The Archbishop and the CEO: reflecting on strategy and the courage to change

Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).

After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:

Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.

I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.

Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.

What I suppose Nadella’s critics noticed is that he has written so much, 3,000 words, while saying nothing at all. Additionally one notices the contrast between the rousing title of the speech and the rather mundane list of future activities in the third paragraph, all of which are expressed in the passive tense.  The third paragraph seems to say that every single activity that people are currently doing, i.e. hiring and firing, adjusting their responsibilities, making changes and some improvements to the way that they do the work, will continue pretty much as it does at the moment, and this constitutes a bold strategy (although the language seems to have stripped all human beings out of the processes).

‘New ideas will be heard’.

Notice too the rather threatening sting in the tail of the last sentence: ‘if you want to thrive at Microsoft…you will be enthusiastic about driving (change)’. I think Edgar Schein referred to this as coercive persuasion and this is not a very subtle example of it.

Of course this also says something about the personality of the CEO and what they think good rousing communication might be, but for me, and for Nadella’s critics, it also speaks a lot about the vacuity of managerialism. This is pure MBA-speak: grandiose talk of change and ambition which comes down to a simple list of every day activities rounded out with slightly threatening warnings about not conforming to the vision, however you might understand it. I am reminded of Alvesson and Sveningssons’ observations about leadership talk: it is usually highly inflated on the one hand, but is unsubstantiated by leaders in their study being able to point to anything extraordinary that they are actually doing.[1]

For me there appears to be more promising thinking in Nadella’s address a bit later on when he strays into philosophy by quoting Nietzsche on courage, although this too provoked much hilarity from his critics:

A few months ago on a call with investors I quoted Nietzsche and said that we must have “courage in the face of reality.” Even more important, we must have courage in the face of opportunity.

Nadella appeals to the importance of courage as part of his strategy for developing Microsoft but it is not immediately clear what he means. He goes on to say though that if individuals in his company do not change themselves ‘one individual at a time’ as he puts it (although there is no great insight into how they might do this or what it might mean to change) then they will lack the courage to make the transformation he considers necessary for the company’s evolution. With managerialism it usually needs to be transformation, rather than just change.

I think Nadella may be on to something, but not in the reduced and individualised way he deploys the term.

Nietzsche writes quite a lot about courage and reality, but here is one of the things I think he means by it based on my reading of the Twilight of the Idols:

Courage in the face of reality ultimately distinguishes such natures as Thucy-dides and Plato: Plato is a coward in the face of reality-consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control-consequently he retains control over things.

Nietzsche compares Plato unfavourably with Thucydides because he thought the former took refuge in idealisation, while the latter was capable of writing history which dealt with politics and power in all of its messy, and sometimes ugly reality. Whether Nietzsche was right in his assessment of Thucydides and Plato is another matter entirely, but the contrast he is making is between abstraction from and immersion in the everyday politics of social life. Courage for Nietzsche is the ability to confront life as it is lived. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he says this:

He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle’s eyes-he who with eagle’s talons graspeth the abyss: he hath courage.

What I think he means by this is that courage arises from the ability to confront a difficult reality and the depth of any predicament in which we find ourselves.

This is rather a long way from the rather anodyne list of tasks that Nadella thinks confronts Microsoft, i.e. hiring and firing, doing new things, dropping some old activities, starting some new ones. He does at one stage mention the importance of challenging orthodoxy, but it would be difficult to take strength from this given that the speech as a whole is long testament to the reduced imagination of managerial thinking. In and of itself it challenges no orthodoxies whatsoever.

By contrast I was struck by the way that the new Archbishop of Canterbury has been dealing directly with some of the entrenched and potentially divisive problems that have beset the Church of England over the past decades (not that I have any stake in that particular game). Having steered the reversal of the decision taken two years ago to prevent the elevation of women priests as bishops, Welby now wants to address gay marriage, although he was keen not to rush to the second without working through the first. He was going to move the church forward, he said, by paying attention to the quality of conversation, encouraging people to recognise each other better as they struggle to address difficult themes. Some of the controversies in the C of E could split it from top to bottom, but Welby is keen not to duck them.

Of course Welby himself is an ex-executive of BP, so has management and leadership experience. Whether it is his management experience and/or what he derives from his faith that makes him act the way he does, he seems to me to be giving a much better example of courage in the Nietzschian sense Nadella refers to. Life, he argues, is difficult, and there is no avoiding talking about it.

 

 

[1] Alvesson, M. and Sveningsson, S. (2003) Managers doing leadership: The extra-ordinarization of the mundane,  Human Relations, Volume 56(12): 1435–1459.

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One thought on “The Archbishop and the CEO: reflecting on strategy and the courage to change

  1. Tony Nicholls

    Thanks for the post Chris. I’m increasingly coming across examples where managers appear to be paralysed without a soundbite-sized vision upon which to base all of their subsequent leadership communications and actions. Their addiction to the abstract and ignorance of the realities of everyday organisational life, appears to be constraining effective action (or providing convenient excuses) when faced with uncertainty or unclear direction.

    Reply

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