50th St. Gallen Symposium "Freedom Revisited": 7–8 May 2020


A discussion with Dr Olivier Giscard D’Estaing, Founder of INSEAD

Grégoire Roos (GR) – Can we learn to manage change? Can we be trained in disruption management? Is it not something that you (fortunately or unfortunately) learn at the ‘‘school of life’’? The successive setbacks (if not impressive failures) of European leaders – to limit ourselves to Europe… – in their dealing with the major crises which have shaken Europe over the past 7 or 8 years (Greece, the Euro crisis, now the refugee crisis - not to mention Syria and Turkey…) tend to highlight how little prepared and somehow poorly skilled our current leaders are in view of the gravity and complexity of the events and threats facing us…

Dr Olivier Giscard D’Estaing (OGE) – I’d say that it’s fundamental, first and foremost, to develop a sharp awareness of the realities of the environment. Believe me, this is true for business as much as it is for politics and international affairs. And today, our environment is a multipolar world (America, Asia, and, increasingly, Africa), in which the old continent is no longer at the centre of the game, in which the knowledge and practice of languages has become primordial (not only to communicate, but also and above all to understand our neighbour, and to think along his or her own points and lines of reference). It is a world dominated by a complex system of interconnected issues which yesterday hadn’t come out yet: the question of religions, of ecology and the envionment, of migrations, of mass terrorism, etc. Therefrom, it seems rather obvious that there’s no magic bullet for preparing as such to deal with the massive disruptions the future will bring (the psychological preparation is a personal and individual question) (…). We should be aware of our current surrounding environment if we want to properly grasp and understand the world of tomorrow. Thus the importance of history and its teaching. To sum it up, I’d say there’s no action without understanding, and no understanding without knowledge.


GR – Lest we forget humility too! After all, our leaders may have the power of action (or its sheer illusion), but not the power of control (over the events).

OGE – Absolutely. The question of humility is fundamental. We should – we must! - refrain from any temptation of the sentiment of strength or superiority. We are nothing in front of all-powerful nature. We are nothing – or so small – in front of Hurricane Katrina, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami or in front of all the great climatic disasters (both passed and yet to come). And let’s be humble, we’re not worth more when it comes to dealing with some high-profile authoritarian leaders (when they’re not clearly dictators), to whom, for economic and political reasons, we have no other choice but to cosy up. We can be fully engaged in action and actually reach significant effectiveness with sound political decisions, both in the ex-post treatment of disruptive events and their ex-ante anticipation. But we’ll never be able to fully and properly control the course of events. From a leadership perspective (whether in business or in politics), there will always be a part of events which will be beyond our understanding, things – sometimes tiny details which, with hindsight, will look blantantly obvious years or decades later – we won’t even be able to notice, and which we will therefore be unable to grip.


GR – How do you convince people who have all the reasons to be right but who are actually wrong, and who just can’t see what the future will actually be about?

OGE – By not being afraid of pushing hard to make your ideas move on to the top, and getting off the beaten track to argue your case! But beyond that, you need to inspire confidence, to leave your ego aside and to stay open to dialogue, that is essential. It’s important to show people that change can generate opportunity, growth, progress and even, I will dare say it, harmony… Our world lacks so much of it.

It’s important to show people that change can generate opportunity, growth, progress and even, I will dare say it, harmony… Our world lacks so much of it.