Brexit. Trump. What’s next? Are you ready?
Join us at the G1 Global Conference to discuss more.

This May, I attended a Global Advisory Council meeting at the Wilson Center, the only bipartisan think tank in Washington D.C. created and funded by the US Congress.

At the dinner session, I thought I’d try seeing how this group of experts would react to a couple of unlikely scenarios, and threw out a couple of questions.

What if the UK opted to leave the EU? What if Donald Trump was elected president of the US? What sort of new world order would result then?

But nobody replied and the subject was swiftly changed.

After dinner, another attendee came over to explain why no one had responded. It was because no one wanted to contemplate such unlikely—and such unwelcome—outcomes. They just didn’t want to think about it.

However, anyone who is in a leadership position of any kind, from running a country to running a small business, must accept reality: “unthinkable” events now occur routinely; we must all be ready to respond.

As we all know, the British public voted in favor of Brexit on June 23. And Donald Trump—selected as official Republican presidential candidate on July 20—could become US President (provided he does not self-destruct first!).

This February, Nik Gowing, the former presenter for BBC World News, co-authored a report entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age.”

It identifies the sort of “abnormal” events that constitute the “new normal”—from Putin’s seizure of the Crimea in Ukraine to the collapse in oil prices, from the outbreak of Ebola to the revelation that Volkswagen had been gaming emissions tests for years.

The report also provides nine reasons why leaders prefer not to think the unthinkable, from groupthink, conformity and protecting their own position to straightforward cognitive overload.

This October, my business school will be hosting the sixth G1 Global annual conference on the political economy of Japan. We’ve been lucky enough to have the same Nik Gowing as chief moderator since the conference got under way in 2011. And this year we have chosen to make “Thinking the Unthinkable,” the theme of his report, into the theme of our conference.

Japan needs to prepare itself to expect the unexpected.

What if a massive earthquake were to hit Tokyo? What if a minor skirmish in the East China Sea between the Chinese and Japanese navies were to escalate, causing a catastrophic breakdown in relations between the two countries? What if electric batteries could be produced cheaply and be charged faster, disrupting the whole motor industry, including Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, by offering a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine?

However “unpalatable” these scenarios may be, we cannot brush them under the carpet. “Incredulity” and “disaster myopia,” to borrow Gowing’s terminology, are not a strategy.

The G1 Global, the conference where we will be discussing issues like this, is a rare animal—a conference in Japan that is held entirely in English.

Japan is a difficult place to hold genuinely inclusive conferences: Hold them in Japanese and you exclude non-Japanese. Hold them in English and you exclude Japanese who can’t speak English.

Obviously you can provide interpretation, but that tends to slow things down, reduce the level of engagement, and introduce the risk of mistranslation. Equally, mixing an English-speaking and non-English-crowd tends to reduce the amount of spontaneous discussion in the breaks between events.

My solution to this perennial problem was to establish two parallel conferences: one that’s all in Japanese and one that’s all in English.

But an English-only conference comes with its own set of challenges too: Flying good speakers over to Japan and putting them up in hotels costs money. Finding Japanese who speak English sufficiently well to participate in panel discussions is challenging.

Since all-English events necessarily appeal to a somewhat small audience in Japan, attracting corporate sponsorship and getting the attendees to pay a decent sum for their tickets can be difficult too.

In fact, our English-language conference has been running at a loss ever since it started.

Still, I remain fully committed to the event. After all, if Japan knows what the world is thinking and the world knows what Japan is thinking, we’ll all stand a better chance of successfully “thinking the unthinkable” and confronting the challenges of our “unpredictable and fast-changing world.”

This year’s G1 Global Conference will be held at GLOBIS Tokyo Campus on Friday, October 21. Please come along and share your unthinkable thoughts with us.

(Photo credit: Liudmila P. Sundikova /

Connect with Insights

Trouble keeping up with all the insights? Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly career inspiration right in your inbox!
Your newsletter subscription with us is subject to the GLOBIS Privacy Policy.