Systemic change and ‘Future Shock’
How adaptability will help us deal with the effects of Covid-19
“Enantiodromia” is a Greek term first used by the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus. His philosophy was predicated on the constancy of change. He is known to have said: “All is flux, nothing stays still. Nothing endures but change.”
Change, he said, is not chaotic. It takes a certain form in that it operates along continua. To describe this form, he coined the term enantiodromia. which means a “running to the opposite” or “a running counter to” something.
The idea of enantiodromia is akin to the principle of yin and yang and equilibrium in the natural world. Once something reaches its extreme or maximum extension, it is opposed by the system, and is turned radically to its opposite in order to restore balance. Could the coronavirus be an example of systemic enantiodromia? The late futurist Alvin Toffler might have agreed.
In 1970, Alvin Toffler penned a runaway bestseller, “Future Shock,” referring to the state of extreme stress and disorientation individuals experience when they are subjected to too much change in too short a time. The biggest challenge, he claimed, is the rate of change we are being faced with, rather than its direction.
Toffler anticipated that future shock would be an imminent danger to society and stated how “appalled” he was at how little is known about adaptivity. He criticized both intellectuals and educators, saying that they in no way prepare people for the future. His 1970 book provides an intense documentation of how 20th century life had become one of roaring change that was so powerful that he anticipated it would shatter societies, overturn institutions, radically shift our values and shake us to our roots.
One of the biggest challenges of future shock is the confrontation to our psyches. Toffler explained what happens to us when we reach the upper levels of our adaptive range. We become fatigued, apathetic, suffer from emotional exhaustion, feel overwhelmed and succumb to decision-stress. With decision-stress, we default to habitual, mechanical behavior. We make bad decisions, or we readily hand our decisions over. to someone else.
Resistance to change shows itself in denial, frustration, anger and violence. Toffler wrote about how these were on the rise and were sure to escalate further.
In attempts to deal with radical change, he said, some people revert obsessively to previously adaptive routines that have become inappropriate. Others look for a super-simplifier. Someone who will resolve everything with a single, neat equation.
Toffler referred to the U.S. as a society that is out of control. He mentioned it exhibiting qualities of an individual going through a nervous breakdown. He suggested that creative strategies are needed for shaping, deflecting, accelerating and decelerating change. He proposed that it is a time for people to work together to be imaginative and insightful.
He predicted that the effects of the technological revolution will be deeper than any social change we have experienced before. Unless steps are taken, he insisted, human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, and progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environment. This will lead to mass malaise and neurosis, irrational behaviors, mental health problems and a growth in free-floating violence — all things that were already evident in the 1970s and have cast a shadow forward of to what lies ahead.
To survive, wrote Toffler, individuals must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than before. They must find ways to anchor themselves and establish what he called a stability zone. Education must take a more helpful role in helping people adapt to change. Technology must be tamed as it is the accelerative force behind everything. Corporations and government must work together to envision a future that balances the change in the environment and individuals’ adaptive capacities. People need to work together to create visions, dreams, and prophesies — images of potential tomorrows.
Leadership is about identifying and framing new realities and mobilizing people to adapt to the changes they imply. Alas, few leaders are adaptive leaders who understand that their task is to help people go to new places. That is what “to lead” means. That is why true leaders have always been guides who facilitate others’ transformation. Hopefully, these times will encourage us to stay “slowed down” and to begin doing our adaptive work.
Annabel Beerel, Ph.D., is principal of Ethical Leadership Consulting and author of “Ethical Leadership and Global Capitalism: A Guide to Good Practice.”