CRISIS post: Opportunity in the coronavirus crisis – a psychospiritual perspective on change

Published by Aubyn Howard on

Alongside great peril at this time of crisis, there is also hope and opportunity. Opportunity for us individually to use this recess or reset creatively in our lives as well as potential for a collective societal shift or transformation, as we eventually come out the other end.

This is the first in a series of posts in which I explore psycho-spiritual principles in relation to the change dynamics at play, as we find time for inner reflection as well as engage in dialogue about how to reshape the world going forwards.

There is already plenty of interesting discussion in the news media along these lines, for example, Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times:

It is possible, of course, that the answer to the question of what will change is: not much. Human beings and our societies are remarkably elastic…

But it doesn’t feel like that right now. Covid-19 has already forced all of us to think about things we had learned not to think about. We are in a moment of profound defamiliarisation.

And in this great awakening to the habitual, we are being forced to ask: do I really need to do that?

Una Mullally in the same paper points towards wider societal change with the Irish government taking rapid action that had previously seemed impossible:

Governments have adopted a “computer says no” attitude to massive system change. Crisis forced the hand… these are strange times, upending normal behaviour and things we once held to be true.

This is echoed in the Economist, quoting Peter Hennessy, a constitutional historian:

The outcome may be a more interventionist, “filled-in” state. “The tide of ideas and the tide of practicalities have turned. A new consensus is coming out of necessity,” he says.

William Davies in a Guardian piece titled “The Last Global Crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could.”:

It will take years or decades for the significance of 2020 to be fully understood. But we can be sure that, as an authentically global crisis, it is also a global turning point. There is a great deal of emotional, physical and financial pain in the immediate future. But a crisis of this scale will never be truly resolved until many of the fundamentals of our social and economic life have been remade.

Alan Rusbridger holds out a message of hope:

There will be much stress and sorrow in the months ahead. But a kind of better future feels quite tangible. Love, humanity and combination may yet win.

Emine Samer explores the nature of individual anxiety in times of uncertainty and suggests some ways people might contextualise and manage their anxiety, quoting Robert Leahy:

we are all locked in “an international human trauma, where everybody has a sense that their life, or the lives of people they love, is threatened”.

[N.B. The Institute of Psychosynthesis has set up a helpline to support people experiencing anxiety:]

Later Samer quotes Eve Menezez Cunningham.

For some people, being at home all of a sudden, there is time and space to think about what we want to do with our lives. A lot of people will be looking for more purpose and meaning.

What all these pieces illustrate is how individually and collectively in different ways we are asking, will anything fundamental change? Will change be for the better or for worse? How can I bring about meaningful change?  Will we gradually slip back into old pre-crisis patterns or can we create new ones?

In these CRISIS posts I want to shift between individual and collective levels or perspectives, between how we bring about change in our own lives and how we seek to bring about a better society – because I believe that the relationship between our individual experience of who we are most essentially and our sense of collective identity, is critical to successful transformation at both levels.

Casting my awareness more widely (admittedly through my own unique set of connections, networks and choices of media), I sense a collective movement of goodwill in human consciousness in this moment of crisis and a groundswell of desire for meaningful change afterwards (see this article by Joan Evans at the Institute of Psychosynthesis for a more in-depth perspective on this).

In speaking about societal change, I want to be conscious about my use of the first-person plural – i.e. who am I including and who am I excluding with my frequent use of the term ‘we’?  In this article I am aware that I am speaking to ‘people like me’, in having the capacity to self-reflect, an interest beyond themselves for the greater good and not struggling to survive at this difficult time.  Of course, even within that definition, there will be great disparities, for example between those at personal risk or looking after vulnerable others and those like myself who find themselves in relatively fortunate circumstances for the lock-down.  However, one characteristic of the current crisis is its great levelling effect – the majority of people everywhere in Europe and America for example, are in a similar situation of social distancing, staying at home and suspending many normal behaviours. The virus clearly has no respect for privilege or position in who it chooses to infect. The point is that even the very rich and famous are having to stay in one place right now.  Meanwhile a significant minority continue to work in critical roles, often at great personal risk or under considerable stress, particularly in our health services.

Rebecca Solnit, in a Guardian Long Read article from a couple of days ago, echoes the sense of collective connection in a call to those of us that are in a position to hear and respond:

We have reached a crossroads, we have emerged from what we assumed was normality, things have suddenly overturned. One of our main tasks now – especially those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties – is to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.

Looking forwards to what might be possible and what couldchange for the better in society, what strikes me is there has been no shortage of voices calling for change or offering visions of a better world.  One problem I notice is that even those voices that appear to be calling for similar things, singing off the same hymn sheet as we might say, rarely come into effective relationship and meaningful alignment in pursuit of a shared purpose. Instead, they often seem to be competing for share of attention in an increasingly fragmented market place (where the currency is clicks and likes) of the noosphere, rather than creating connection and alignment. In many ways, the enormous diversity of ideas, groupings, networks, movements and initiatives is the strength of the modern virtual online world we now live in, but what seems lacking are the contra-leveraging forces to bring about coalescence and synthesis. Social media enables rapid sharing of ideas between like-minded people and serves to amplify and spread the message (which ironically we call going viral), but seems less effective at taking ideas to the next stage of facilitating effective change. I will return to expand upon this issue in the next post.  

Another problem with many calls for visionary change or transformation of consciousness is that they tend to assume ‘we’ are all of the same consciousness, which at one level of course we are and at another level (of beliefs, motivations, choices, behaviours, actions) the reality is also that any society is a complex mix of some very different consciousnesses, of worldviews and value systems. These different worldviews (or complex combinations of worldviews based upon unique histories and circumstances) become coalesced around a shared identity, shaped by prevailing narratives and bonded by emotional connection into what we might as well call a tribe (because I have noticed this term increasingly being used elsewhere).  For example, throughout the Brexit saga, it became apparent that in Britain there are several different tribes that have split into two quite separate, often antagonistic and seemingly irreconcilable camps that supported Leave and Remain.  I will return to expand upon this example at a later point, but for now it hopefully illustrates what I mean by tribes and camps.       

When we come out of the crisis our attention may return to other pressing issues that have been temporarily pushed into the background: e.g. the climate emergency alongside environmental and ecological disasters; the perceived failure of market capitalism to deal with widening inequality; the unintended impacts of rapid technological change; growing tensions between local and global identities; the consequences of economic globalisation without a corresponding strengthening of global cooperation, and so on.  All of these are essentially global issues for which we also seek local and regional solutions, contextualised within the more general questions of “what kind of society do we want to live in?” and “how do we bring about such a society?” Many of these pressing issues have been held in a kind of log-jam by the competing interests of different tribes and camps or have been prevented from being addressed by vested interests with the power to do so.  The point is that the current crisis has already demonstrated that these impasses can be broken, that change can rapidly take place in the face of an emergency, which acts as a catalyst. So there is a window of opportunity for change.   

The change that takes place both during this crisis and afterwards is not going to be uniform and there could be some starkly different outcomes. In particular, many commentators are drawing attention to how authoritarian regimes and populist leaders are using this opportunity for a power grab, to strengthen their control and suppress opposition.

Peter Baker in the Guardian ‘We can’t go back to normal’ – how will Coronavirus change the world?

Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better… But crises can also send societies down darker paths.

Baker’s article is a very good place to start if you want to explore this topic more. He draws from Rebecca Solnit’s  2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell and Naomi Klein  2007 book, The Shock Doctrine to illustrate lessons from previous crises or shocks and suggest how this one may or may not be different, given optimistic and pessimistic outlooks:

Unlike Solnit’s book, The Shock Doctrine doesn’t have much to say about the resilience of everyday people when everything goes horribly wrong. (Indeed, Solnit directly criticised Klein for this omission.) But the two books fit together like puzzle pieces. Both address crisis not in terms of what inevitably – or “naturally” – happens as they unfold, but in terms of choices that people make along the way.

What will shape the choices we make?  What will determine the pathways that our societies will take following this crisis? The answer to these questions is of course massively complex, but I am going to attempt a relatively simple answer (at least as a working hypothesis).

The relatively simple version is this.  Societal change or transformation is a function of compelling narratives, emotionally connecting with tribal identities, mitigated or magnified by forces of habituation and power operating within the context of psycho-socio-cultural-historical human systems, mediated by agency, enabled by catalysts and driven by momentum. [Catalysts can include technology innovations, market upheavals, cultural influences, political movements and government policies but also events, including the current coronavirus pandemic].

A more simplistic version would be that change happens according to a combination of luck and co-incidence (or synchronicity), timing and history.  The right idea is around at the right time and is supported by enough of the right people to gain traction. Or ‘there is nothing in the world that can stop an idea whose time has come’ to paraphrase Victor Hugo. And sometimes that is enough of an explanation. But we might still want to explain what influences luck or timing in relation to a particular set of circumstances, and then we come back to the longer answer.

The critical ingredient within my heady equation above is agency, which is about our conscious intention or will to bring about desirable change – and this is where I want to start in my elaboration.  What determines successful agency in social transformation?  This is a topic for a post or a book in itself, so I will keep my answer relatively simple because it leads into the main themes for my subsequent posts. 

History books tend to focus on the lives and character of significant individuals who initiated political change or social transformation – for example Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa. The focus of developing leadership in organisations (which is what I am familiar with) is mostly on the development of individual leaders, and sometimes leadership teams, although organisational development practitioners and coaches will also pay attention to leadership cultures and systems within an organisation. We might explore how leadership can become more distributed within an organisation, how it works informally and dynamically in support of cross-functional projects and virtual teams. We also sometimes look towards the way in which collaborative networks and relationship form between organisations and the way that leadership can work across and between organisations in support of shared projects and purposes.     

Of course, individual leadership and leaders are still very important to social transformation and charismatic, visionary, transformational leaders can be the catalyst for significant change – but looking around the world today these sorts of leaders appear to be in short supply. There are certainly plenty of strong, charismatic populist leaders, but I will come back to this later in these posts.

For social transformation I want to look beyond our conventional notions of individual leadership within the confines of organisational or political systems and suggest that it makes more sense to look towards a kind of virtual leadership system, a coalition and coalescence of sufficiently aligned groupings, organisations, forces, causes and individuals who come together in networked relationship, whether consciously or unconsciously, formally and informally in support of a shared purpose, vision or outcome. I am describing a dynamic which we might all see at work in the formation of networks and connections on a relatively small scale, for example within areas of professional interest or local communities. But what about on a larger scale in response to the big issues facing society? The world is connected up enough for this to happen and I believe we are beginning to see the signs of this starting in a number of areas. For example, maybe we have seen such a virtual leadership system forming around the issue of climate change in the year or so preceding the coronavirus pandemic, coalescing around the activism of Greta Thunberg, the wisdom of David Attenborough, the diplomacy of Christiana Figueres and many others.

Such virtual leadership systems can evolve a myriad of self-organising functions, roles and relationships in support of an aligned purpose, but only if there is sufficient intelligence within the system.  This intelligence is needed for the leadership system to engage effectively with the other critical elements of transformational change as summarised above: i.e. powerful narrative, tribal identities, emotionality-rationality, habituation-adaptability and power dynamics, all within the context of psycho-socio-cultural-historical human systems. Most of the time, such leadership systems fail to form or activate effectively due to insufficient intelligence in the system to transcend factional tensions or tribal differences.  For an example of this we can look at the UK Remain campaign’s failure over the last couple of years to transcend the relative positions of various political and social constituencies to align to a shared purpose, but we can also see this more widely in the consistent ineffectiveness of the United Nations and the more general failure of nations to come together to tackle global problems at a global level, including the current coronavirus pandemic (although this is not intended as a criticism of the WHO).

In the argument I am using these posts to develop, successful agencythat brings about meaningful transformation requires three inter-linked intelligences to become activated in the awareness, thinking and action of a critical massof interconnected agents – e.g. leaders, influencers and activists. These are Systemic, Evolutionary and Synthetic intelligence. To translate these terms into more concrete language:

Systemic intelligence: awareness, thinking and action – e.g. seeing bigger pictures of interconnectedness, joined up thinking that sees systems forces, recognising the knock-on effects of what we do in one area on another.

Evolutionary intelligence: awareness, thinking and action – e.g. awareness of different worldviews or perspectives, working out how to bring everyone with us and continuously managing the overall health of the evolutionary spiral of consciousness.

Synthetic intelligence: awareness, thinking and action – e.g. recognising the essential polarities at play in any conflict, engaging with the needs and values at the heart of different polar positions, finding a new synthesis through engagement with a higher principle that transcends either-or dichotomies. Holding this in our awareness, within a psycho-spiritual context of our higher Self and universal Will.

These intelligences, perspectives or capacities are what enable informal, aligned, virtual leadership systems to come into being and work effectively towards shared purpose and transformational change in response to emergent challenges and crises in society. The notion of critical mass is important here; we can’t expect to see these intelligences activated in everyone within an informal leadership system (of leaders, organisers, influencers, facilitators, activists, etc.), but they are needed in a critical mass, for example of 10 -20% of those involved  – we will explore later what that may look like.

But first, in my next post I will return to my hypothesis of social transformation and expand upon the five critical elements (or key principles of human nature) that come together to explain how societal change takes place.

The power of narrative and telling stories.

The nature of tribal identityand identification.

The polarity of emotionand the rationality.

The paradox of habituationand adaptability.

The dynamics of power.

My third post will be about synthetic intelligence and our ability to reach towards new syntheses in our individual and collective lives.  Then I will return to how to work with systemic and evolutionary perspectives to help bring about social transformation within the current context.

From this post, I would like to ask if you recognise the notion of a virtual leadership system and whether you are aware of any good examples? Perhaps you have a better way of naming or describing it? I hope you will stay with me on this journey and I look forward to reading any responses or comments!

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.