The Battle Between Democracy and Autocracy that Lies Within Us

October 7, 2022

Why the battle between democracy and autocracy will be decided by how we show up in our most vulnerable moments 


It’s no state secret that Biden’s worldview when it comes to foreign policy is an extension of what he considers a global battle, one pitting democracy against autocracy. On the one side we have the prominent figure of Xi Jinping arguing that consensus takes too long in a fast-moving world, and that only autocracies are equipped to meet the extraordinary 21st challenges that we face. On the other, leaders like Biden who are desperately trying to prove that democracy works – before it’s too late.

But it won’t be either of these powerful men – or any other world leaders – who decide the final outcome of this ideological warfare. It will be up to us, and how we show up as our world becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

The Wise Adult and the Adaptive Child

Just recently I was running a training program for a group of highly accomplished social sector leaders. As with all of my training programs, it was experiential. That means that the learning was not just theoretical, but a lived experience – a methodology that I believe is much better at transforming knowledge to wisdom.

It was a challenging situation, and many of the people in the room were feeling stretched outside their comfort zone (a sure sign that learning is happening). As can often happen in stressful situations that feel out of our control, people’s defence mechanisms began to be activated and pre-programmed survival mechanisms started to take control (you can read more about this in a blog I wrote on transformative leadership practices for turbulent times).

I’ve seen this framed sometimes in leadership training as switching from the Wise Adult to the Adaptive Child. The Wise Adult/Adaptive Child framework comes from Transactional Analysis theory, a psychoanalytic theory developed during the 1950s. According to this framework, our Adaptive Child is the part of us that developed in response to traumatic events during childhood. And this Adaptive Child is masterful at hijacking our Wise Adult whenever it perceives (real or imagined) a threat to its safety.

Our Wise Adult is related to our neocortex – the part of our brain that sets us apart from our close cousins, the chimpanzees. In our Wise Adult, we are capable of strategic thinking, decision making, accessing multiple perspectives, problem solving, advanced planning, visionary thinking and complex social interactions like collaboration.

But when our Adaptive Child hijacks the show our neocortex goes offline. Our ability to manage complex situations and nuanced relationships stops, and we move into behaviour that is more rigid and reactive, perfectionistic, unforgiving and harsh. In this state, our Adaptive Child wants to be told what to do (even while it may rebel against those very instructions!). And it is this child that the authoritarian regimes of the world are betting on.

Will We Fall Together Or Fall Apart?

The tension in the training room was palpable as people expressed their stresses and frustrations. And I want to acknowledge that the concerns were all valid. But for some in the group, the discomfort of navigating uncertainty felt like too much. And then came the comment which has been present in every waking moment since then.

“Collective leadership is great, but this is not the right time. We just want to be told what to do.”

Just that morning I’d been listening to a report on a recent conversation between Biden and Xi Jiping. It was a repetition of the back and forth that’s been going on since Biden took office, in which Xi Jiping reiterated once again his belief that only autocracies are equipped to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century. But when I heard that comment just a few hours later, my perspective on the ongoing power struggle between China and the West shifted with such speed that it left me reeling.

Autocracies won’t win out because our Wise Adults choose it. It will be because our Adaptive Children demand it. 

I want to be clear that I don’t believe that China’s leader is right. I firmly believe that how we create change is as important as what we do. I believe that a leadership that is more inclusive and equitable and that fundamentally does power differently is essential to creating the kind of transformative change that we need to face the challenges ahead of us. But even though I don’t believe that an authoritarian approach to the problems that we face is the answer, I am concerned that if we don’t act now, we will prove him right anyway. 

Living in Northern Italy at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of my first thoughts was what the unfolding crisis might do to our social fabric. Would we fall together, or fall apart, I kept wondering? In the beginning, it seemed that the former prevailed as heartwarming stories of solidarity, courage and bravery helped to fill the dark void that the fear of a global pandemic had created. But then as the weeks stretched into months and then years, we began to falter. 

Many of the connections forged in the first few months began to fracture as our responses became increasingly rigid and reactive, unforgiving and harsh. We demanded the impossible – answers and certainty – where none were available. There was anger when those demands weren’t met, and anger when they were. We were quick to judge, slow to forgive. Solidarity, compassion and empathy were gradually undermined by tribalism and nationalism. Our Adaptive Children were in full control. And we began to fall apart.

President Biden’s Biggest Error

In January 2021, President Biden addressed the Munich Security Conference. “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward,” said the President, “and those who understand that democracy is essential.” This comment reveals an assumption that Biden (and probably many of us in leadership positions) is making that may be his biggest mistake. 

Because Biden is addressing his comments to a room full of Wise Adults – competent professionals with calm limbic systems and their neocortex fully functioning. But it is not the moments of calm that we must look to – it is how we navigate during times of uncertainty that will be telling. Because as the world becomes increasingly challenging, our sense of safety is threatened, and we become ever more uncomfortable, it won’t be adults he’ll be contending with.

Unless we do the work first.

One of the most fundamental shifts in thinking about transformative leadership is that it isn’t about the “Leaders”. This kind of leadership is about a disposition, not a position – which is reflected each moment of the day in the way we work and walk in this world. To participate in this kind of system is to be a willing and active participant in an ongoing dance in which both leadership and followership are two dynamic, interchangeable roles. It requires a willingness to do the inner work that stops the hijack by our Adaptive Child so that our Wise Adults – the best versions of ourselves – are the ones that show during times of discomfort and crisis. And it requires us to stand firm on our beliefs that another way is needed if we truly wish to build more participatory democracies, inclusive societies, and equitable futures for all. Especially when times are hard.

So let us do the work now. 

The battle between democracy and autocracy is as much an internal struggle as it is an ideological contest on the global stage. And the outcome will be determined by our ability to show up, to stay present, to hold true to our best and wisest selves. You can change the world by the way that you show up in the world. We must learn to fall together, even when it feels like the world outside is falling apart.

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