11 minutes

Do we have the potential to become a European leader?

Poland celebrates the 20th anniversary of its membership in the European Union, which has proven beneficial for society and the economy. We travel without passports, have better infrastructure, and are wealthier—today, about 85% of the world’s population lives in countries with a lower average income per capita than ours. We are the 21st largest economy in the world in terms of GDP by purchasing power parity, compared to 23rd place when we joined the EU. Although there is potential for further advancement in the global ranking—the next two countries ahead of us are within our reach—it will be challenging to improve our position, mainly because a large group of countries from Southeast Asia and Africa, which have a much larger developmental potential (more favorable demographics, lower current income levels), are quickly catching up.

However, we should also look at our current position from another perspective. We are still primarily a replicative economy (using what others have invented), operating largely in a subcontracting model (providing input to products/services ultimately sold by someone else) and competing with low costs. Moreover, very serious challenges are beginning to emerge on our development path. The first of these is undoubtedly demographics. Without opening up to immigration, Poland’s population will decrease—the latest GUS forecasts indicate that by 2050 the number of residents may drop by more than 4 million, which represents more than 10% of the current population. Additionally, the median age will shift significantly—more than half of the society will be over 50 years old. This will have many different implications, particularly the number of those working will decrease, and their burden associated with the need to support the elderly will increase.

The second challenge is global changes in the rules of the game, referring to geopolitics and the technological revolution. This is a topic I have analyzed several times before (for example, in the article “Four Shocks Changing the Economy“), so here I will only mention that the period of stable and calm sailing has come to an end, the sea is becoming increasingly stormy, which requires much greater sailing skill.

The third, and in my opinion, the most important challenge, is the lack of mental readiness to join the ranks of leaders. I do not mean global leaders (there is no point in dreaming about that), but European ones. And it is this aspect that I would like to focus on today. In my opinion, our mentality and the ways of thinking “embedded” in our social identity are, in my view, the biggest brake on finding ourselves among the leaders. I would like to better identify those elements of our mentality, which in my opinion, are the biggest challenge. If one has the right mentality, it is much easier to face other problems. If not, then these other problems start to weigh twice as much.


What does the Polish ‘mindset’ look like?

Examining the mental sphere, let’s start with the traits that I believe are our strong side. These, in my opinion, have influenced the success achieved over the past 20 years (including the initial period of transformation before joining the EU, over 30 years). I would include the following in this list:

  1. Entrepreneurship – as a nation, we often demonstrate entrepreneurship, which manifests in the ability to identify and utilize new opportunities, both domestically and internationally.
  2. Determination and perseverance – We have repeatedly shown, both historically and in modern times, that we can strive to achieve our goals despite obstacles (see EU membership).
  3. Flexibility and adaptability – we can quickly adjust to changing conditions and challenges. This flexibility helps in effectively responding to market and social changes, which is crucial in a dynamically changing world.
  4. Openness to learning – High level of education and the continuous pursuit of many of us to gain new knowledge. This openness to learning is important in the context of continuous skill development.
  5. Ability to work in a team – Despite strong individualism, we Poles can demonstrate group work skills, which are important in projects requiring the cooperation of many people. This is particularly evident in crisis situations (see COVID and the outbreak of war in Ukraine).
  6. Increasing sense of social responsibility – Poles are increasingly engaging in social activities and volunteer work, which fosters the building of stronger communities and a better future for local societies. However, they avoid political engagement, and for many, politics is very negatively associated.
  7. Creativity and innovation – An increasing number of Polish inventions and innovations are gaining recognition worldwide, which speaks to the creative approach Poles have to solving problems and creating new products or technologies. This is also confirmed by numerous awards and distinctions for Polish students.
  8. Respecting tradition – Poles place great importance on preserving cultural heritage, which allows drawing from past experiences.


Mental Barriers to Development

In the developmental context, especially considering the current level of development and its requirements, I would include the following traits as limiting our developmental potential:

  1. Inferiority Complex: A large portion of our society still feels an inferiority complex, especially in the context of comparisons with more developed Western European countries. This leads to a mistrust of our own capabilities and complicates cooperation. Another important aspect of our inferiority complex is the lack of belief that we can carry out large, unique projects. We prefer to focus on small, proven, copied things, etc.
  2. Pettiness and Envy: In communities where interpersonal relationships are close and intense, there tends to be a tendency towards pettiness and envy. This is manifested in a negative perception of those who have ‘made it’.
  3. Pessimism: The history of Poland, full of turmoil and difficulties, has created a certain tendency towards pessimism and skepticism. We often tend to expect negative outcomes, which can limit initiative and discourage risk-taking.
  4. Conservatism and Resistance to Change: A strong attachment to tradition leads to conservatism in thinking and resistance to changes, even if those changes could bring benefits. Resistance to new ideas and approaches can in turn hinder the ‘march forward,’ necessary in a changing world. Instead, we tend to seek a ‘return to the past’.
  5. Orientation towards the Past: A strong focus on history and the past often obscures the need to deal with current challenges and plan for the future. This orientation towards the past is also a source of unresolved social and political conflicts. We like to dig into history, judge, look for the guilty, etc., instead of focusing on how to make our society and economy better.
  6. Clientelism and Nepotism: In some areas – especially in the public sphere – the problem of clientelism and nepotism is still present, leading to inefficiency and corruption in public management and business. Favoring family and friends (tribalism) in filling positions limits access to equal opportunities for everyone and negatively affects the functioning of institutions (in recent years we have seen a significant regression in this regard – compare ‘In the campaign, the future loses to the present’). This factor also means that often systemic solutions limit the possibilities for full utilization of existing potential, regarding areas previously mentioned as positives.
  7. Reluctance to Constructive Criticism: In communities where personal culture and honor are highly valued, constructive criticism can sometimes be perceived as a personal attack. This can hinder open discussion and effective exchange of opinions. Unfortunately, this is the case in Poland.
  8. Socio-political Divisions. Inability to Conduct Constructive Dialogue: Polish society is characterized by deep political and ideological divisions, which often turn into polarization and antagonism, hindering dialogue and cooperation between different groups.
  9. Lack of Trust: Low faith in public institutions and lack of trust in other people can affect the readiness to cooperate and participate in social life. This lack of trust can hinder the building of a strong community and curb civic initiatives.
  10. Distrust of Diversity: Although our history includes numerous periods of tolerance, a large part of us has strong reservations about opening up more broadly to immigrants, who could be an answer to demographic challenges.


Lack of Leader Mentality

Compiling various elements of our national mentality, one can conclude that we do not possess the mentality of a leader country. As a result, our peripherality is derived not only from our geographical location and difficult history, but also—and perhaps primarily—from what is in our heads.

To demonstrate the practical implications of our mentality on developmental processes, one can use the example of institutional solutions. These largely determine the strength of a state and its ability to ‘set directions and follow them.’ Over the past 30 years, we were able to develop well because we implemented institutional solutions largely imposed by the European Union—to join this club, we had to adapt to its rules. I am sure that without this specific coercion, we would have much worse institutions today. Not because we wouldn’t be capable of designing them, but because our tribalism (lack of thinking in the interest of the whole society, only its parts) combined with the inability to conduct constructive dialogue and build consensus would lead to institutional revolution at every change of power. This is clearly visible in areas where national rather than EU prerogatives dominate. It’s frightening to think if the entire regulatory and institutional sphere underwent (tumultuous) turmoil with each change of government. The resulting instability would be destructive for the functioning of society and the economy.

The effect of our mentality—focusing more on the ‘I’ than on the ‘We’—is also a dualism in the functioning of the private and public sectors. The former follows global trends forced by competition, the latter in many areas remains mentally, procedurally, and organizationally in the 20th century. Meanwhile, a country that wants to succeed must have efficient government structures—with a vision for the country’s development on one hand, and effective operation on the other. Since joining the EU, we have had no vision. As a result, we drift under the influence of European and global events and successive EU budgetary perspectives—waiting for money from the next ‘pot’ for our roads, railways, aquaparks, etc., has become our national sport.

Part of our mentality is also positioning ourselves as a ‘poor country.’ Indeed, being poor helps gain assistance from others (see EU funds), but it’s a double-edged sword. Dependence on help can be addictive, and it kills internal creativity, desire, and will to act. These dangerous processes are already visible in many parts of our country.

In summary, considering demographic trends, it’s not excluded that from the phase of a ‘society of complexes,’ we might jump directly to a society ‘resting on its laurels’. Such a society does not think about development, about gaining a leadership position, but rather fights to preserve the status quo. This is already evident in macroeconomic statistics and the politics of recent years—consumption and delaying necessary reforms (thinking about the here and now) have become priorities, not investments (thinking about the future).


Hope in Young and New-Old Leaders

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it has to happen this way. We have more than 30 years of functioning in a market democracy behind us. Now is a good time to draw conclusions and possibly make changes. The greatest hopes, in my opinion, can be pinned on the new generation, those who grew up in a free country. They do not carry the burden of the PRL era. Raised in freedom, traveling the world from birth, they have a chance to think and act differently.

We also do not need to change the entire society immediately. Just as at home, in business, foundations, schools, etc., so too at the national level, its situation is a derivative of the kind of LEADERS it has. Therefore, change in this area is so important. For our country to dream of a position as a European leader, it needs leaders with the right mentality and agency, focused on the future, not the past. I get the impression that a significant group of people who entered adult life at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, and who now have established life and professional positions, are ready to reflect on the fact that we need changes in mentality and identity. Also, work on oneself that leads to such changes. Hopefully!

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