I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans. Continue reading
1 Everyone knows what good leadership is in the abstract and the ideal. But there is no leadership in the abstract. There is only what you do when you show up at work, and this will never be ideal. So if you are a leader you are always a work in progress making it up as you go along with your colleagues. You won’t always know what to do, and that’s ok. One of the central tasks of leadership is how you work out what needs to be done together.
2 Whenever I work with senior people it is only a matter of time before someone mentions Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King (I have a dream) or Gandhi (be the change you want to see). You are none of these people, nor do you need to be an exceptional world leader to do your job. You might be good at your job and the right person to be leading, and you might just have got lucky or speak the right kind of leaderly language. But the more you play into the ‘exceptional leader’ narrative the more you will invite denigration and opportunities for people to point out that you have feet of clay. As a leader you will have a strong role in people’s fantasies and imaginative life (because of the strength of the leadership discourse) , and this will need to be handled with caution.
3 Relax about the vision thing (see 1 and 2 above). Saints and prophets have visions, and visions of the corporate variety are often so grandiose or vacuous as to be meaningless: everyone wants to be ‘best in class’, ‘world leading’, or ‘internationally renowned’, so what does it mean if you do too? This is not the same as saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious for your organisation, set high standards and want that you and your colleagues do the best you all can. It might be perfectly obvious to you and your senior colleagues what needs to be done, but so might something else in six months time when the game has changed.
4 You are highly unlikely to ‘transform’ anything if you mean by this that you can guarantee bringing about wholesale change for the good. Changes you make will bring about the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted. There will always be unintended consequences, and ‘success’ will depend upon who is judging and when the judgment is made. Large initiatives may make little difference and widespread change might come about from a conversation in a corridor. You must live forwards but can only understand backwards. Leadership, as an academic pointed out, is often about the ‘extraordinisation of the mundane’ – much of what you do as a leader is no different from what most people do at work, but the ordinary conversation you have with a colleague may have special significance because you’re the boss.
5 No one can design organisational culture, not even the most powerful and successful leader, if by culture we mean what we’re all doing together. You can change people’s work, set them targets, punish and cajole, tell them that they have to demonstrate certain behaviours and reward them accordingly, but how they respond to this will be largely beyond your control (unless you live in North Korea). Attempts to manipulate people’s values may well result in resistance, more or less overt, and/or superficial compliance. If people don’t have a choice about their values, rather their values ‘choose them’, then what are you getting in to if you try to dictate your colleagues’ values?
6 And You won’t be able to choose your leadership ‘style’ if by this you think you can rationally chose the kind of leader you want to be before you show up at work, like choosing an outfit. You are much more likely to be moulded by the organisation you work for than to mould it. You will find yourself responding to the game of organisational life in ways which will surprise you as you run to keep up, even if you’re the boss. You’re in charge, but you’re not always in control, not even of yourself.
And the thing which should keep you awake at night is that if you said any of these things in an interview for a leadership role you probably wouldn’t get the job. This is because leadership, as one academic has pointed out, is the subject of much dogmatically stated nonsense which seems to have a grip on the public imagination, not least because some of the tropes about the powers of exceptional leaders are repeated over and over so they are taken for granted as self evident truths. Everyone these days is thought to need leadership training, no matter how lowly their job, and many organisational problems are ascribed to ‘absence of leadership’. The myths about leadership are now self- sustaining.
I found myself sitting among a large group of experienced managers who were being updated on the strategy process by the deputy CEO of their particular organisation. He proceeded to explain how he had gone about developing the next corporate strategy in terms which I have critiqued extensively on this site. In critiquing systemic managerialism previously I have always been anxious not to caricature, not to set up an easy straw man opponent in order to knock it down. I have been concerned that if no-one these days really proceeds to explain strategy as vision-mission-values, sets up working groups to develop organisational values to underpin the vision, and then suggests that members of staff who don’t follow the values may have to go and work elsewhere, then there is nothing really to critique.
But what I found on this occasion was a text book example, perhaps a text book still in its first edition, of what I engage with elsewhere as idealised design. Originating in cybernetic systems theory and developed in the thinking of Russell Ackoff, idealised design assumes that fomenting excitement in staff who work in an organisation towards an idealised end point, increases motivation, commitment and performance. There is very little evidence for this claim, and given how long these methods have been used in organisations with change-weary staff, it would be just as easy to make the opposite claim that such abstract idealisations are just as likely to call out cynicism, negativity and disbelief particularly in the UK. Judging from the conversation which took place later at coffee, I think the group in which I was sitting may have been strung out along the spectrum from enthusiasm at one end, to bafflement and frustration at the other. Continue reading
On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.
‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’ Continue reading
The UK is experiencing a big series of changes which are being introduced at breakneck speed by the new coalition government. The most dramatic changes are taking place in the public sector: schools are being heavily encouraged to become academies which are independent of local authorities: health budgets will be transferred to GPs; the financial settlement on local authorities is being drastically cut back which will lead to widespread loss of jobs, and even the defence forces will be scaled back. This will be accompanied by a huge hike in fees for students wanting to study at university, accelerating the transition from understanding education as a public good to privatising and individualising it. One theme of justification put forward by the current government, which is a familiar one amongst conservatives everywhere, is that the public sector is ‘unproductive’ and ‘crowds out’ the private sector. Cutting back the public sector thus allows the private sector to flourish just as cutting back shrubs in the garden enables border plants to thrive.
All governments are ideologically committed even when they are pretending not to be. So for example the Blair government in the early years talked of having moved beyond ideology, following Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, Anthony Giddens: not left, not right, but what works was the mantra for at least the first term (Giddens’ work Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics was published in 1994). There was much talk of ‘evidence-based policy’ until a series of high-profile occasions where government ministers took decisions that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence they were being offered by leading scientists (see previous post). What Giddens was suggesting, and what the new Blair government wanted to believe, was that it could be possible to come up with policies with which all rational-thinking people could agree. Somehow political policies could be ‘objectively’ correct, because they were based on ‘the evidence’. The idea, then, is that evidence interprets itself: the ‘science’ , according to ministers, speaks for itself. What policies meant in terms of value propositions were thought to be of secondary importance, or of no importance at all, until of course the values-implications of certain courses of action became obvious even to government ministers themselves and could not contemplate carrying them out despite ‘the evidence’. Continue reading
Many management theorists yearn to be scientific and as a consequence the domain is littered with tools which claim to have scientific validity and which go on to claim the ability to measure, predict and control many aspects of human and organisational life. So, for example, you might choose to use Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework which is supposed to allow you to diagnose and change your organisation’s culture and values. By using the tools managers can help employees line up and point in the same direction by adopting the values you require in your organisation.Then of course there is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is supposed to indicate which of the Jungian personality archetypes best describes your character.
Alternatively you might use an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to diagnose unconscious bias in your employees.The IAT is usually administered as a computer-based test where respondents are asked to make associations between words. The idea seems to be that when faced with a choice between two word pairings, black/white, pleasant/unpleasant, hesitation in associating say, black with pleasant is taken to indicate unconscious bias against black people. This is also related to the speed with which one associates white with pleasant. It is a test based on manual dexterity, measuring speed of response in typing. Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources put into replicating and validating these tests, they are deeply problematic. Continue reading
I was working with a group the other day who had come together to discuss how important it was to undertake projects and research that were more open-ended. In other words, if one is being genuinely innovative or experimental it is not possible to specify in advance where a project might lead, or what research might discover. There was much amusement that many funding application processes oblige project proposers to specify in advance that they will be innovative and how they will be, which to many was a contradiction in terms. If you can specify the innovation in advance then maybe it’s not so innovative. The discussion turned on how we could persuade people who funded such work that the importance of experimentation was in not necessarily knowing what you would find – not all research is about testing a hypothesis. Sometimes it is necessary to undertake projects to work out what the hypothesis could be.
We decided that partly we were dealing with risk, and then on further reflection we decided that we were working with uncertainty. So risk is something that we already know might be a problem and we would take steps to mitigate it. This is what we have insurance policies for. Uncertainty takes us into Donald Rumsfeld’s fourth realm of ‘unknown unknowns’: we don’t know what our project or our research will lead us to discover since we don’t know what we don’t know (to put alongside the things that we do know we don’t know, which might comprise some of the reasons we want to undertake research in the first place). Continue reading