Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

August
13
2017

Survival is insufficient: lessons for leadership from Station Eleven

 

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, depicts the collapse of modern civilisation when a flu pandemic sweeps across the world and (twenty years later) the dystopian society that is established by small clusters of survivors. I read it on the recommendation of the Financial Times’ business books podcast – although I refrained from listening to the episode until I’d completed the book. I enjoy it when novels appear on lists of business books, something that happens too infrequently. In truth, insofar as fiction provides insight into the human condition, almost any novel is more rewarding of a leader’s time than a business book, most of which are mediocre. But I can see why Station Eleven caught the FT’s attention.

The novel portrays how utterly dependent we are on organisations and the technology we manage, and how fragile is the fabric they weave. The virus that initiates the story originates in the Republic of Georgia but spreads rapidly in two respects: those infected develop symptoms within hours and are dead within two days; and, in an interconnected world, it is transmitted around the globe before most people are even aware that this disease in a distant land threatens their country. In Toronto, where the novel is initially set, chaos breaks out in the first 24 hours as hospitals are overwhelmed, parents fail to return home to their children and the mobile phone networks become congested. Within a few days, the familiar presenters on the television news networks disappear, to be replaced by whoever is still able to staff the office. Within a fortnight, the networks are off air. In short order, the electricity grid collapses as the staff needed to operate it die off; with it goes the internet, eliminating at a stroke the world’s knowledge. Motor transport becomes impossible and, before long, the surviving population settles in whatever locations they had reached when the plague took hold (for one group, a provincial airport to which their plane had been diverted) or to which they can travel on foot.

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January
13
2017

Vogel Wakefield: the movie

 

We often get asked, “What’s it like to work with you?” So we’ve attempted to answer that question in this video, showcasing our work in universities.

Thanks to contributors Professor Frank Finlay, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Leeds, and Katherine Bond, Director of the Cultural Institute at King’s College London. And to our friends at the production company, Impact Video.

December
23
2016

The oblique path to a better way

 

This is the third of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 2 discussed the challenge of self-leadership to preserve ones values and imagine a better future.

In imagining a future that is better than demagoguery and despotism, we need to be patient with ourselves. The Brexiteers and the Trumpistas offer beguilingly simple plans. Our reticence is founded on the realisation that things are more complex. It is not a sign of ignorance but wisdom that the way out of this mess is not immediately apparent. We will reach the higher ground through persistent but adaptive intent – or, as John Kay would have it, by taking the path of obliquity:

“In obliquity, there are no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes. Oblique problem solvers do not evaluate all available alternatives: they make successive choices from a narrow range of options. Effective decision makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations. Problem solving is iterative and adaptive, rather than direct.”

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December
22
2016

Navigating dark times

Boo 2 Brexit

 

This is the second of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 1 explored the anxiety that political upheaval can evoke.

I am not in denial about Brexit. I am an enthusiast for the intent of the European Union, to work together to overcome nationalism and avoid war, but not for its sclerotic inability to reform itself. I accept that, for now, the Government is obliged to try to make Brexit happen. I could see some opportunity in this if Britain and its European partners were able to enter into negotiations fully engaged in understanding what the Brexit vote has to say to both sides.

But I am alarmed that leaders in public office are conniving with the populist mood to shut down collaborative enquiry as to what Brexit could be. Instead of bringing the nation together in common endeavour, the Prime Minister aligns with those who shout down any expression of scepticism and who inflame fears that the referendum result might be subverted.

I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the status quo ante. It’s long been our contention here at Vogel Wakefield that the socio-economic settlement of the past three or four decades has broken down and we are in the midst of an inter-regnum. The existing order suffered a collapse of trust after the financial collapse. Not just the banks but organisations of all descriptions and across sectors were revealed to be dysfunctional and self-serving. The system as a whole was seen to have been reconfigured around the interests of crony capitalism.

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December
21
2016

Dark times ahead?

Brexshit

 

Since the result of the Brexit referendum, nearly six months ago, I have found it hard to write. I spend too much time reading about developments and not enough time ordering my thoughts. As a consequence, this blog post covers a lot of ground and will be split into three parts.

But there’s a more subtle reason for my writer’s block: my mood swings. This month, watching the Supreme Court display Britain’s constitution working properly, I’ve been able to think that we might find a way through the challenges ahead with good sense and collegiality. But having seen – amid the broader global context of political upheaval – the intolerant and hysterical reaction to the earlier High Court ruling on Article 50, I experience a foreboding about what the Brexit vote might unleash.

I don’t think I’m alone. The foreboding extends beyond the cosmopolitan bubble I inhabit in London. I see it the eyes of visitors from northern cities. I heard it amid the chat of scores of More United supporters who turned up from far afield to campaign in the Richmond Park by-election for openness and tolerance.

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December
09
2016

Universities and public value

I have a blog post at the higher education website, Wonkhe, discussing the lessons universities can learn from the BBC’s experience with public value:

“On the face of it, the higher education sector is in a weaker position than the BBC. It has to overcome the disadvantage of its fragmentation to present a robust voice to policy makers and the wider public. Compared with other sectors, it has enjoyed a good financial settlement through austerity – but at what cost? The marketisation and commodification of education and research have proved an anathema to many working the sector.

“As universities contemplate the gulf between themselves and the public that Brexit has revealed, public value thinking could help them get closer to their communities and articulate purposes that the public would get behind. This in turn could help diffuse tension between academics and managers, if managerialism were mobilised in the service of a project that academics might find more inspiring. Clarity of purpose would allow for greater differentiation between universities – research-intensives, balanced, teaching-focussed – and, more importantly, provide a more robust foundation for dealing with government and the new regulator, the OfS, as we enter the Brexit-era.”

Read the full post at Wonkhe.

 

September
30
2016

Leading mindfully is a radical challenge to corporate orthodoxy

meditating

 

Book review: Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair

I sometimes wonder whether we have reached peak mindfulness in the corporate world. So widely discussed – apparently embraced by banks, Google, the US Army – yet so hard to integrate into organisational culture. Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair at first looks like a contribution to the bandwagon. But it is, in fact, a profoundly subversive exposition of the philosophy of leadership. It takes us to places that aren’t routinely part of the discourse of management theory: the role of the senses, the pursuit of happiness, the erotic dimension of leadership. In its evocative depiction of what leading with integrity looks like, it highlights the malpractice inherent in leadership as we know it in most organisational contexts. Reading it before and after the Brexit referendum, I also found in the book insights on how Britain finds its way through the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead.

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July
11
2016

How to lead in chaos

York Against Brexit Rally

York Against Brexit Rally

 

Two weeks on and we’d better get used to the sense of bewilderment and drift. Unless the Conservative Party revises its plans, there’ll be no political leadership in this country till September. The vacuum in opposition politics could well outlast Labour’s leadership contest. Even once we have functioning political parties, the work will only just be beginning. Unraveling the implications of the Brexit vote will last years. Building new strategies, negotiating new trade dispensations, embedding new institutional arrangements, tackling social justice: these projects will last many years. Uncertainty – more than that, unknowability – is the environment in which all organisations now operate.

For those working in organisations, an urgent question is how to lead in this chaos. There’s a lot to play for. Those who can shake off despondency and find their ground, without succumbing to false certainty, can play an important role in shaping a positive outcome. As I said in my previous post, this is a time for distributed leadership: for individuals to step up to influence their colleagues. But what does this mean in practice?

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July
03
2016

Who will lead us from this chaos?

Your Country Needs You

 

My blog post last week, on the social fracturing that led to Brexit, has resonated with many readers. On every day since it was published, the piece has attracted more traffic to the site than we would normally see in a week. It speaks, I think, not just to the anxiety about what the vote has revealed about our nation but also to another anxiety about the contribution to that state of affairs made by the organisations of which we are part.

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June
29
2016

David Hockney at the Royal Academy

Hockney

 

David Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, is a welcome respite from the bewilderment and despondency of Brexit-Britain.

The exhibition consists of a series of portraits that Hockney began on returning to Los Angeles after the untimely death of one of his studio assistants. In his grief, he lost his purpose and motivation. The series charts, therefore, his turning back to life and a gradual healing. The first portrait is of another of his studio staff, head down in anguish. He appears again towards the end of the series – two years later – more open, engaged and accepting. The series as a whole has a similar trajectory. Hockney begins with busyness and disharmony in the backgrounds but these give way to calmer backdrops, the better to study the people before him.

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