Leading from the Edge of the Unknown

Tomas Björkman is an entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who believes that we need a more conscious society to tackle our current challenges.

von Joana Breidenbach, August 14, 2018
Tomas Bjoerkman

This article originally appeared on TwentyThirty.

Joana Breidenbach met Tomas Björkman at his CoCreation Loft in Berlin to talk to him about what a more conscious society means for leadership.

We are living in exciting yet challenging times. With our economic and political systems in crisis, we are faced with the need of an institutional renewal, which takes better care of the health of the planet and its citizens. In many places, we see promising signs for the necessary systems change, such as the rise of the regenerative economy and new deliberative democratic processes.

Yet not only do these approaches seem to be largely isolated and unaware of the larger dynamics of the transformation they are part of. What is also lacking is a coherent new vision of leadership.

Too many CEOs, politicians, and civic leaders are stuck in a command and control style, relying on experts for advice. This works well in complicated but predictable situations.

With increasing complexity, situations change. Systems theory tells us that in fluid, strongly interconnected environments, no one right answer can be found. Instead, leaders need to patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. In complex systems, with non-linear and exponential dynamics, there are no straightforward solutions, only answers that are emerging.

Swedish entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Tomas Björkman has dedicated the last ten years to finding and supporting initiatives that support new leadership styles and competencies.

One of them is his retreat center on the island of Ekskäret in the Stockholm archipelago, used for both youth camps and courses on personal development. Tomas also co-founded Perspectiva, a London-based think tank focused on inspiring leaders to examine “real world problems with a deeper appreciation of the influence of our inner worlds.”

A more conscious society

I had been on a retreat on Ekskäret Island myself and met Tomas again later in Berlin for an interview. My first question to him was how all these initiatives are connected.

“The tagline of your activities is to ‘facilitate the co-creation of a more conscious society.’ What does that actually mean?”

Tomas has something of a patient, erudite teacher about him. He begins his answer by referring to the Enlightenment, during which humans acquired a scientific outlook. According to Tomas, it was hugely beneficial, and as regards wealth, health, and life expectancy, today “we are in many ways living the dream of our grandparents.”

But with our global and digitized age, the rationalist worldview has come to an end. Worse, its assumption of homo economicus, of humans as unchanging rational actors, is in many ways directly responsible for the big problems we are facing – from environmental destruction to global inequality and poor mental health.

Humans are obviously not wholly rational beings, responsibly looking after themselves and their planet.

Instead, current neuroscience, adult developmental psychology, and behavioral economics give us a much more complex and fluid image of who we are.

"We need to enable humans to grow personally, to become more aware of themselves and their surroundings." 

Tomas Björkman 

Not only is our mind an open system, developing throughout our lifetime, but it is also deeply embodied – we “know” with our gut, our spinal cord, and the chemicals in our bloodstream. Additionally, we are embedded within the meaning systems of culture.

This much more complex notion of human nature and consciousness forms the launching pad for Tomas Björkman’s work. In order to build a more equitable society looking after our planetary home, we need to enable humans to grow personally, to become more aware of themselves and their surroundings.

Growing up psychologically

“During one of the youth camps on Ekskäret Island, I overheard a conversation between a young girl and a camp leader,” Tomas tells me. “She talked about how stressed out she was by all the things she wanted to spend time on – social media, sports, friends, etc. But some probing questions by the youth leader changed her perspective fundamentally.

She said: ‘Oh, now I see! I don’t have to do all the things I want to do!’ In this moment, she became more conscious – before, her will ‘had’ her; afterwards, she owned her will.”

In this life-long process of becoming more aware of – and thus transcending – previously unconscious habits and beliefs, we increase our freedom and become authentic authors of our own life in a much deeper sense.

In the language of Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, 'becoming more conscious' means moving from a “socialized mind” to a “self-authoring mind.”

Already during his career in investment banking, Tomas saw that “the inner quality” of managers – capacities such as self-reflection and multiperspectivity – were key factors for success. Having made a lot of money and realizing that we are in the midst of a great societal transition, Tomas turned to philanthropy.

For the past decade, he has sought to create spaces in which such personal and cultural development can be deliberated and prototyped; spaces where CEOs and founders as well as politicians and civil society leaders can develop the inner skills needed to navigate in complex, unpredictable environments.

Using this clear vision as a compass, the serial entrepreneur lets himself be guided by serendipity.

The CoCreation Loft is a good example,” he tells me, pointing to the well-designed rooftop apartment turned co-working space.

“Two years ago, in Esalen (a retreat center on the California coast), I met a young German guy. Steffen Stäuber had just sold his communication company and was on a world trip, figuring out what to do next. We only met for 15 minutes before he had to leave, but I told him to call me after his return to Berlin and we would create a space together.”

A few months later, they founded the CoCreation Loft. It hosts a dozen desks, living areas, and a meditation room for a diverse range of systems changers interested in exploring new ways of making society more conscious.

Steffen and his crew also invite speakers and facilitators to discuss topics such as entrepreneurship, personal growth, art and death (my friend Hanno Burmester and I organized a Death over Dinner there).

The things most important today can't be measured

For someone who made his fortune with numbers, Tomas surprises me by saying that he does not use performance indicators for his philanthropic activities.

“For KPIs to be effective, you need to be able to measure them. But the things the world most urgently needs today are qualitative and can’t or shouldn’t be measured. Instead, you just know whether a project has a positive impact on society or not.”

One question Tomas is currently pondering is how progressive initiatives can be funded. Many now point to the market. But this can be a trap: He has seen too many social entrepreneurs burnt out and losing focus, trying to squeeze their ideas and products into market.

He even wrote his first book about The Market Myth, exposing market solutions as unsuitable for collective goals such as a healthy societal culture. Instead, politics needs to step in. But with the current crises, the focus of politics is elsewhere.

Before parting, I ask Tomas where he gets his inspiration from. He pauses, as if checking within himself for an answer. “I grew up on a small family farm in Sweden,” he then says, “and it is in nature that I can connect to deeper layers of myself most easily.” Useful too, he continues, is the ability to switch off.

Unfocusing the mind allows for deeper, unconscious processes to surface, and enables one to see new patterns in the complexity of daily life.

This, I concur, is what is needed today. As Tomas said in his recent talk at TEDx Berlin:

“The success of the industrial revolution was based on an acceptance of our limited knowledge of our outer world. It was that acceptance, and our curiosity about our outer world, that made us discover new continents and made us reach for the moon. The revolution of our time is also about acceptance – this time, acceptance of our limited knowledge of our inner world. This acceptance – and the discoveries that will come from that – will be the big step forward for humanity in our century.”

About Tomas Björkman

In the first part of his professional life Tomas Björkman worked in information technology, investment banking, and property development. After many years in business, he is now a social entrepreneur and an author.
He supports a whole range of interesting initiatives. Alter Ego intends to build a transformative political movement. There is Tech Farm, a “purpose-driven real estate venture” that launches co-living and co-working properties in Stockholm and Berlin. Apart from location-based initiatives, Tomas also supports 29k. This non-profit startup is developing digital tools to make the latest findings in psychology about transformational growth available to as broad an audience as possible.

About the Author

Joana Breidenbach

Joana has a PhD in cultural anthropology and is the author of several books on the cultural impact of globalization, migration, and tourism. She is co-founder of betterplace.org, a crowdfunding platform for social projects.

This article is presented in collaboration with TwentyThirty.  

TwentyThirty is an online magazine presented by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we face and features inspiring Responsible Leaders who are working to solve them. Follow their work on Facebook