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Professor John O'Halloran, President of UCC, speaking at the launch of The Leadership Mind

A book on Leadership in the UCC tradition of independent thinking

Transcript of the address given by Prof. John O’Halloran, President of UCC, at the launch of The Leadership Mind on September 7, 2022

Welcome honoured guests, friends and families.  

I have the pleasure of welcoming you tonight in this historical and beautiful Banking Hall to celebrate the publication of The Leadership Mind by Connell Fanning and Assumpta O’Kane of The Keynes Centre at UCC.

This great hall opened for banking business in 1842 and the Cork Savings Bank continued to serve the people of Cork here until 2012. University College Cork with Cork City Council were delighted to give this notable building a new lease of life in 2015 when we located our Centre for Executive Education here as part of incorporating the Irish Management Institute into the University. 

This move, in addition to the UCC Business Research Centres at 13 South Mall and the Centre for Architectural Education at Douglas Street, represented another aspect of the University’s physical and intellectual engagement with the city centre. I am delighted to say there will be further significant developments in this vein in the coming years. 

Another commitment of UCC to the people of Cork and our wider society is to the University’s commitment to independent thinking. Every year, University College Cork proudly highlights its tradition of independent thinking on the cover of the President’s Report to the University’s Governing Body. 

Independent thinking is our solemn promise to our students, community, and society. Our commitment to this value is such that we have built it into a public commitment in our brand strategy and marketing campaigns.

We work hard at UCC to create the conditions – the internal ethos, policies, and structures as well as the stakeholder environment – to deliver this way of thinking for our communities. 

Prof. John O’Halloran speaking at the launch of The Leadership Mind .

I believe the work of independent thinking is necessary now, perhaps more than ever, given the many complicated and increasingly interacting crises we face in our world today. We are dedicated to preparing our students for thinking independently about the issues of such a complex world.

There can be no question about the human species being at its eleventh hour on ‘spaceship earth’ (Buckminster Fuller) or as a ‘pale blue dot’ (Carl Sagan) in the vastness of space. 

One of the more famous quotes of Albert Einstein, (likely) incorrectly attributed to him, reminds us that: 

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness (or thinking) that created it.” 

The point is important whether Einstein made it or not. 

It points us to the need for new thinking at critical times – in periods of existential crises like we seem to be in today. New thinking requires independent thinking.

This kind of thinking is not easy as we are usually embedded in an implicit, invisible web of beliefs, assumptions, biases, and prejudices as we go about our daily living.

The problem of getting to new thinking is at least partly explained by an observation of John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas about how we can think in, and about, a world of uncertainty inspires the work of The Keynes Centre at UCC. 

Keynes pointed out about new thinking that:  

“The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…”  

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, 1936

The challenge of independent thinking, as Keynes sees it, is not to become stuck in old habits of thought – to avoid being bound to old ideas like a barnacle is to a rock for its lifetime.  

Opening up to the possibility for having new ideas as the world changes is, as Keynes put it, a “struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression”.  

The authors of The Leadership Mind appear to have made their escape from the dominant way of thinking about ‘leadership’. I am pleased to welcome it as new research from UCC which is situated firmly in our tradition of independent thinking. 

This means it is challenging us to think afresh, calling on us to escape from old ideas and habitual ways of thinking, and inviting us to make up our own minds about the human phenomenon of ‘leadership’.  

The argument of the early part of The Leadership Mind shows how necessary it was – and is – to escape from the conventional way of thinking in the case of ‘leadership’ – a matter vital to the well-being of all of us today and for our future generations. 

‘Leadership’ commensurate with the complexity of the challenges in all walks of life is urgently needed.  So we need to know what we are talking about when we talk about ‘leadership’ and when we are looking for ‘leadership’ from people in business, politics, and society.

To escape from old ideas about ‘leadership’, as something everyone talks about, but rarely say what they mean, inevitably involves writing in a certain ‘controversial tone’, as Keynes said in a preface to his last great book.   

I expect some may initially find such a tone somewhat uncomfortable as any critique demands a response from us, and we may be busy or prefer not to be bothered. 

The Leadership Mind demands we stop and think about ‘leadership’. That is the first, and main, impact the authors would like their argument to achieve.

The tone in the first part we see is due to the importance and urgency of the topic of ‘leadership’, the need to make ‘a clearing in the forest’, so to speak, in which new ideas could grow, and to the freshness of the ideas themselves.

There is unavoidably, therefore, some criticism focused on conventional thinking about ‘leadership’ in order to achieve their goal of making a way for us thinking anew about ‘leadership’. It asks us as readers to read in a ‘grown-up’ way and to recognise that criticism itself does not replace what is being criticised but is necessary to create that space in which new ideas can emerge. 

This way of reading also asks, while we are exploring their analysis for its merits in the spirit in which it is written, that we also attend to the spirit of how we ourselves are engaging with their argument. Are we open to escaping from old ideas and ways of thinking about ‘leadership’?

If criticism were all the authors accomplished, it would still do us some service. 

It could, however, leave the authors open to the kind of objection that Thomas Sowell noted about policy makers:

“No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: ‘But what would you replace it with? When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?’” 1

While the obvious retort is valid – ‘If your house is on fire and the firefighters put out the fire, you do not complain that they did not rebuild your house’-The Leadership Mind does much more than this.

The Leadership Mind is also a constructive work of discovering new knowledge that has the potential to improve human affairs by changing how we relate to each other. It asks us to attend to how we think about what ‘leadership’ can be. This is the second aim of the book.

The Leadership Mind is working not only to put out the ‘fire’ of the confusion that currently exists in the field of ‘leadership’ thinking; it is also ‘rebuilding the house’ on a new foundation with its new way of thinking about the matter of ‘leadership’.

The authors write in the mode of discovery rather than exposition or assertion. They invite us to think with them as they work out their new ideas. This means us actively engaging with the argument and testing it against our own standards of validity and experiences as it is developed.

Finally, The Leadership Mind seeks to provide a workable and sustainable set of conceptual resources for helping us to think about what is ‘leadership’ that is applicable in all walks of life and for organisations in business, politics, and society. This is the third aim of the authors. 

I welcome this kind of independent thinking from The Keynes Centre as it is directed at making for a better world in which we live by clearing up the muddle and obfuscation about ‘leadership’.  

The argument demands we think and make up our own minds. It will be for each of us to decide against our personal standards of judgment whether these breakthrough ideas are useful to us in our work and living.

I would, in conclusion, draw attention to one specific idea about their method that struck me in relation to independent thinking. 

It would be remiss of me if I did not mention how the authors step outside the usual framework of thinking about ‘leadership’ to draw on important ideas from my own biological discipline.

They do so when they argue that evolutionary or, what is called, ‘emergent order thinking’ is a necessary condition for ‘leadership’ thinking, for thinking about ‘leadership’, and for developing the capability with the potential for ‘leadership’.   

The important and essential role of this kind of thinking for society is generally overlooked in favour of the kind of thinking with which we are most familiar in our everyday living, and which is called ‘designed order thinking’. 

All around us we see things being made according to designs and plans – houses, roads, dinners, airplanes, cutlery, movies – so we naturally think in terms of ‘made orders’. We mostly utilise ‘designed order thinking’ in our everyday ways of working. This is the ‘management’ way of thinking in organisations.

However important is this way of thinking, and it is hugely important for our well-being, it is not enough to make sense of our world. We also need the ‘leadership’ way of thinking in addition to the ‘management’ way.

The Leadership Mind argues that ‘leadership’ falls into a different category of thought and must be thought about differently, in terms of ‘emergent order thinking’. This is a less familiar way of thinking in our daily lives although it too surrounds us in terms of the evolution and development of biological entities, like human and animal species, and of social institutions, such as language, law, and markets.

A classic biological example of emergent phenomenon and transformation are the species of butterflies which have evolved and are still evolving. A butterfly, all children (used to) observe emerges through stages of development from the caterpillar to the chrysalis and then to the butterfly itself. 

The butterfly is, as Darwin would say, one of the ‘most beautiful and most wonderful of the endless forms that have evolved’. It is not the result of a human or any other designer. It is an emergent phenomenon, and we need to respect that fact, and to think about such things in those terms. 

There tends to be a prejudice in us, nevertheless, that something must be the result of human or divine design to be of value or even to exist. But, as Darwin concluded in his great works of independent thinking about the evolution of species, there is ‘grandeur in this evolutionary view of life’, in ‘evolutionary thinking’ about the world in which we live, however unfamiliar or unused in our daily living it may be. 

Even those of us who are trained in this biological way of thinking may use it only in our technical area and do not carry it over to apply it to social phenomena such as ‘leadership’.2

The new thinking about ‘leadership’, which the argument of The Leadership Mind asks us to consider, situates the phenomenon of ‘leadership’ in human affairs in the realm of emergent order phenomenon. 

It requires we think about it in terms of ‘emergent order thinking’ for providing ‘leadership’ and for ‘leadership development’ in our organisations and in business, politics, and society. 

The authors obviously believe there is more grandeur in locating the human phenomenon of ‘leadership’ in the realm of emergent order phenomena than, incorrectly, in the realm of the made order.

We may need, therefore, to escape from old ways of thinking to see the grandeur in this fact of our cultural evolution too.3 As Keynes is purported to have asked: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

What do we do?

I suggest The Leadership Mind changes the facts about ‘leadership’ and we may have to change our minds too.

For that reason alone, I welcome The Leadership Mind as an important and essential contribution to our thinking for the improvement of our society.

I am also pleased to announce that tonight’s event is not the end but the beginning of a planned series of events by The Keynes Centre at UCC on the new thinking about ‘leadership’.  

This evening’s event will be followed by ‘The Leadership Mind Round Table with CEO Panel and Audience’ on 20 October and the launch of its Autumn corporate offering, ‘The CEO-Director Circle on The Leadership Mind’.

Now I have the pleasure of opening tonight’s event – the ‘Q&A with Authors and Audience’ Moderated by journalist Dion Fanning of The Currency and formerly of the Sunday Independent.  

  1. Thomas Sowell. Random Thoughts. In Thomas Sowell. Is Reality Optional? and Other Essays. Hoover Press, Stanford, California, 1993, page 190.
  2. Charles Darwin. The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859. John Murray, London, 1902, page 403.
  3. Robert Prum. The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us. Anchor Books, New York, 2018, page 228.