregnant propositions, multiplied and spread around the world and down the generation, are bound to provide new answers to some of the biggest why questions about the exciting times just ahead of us. For example:

  • Why, in our communities, our nations, and our world, nobody can possibly be in general charge-of anything (we’ll explore together next week, what this means for leaders of our future.)
  • Why diversity, more and more, will be the law of life and of leadership on this planet.
  • Why people will just have to find ways to be different, yet together-not only in Bosnia and the Middle East, but also in Washington and Tokyo and New Delhi and Rio and Berlin and thousands of other mixed-up places.
  • Why we’ll have to change our ways of thinking about work-and probably even chop away the linkage between “working” and “making a living.”
  • Why the rapid globalization of ideas and markets will require new policies and international agreements for governance and business, for art and science, for culture and communication.
  • Why, since information can’t really be “owned” (only its delivery system can), the phrase “intellectual property” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
  • Why the new fairness revolutions-claims by smarter disadvantaged majorities around the world-cannot longer be denied.
  • And why, more and more the followers everywhere so often get to the policy answers before their leaders do.

That’s quite enough for now. You’ll shortly be getting some readings of mine on the whys and wherefores of leadership. We’ll discuss next week the puzzlements for leaders in the midst of an information revolution. These are puzzles for which there are no answers in the back of the book.  What my colleagues and I can do is raise the questions and try our best to help you clarify them. But the best thinking about your own futures is obviously going to have to be done by you.  Good luck with it!

Leaders are people who bring people together, usually in organizations, to make something different happen. We live and work in the midst of events we help create. And the name of our game is complexity.

But for the public leader of the future, policy will be mostly his or her own sense of direction, modified by negotiation with his or her peers. It is too easy to describe the leaders of the future as “change agents” – accelerating change is their destiny, and like it or not they will be its agents.  It will not be a comfortable role. Picking your way through the jungle of complexity and making up your own policy as you go along, you will have every reason to feel sorry for yourselves. But you will also apprehend that the leader’s function is to make the difficult choices other are reluctant to make.  And in any society, those who choose the most have the most reason to feel free.

Ideas which will eventually become the basis for some major innovation in federal policy, are first put into circulation by individuals and small groups.

It’s more and more obvious: Those with visible responsibility for leadership are nearly always too visible to take the responsibility for change – Until it becomes more dangerous to stand there than to move on.  It’s not a new idea. “I am a leader,” Voltaire wrote, “therefore I must follow.”

First: Mao had it right. Don’t think of yourself as someone anointed (by your own mentors or sponsors, or by your own ambition) to tell “the people” what’s good for them. Instead, work hard at that “dialectic,” that two-way communication by which you learn where the folks you’re concerned about want to go, and think hard about how to help them get there.

Second: When you have thought through the directions in which you want to lead, don’t wait around for some big shot to anoint you, or appoint you, to a position that makes you look like a “leader.” More and more of you, I predict, will prefer not even to search for “a job” in an existing organization, but will design a role that you ant to fill, invent the organization you think  is needed, and get to work with your own self-starter, using your own exceptional talents, brainwork, and nervous energy.

  • The spreading of benefits rather than the concentration of wealth (information is harder to hide and to hoard, and can be more readily shared, than petroleum or gold or land or fresh water); and
  • The maximization of choice rather than the suppression of diversity (the informed are harder to regiment than the uninformed).

In the industrial era, poverty was explained and justified by shortages of things: there just weren’t enough minerals, food, fiber, and manufactures to go around. Looked at this way, the resource shortages were merely aggravated by the propensity of the poor to have babies.

In the information society, physical resources are elbowed from center stage by information, the resource that is harder for the rich and powerful to hide or hoard.   Every baby, poor or not, is born with a brain. The collective capacity of all the brains in each society to convert information into knowledge and wisdom is the measure of that society’s potential (consider this measuring rod as you think about China’s role in the 21st Century.)

As information-abundant, shareable, instantly accessible-now becomes the world’s dominant resource, what does that mean for the prospects for fairness?  Surely it means that people who get educated to convert information into knowledge and wisdom, who hone their intuitive powers, who learn how to achieve access to information and (even more important) how to select what they need from the information overload, will likely be better off and more fairly treated than those that don’t.

Sharing has long been the natural mode of scientific and cultural communication.

We cannot expect much help from “The older religions, ethical systems and philosophies,” because today’s options, created by the information revolution, didn’t exist when they were developed. We will therefore have to learn, said Soedjatmoko, “To enhance our capacity for moral reasoning, to deal with problems” for which “we cannot find analogies in older, often petrified systems of wisdom.” Unless we do that, we will be stuck with “obsolete, fossilized social and political structures.” Then we would be destined “to work hard for our own demise…in a world of very rapid change without fixed road signs.”

The learners in every society are starting to fashion their own road signs, some adapted from older systems of wisdom, and some the result of new intellectual or spiritual inspiration. “The future is an ethical category,” Soedjatmoko was fond of saying, “Because we choose it ourselves.”

We may be living, even if we are not yet fully articulating, one of those profound shifts in human values hat come along every few hundred years.  The kernel of individual human rights was always there in the practice of an exceptional few: the civil disobedience that brought Daniel to the lion’s den, the claim of the early Christians that Rome governed by transgressing the dictates of the divine… who violated laws inconsistent with the inherent rights of human beings.

In the 1948 Declaration and in numerous statements by governments, the traditional “Freedoms from” (that is, rights the state can guarantee by simply not mistreating those who reside within its jurisdiction) are bracketed with a couple of “Freedoms to” that can only be assured by the state’s affirmative action.

The key that unlocks “Growth with Fairness,” in the United States and elsewhere in the global information society, is widespread access to relevant education.

The poor can get rich by brainwork.

Around the developing world, the startling paradox is that the most successful countries are precisely those not blessed with wealth-creating natural resources. A country such as Japan, with virtually no conventional fuels or outcroppings of useful minerals, with a short growing season and much farmland we would call marginal, was forced by physical poverty to bet on the only sure resource it had: the minds of its own people.

To chart the potentials of the worldwide information revolution is not to fulfill them.

There will also be less excuse than in any previous time for the leaders of the disadvantaged to blame their condition on the world’s barons and bosses, when the accessible information needed to create their own knowledge and wisdom is already floating out there in the noosphere.

“The puzzle,” said futurist Magda McHale, “is how to be different together.”
In the Age of Information, a “Knowledge Society” is a learning society.

What’s unique cannot be universal. What’s universal threatens, and is threatened by, what’s unique.

They (women of the women’s movement) came to influence public opinion and therefore public policy by energizing the apathetic and mobilizing the unmobilized-in short, by “leading without authority.”

Your conscious mind returns (after sleeping on a dilemma) to the puzzle with a fresh insight, the germ of a new idea, a suddenly “obvious” next step to be taken. While you were sleeping, your always active brain was busy.  But freed from the constraints of those rational ways of thought, drilled into your conscious mind by years in school and on the job, the deep-down part of your mind made some non-rational connections and a leap of imagination, and served up to your wakening consciousness a fresh line of thought.

Intuition is “Knowing without knowing how you know.”
Vision and revelation and guidance are paths to empowerment available to anyone and everyone who tries.

The word chaos had long been in my vocabulary, as I’m sure it has been in yours. It defined what an educated person, educated in linear thinking by the logic (and the prestige) of the Scientific Method, couldn’t quite understand. “Chaos” described that inferno of unfathomable complexity lying just beyond the flat world of rational thinking and empirical evidence.

But chaos now turns out to have its own patterns and probabilities. What had always seemed random-outbreaks of measles in New York City, the fluctuations of Canada’s lynx population, the ups and downs of cotton prices-now shows a complicated rhythm if your date base stretches back far enough. The same is true, apparently, of physical things and abstract numbers.  They look random only when you stand too close to them, look at them piece by piece, in the reductionist tradition of sciences that chop knowledge up into “manageable” chunks and thus make them unmanageable. James Geick (“Chaos”) explains: “The microscopic pieces were perfectly clear; the macroscopic behavior remained a mystery.”

My favorite leaders seemed to share a sense of humor, a talent for irony, and a delight in turning conventional wisdom on its head.

It matters (greatly) where your start: “Sensitive dependence on initial conditions” (from Chaos Theory).

The compartmentalization of the vertical disciplines gets in the way of understanding reality.

Gloom and reluctance, the hallmarks of “expertise”…

When I’m feeling especially confused about a new problem, I usually find that what’s needed is not more facts or even new ideas, but a more focused effort to integrate the facts and ideas that are already lying around-that look chaotic precisely because I haven’t yet succeeded in bringing them all together in my mind.

The lesson is that if you’re serious about being a leader, you had better fall in love with chaos and complexity. You have to come to think of complications as the norm, not as passing aberrations from a tidy norm.  As you strive to make some restless complexity more understandable and you’re tempted to simplify it, remember what Albert Einstein said about equations: That they should be “as simple as possible – but not one bit simpler.”

If you are still in the race, thinking hard even if you don’t yet have the answer, that’s what qualifies you to be their leader. If you too drop out, the would-be followers will quickly look elsewhere for the leadership they need. No matter how chaotic the puzzle that confronts you seems to be, your task is to get your good mind around all of it – including especially those “bits of messiness” that don’t (at first) seem to fit in anywhere. Please note that I said your mind, not your assistant’s mind or the collective mind of a planning staff. You put no restraints on your good mind or your soaring imagination.

And it’s only by using your imagination that you can escape the thinking person’s most dangerous mindset: to consider only those futures that can be readily extrapolated from where we are today.

Your personality, winning smile, sexiness, or booming voice may seem persuasive leadership assets. But it’s only by thinking and imagining that you can decide where you want to go, and persuade others to go along (if you don’t know where you’re going, as some forgotten phrasemaker said long ago, any road can take you there.)


Back when a book called The One Minute Manager hit the best-seller lists, I tried to compress in a similar compass what I had learned, from study and experience, about leadership. My tongue was only half in cheek. There had to be a market niche for a learning tool that leaders, who are usually in a hurry, could absorb on the run.

For the generalist leader, I reasoned, the steepest part of the learning curve is not skills but attitudes.  Those of us who presume to take the lead in a democracy, where nobody is even supposed to be in charge, seem to need an arsenal of eight attitudes indispensable to the management of complexity:

FIRST, a lively intellectual curiosity, an interest in everything- because everything really is related to everything else and therefore to what you’re doing, whatever it is.

SECOND, a genuine interest in what other people think and why they thing that way-which means you have to be a peace with yourself for a start.

THIRD,  a feeling of special responsibility for envisioning a future that’s different from a straight-line projections of the present-because “planning” is improvisation on a general sense of direction, and the leader’s prime function is to point the way.

FOURTH, a hunch that most risks are there not to be avoided but to be taken.

FIFTH, a mindset that crises are normal, tensions can be promising, and complexity is fun.

SIXTH, a realization that paranoia and self-pity are reserved for people who don’t want to be leaders.

SEVENTH, a sense of personal responsibility for the general outcome of your efforts.

EIGHTH, a quality that I call “unwarranted optimism” – the conviction that there must be some more upbeat outcome than would result from adding up all the available expert advice.


Working with you, to help launch the United Nations University’s International Leadership Academy, has been an extraordinary experience. It was hard work, to capture in about three hours of talking the lessons of six decades of trial and error in the practice and study of leadership. But it has been worth every minute of preparation for, and participation with you in, this great adventure. I have learned a lot from many of you – which shows it’s never too late to learn, especially when it’s fun.

I am grateful to Professor Adel Safty, the creator and director of UNU/ILA, for the opportunity to play such an extensive part in this initial ILA program. And I’m sure you share with me a collective gratitude to our host, the government of Jordan, whose Prime Minister Majali originally suggested such an enterprise a decade and half ago, and whose lively Queen Noor chairs its International Advisory Board.  I hope and assume that we will somehow keep in touch – through what ever orderly network you establish out of the creative chaos of your networking together-when you scatter to all parts of the globe.

So many interesting and difficult problems loom ahead for each of us that there will be a constant temptation to cop out, to let someone else cope for a change, to avoid becoming always one of the first birds to fly off the telephone wire-a useful image I owe, along with much else, to John Gardner. But you who are here because you do prefer to take the lead know well that it’s always your turn.  On the other hand, you also know that no one is, can be or even should be a leader in everything; most of us are followers in most things. You “only” need to exercise your talent for leadership on what you think are the most important issues.

As to those, your “mission statement” is clear. I take mine from Thor Heyerdahl, whom you will remember as the Norwegian explorer who rafted across the oceans to learn whether the ancients could really have traveled where they did without using outboard motors. Heyerdahl told me he had compressed his life-motive into seven words: “Translate ideas into events, to serve people.” I suggest those words for a sign to hang over the doorway to the International Leadership Academy.

We all do need a lively sense of mission to tackle our varied leadership roles with the enthusiasm they will demand of us-the kind of enthusiasm evoked by poet Ted Loder when he complained about the cliché greeting we hear around us at every turn:

I am sick of a string of “have a nice day’s.

What I want is blessed days,

Wondrous days,

Exciting days,

Surprising days.

The next time someone, in an elevator or in the hotel lobby, says to you “have a nice day,” try giving this offbeat reply: “Thank you but I have other plans.”

Meanwhile, au revoir!


Harlan Cleveland (1918-2008) was a political scientist and public executive and President of the World Academy of Art and Science. A Princeton University graduate in 1938, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the late 1930’s; an economic warfare specialist (in Washington, DC) and United Nations relief and rehabilitation administrator (in Italy and China) in the 1940’s. In 1948 he joined the Economic Cooperation Administration, where he served as Director of the China Aid Program, then developed and managed U.S. aid to eight East Asian countries, and later became (as Assistant Director for Europe of the Mutual Security Agency) the Washington based supervisor of the Marshall Plan for European recovery in its fourth year, 1952. In early 1953, he left Washington to become executive editor, and later also publisher, of The Reporter magazine. In 1956 he was appointed dean of the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He was a delegate from the State of New York to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

During the 1960’s Harlan Cleveland service as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, and in 1965 was appointed by President Lyndon B Johnson as U.S. Ambassador to NATO, serving in that post also under President Richard Nixon until May 1969. From 1969 to 1974 he was President of the University of Hawaii and then President Emeritus. From 1974 to 1980 he developed and directed the Program in International affairs of the Aspen Institute, with headquarters both in Princeton, New Jersey, and in Aspen, Colorado. During 1977-78 he was also chairman of the U.S. Weather Modification Advisory Board. In 1979 he served for one semester as the Distinguished Visiting Tom Slick Professor of World Peace at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin.

During the 1980’s, he served as the founding dean of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, a graduate school, research institute, and one of the nation’s early centers for leadership education. He concurrently served two three-year terms as Trustee-at-Large of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He retired in 1988 as Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, where he still has an office in the Humphrey Center. Professor Cleveland has been a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science since 1977, and in 1991 became its president, a position he still holds. In 1994 he hosted in Minneapolis, preceded by four international workshops, a major gathering of the world Academy Fellows of “The Governance of Diversity.” Also in 1994, he was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors of VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance), while it was planning the first operational low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite designed to serve two-thirds of the world’s population still “beyond the last telephone pole.” He is now Honorary Chairman of VITA.

Harlan Cleveland authored hundreds of magazine and journal articles, and eleven books, mostly on executive leadership and world affairs. The latest is Birth of a New World: An Open Moment for International Leadership (1993). Other recent books include The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society (1985, republished in paperback 1989), and The Global Commons: Policy for the Planet (1990). From 1987 to 1993 he wrote a fortnightly column on world affairs for the Star Tribune, Newspaper of the Twin Cities.

Professor Cleveland was past president of the American Society for Public Administration and a long-time member of the American Political Science Association and of the Council on foreign Relations. Among numerous board memberships, he served as chairman and then honorary chairman of The American Forum for Global Education, chairman and then vice-chairman of the National Retiree Volunteer coalition, and vice-chairman and honorary trustee of The Atlantic Council.  He was a director of the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore foundation, a trustee of the American Refugee Committee, a director of the World Future Society, the Common Heritage Corporation, and Global Action Plan, and a member of the U.S. Board of the International Leadership center on Longevity and Society.

Harlan Cleveland is the recipient of 22 honorary degrees, the U.S. Medal of Freedom, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Award, and the Peace Corps’ Leader for Peace Award.  He was elected, in 1994, an Honorary Fellow of the Romanian Academy.  He was the 1981 co-winner (with Bertrand de Jouvenel) of the Prix de Tallaires, a Switzerland-based international award for “accomplished generalists.”

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