Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

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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March
11
2016

Leading in complexity

busy street

Be careful out there.

 

I’m not a great one for introducing theoretical models in my work with clients, however much my practice may be informed by theory. One that I frequently reference, though, is the leader’s framework for decision making devised by David Snowden and Mary Boone. This is the clearest and most usable articulation I know of what it means to lead in complex situations.

Snowden and Boone argue that leaders often come unstuck because they misconstrue the nature of the scenario they are dealing with. Typically, often without realising it, they are informed by an ideology of management that likens organisations to machines. So they fall in with expectations that most problems can be subject to linear solutions of command and control. Unfortunately, they are likely to be putting unreasonable pressure on themselves and, ultimately, setting themselves up for failure.

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February
27
2015

Living in truth: Havel’s anti-totalitarian philosophy that remains relevant

Havel

 

Book review: Havel: A Life, by Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský’s biography of Václav Havel is a striking portrait of moral leadership, compromised by office, but all the more admirable for that. Havel was the Czech dissident and suppressed playwright who led his country through one of the world’s few peaceful revolutions to become its first democratic president after the fall of Communism.

I’ve long been interested in Havel, one of the most significant political leaders of my lifetime. But there’s much to sustain the interest of the general reader: not least, the insider account of how the dissheveled, self-effacing Havel and his coterie of artists and intellectuals took office and toured the world, bewitching the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton.

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February
26
2015

In search of a good death

Ronnie's Funeral

Much to take care of before we reach our funeral.

 

Book review: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

I’ve just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I should declare an interest here, facing as I do my 60th birthday this year and having a close relative undergoing treatment for cancer. It is a sobering, important book that is shocking in its critique of the medical profession’s approach to death, made all the more powerful by the author being Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Gawande’s chief concern is with the “medicalisation” of death, a process that identifies death as the great enemy to be denied at every turn, regardless of the cost to the patient. So prevalent is this attitude that, as Gawande makes clear, it’s the patients who are as desperate to deny the inevitability of death as their doctors.

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January
23
2015

A fresh perspective on contemporary capitalism

Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery.

 

Book review: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, by David Harvey.

When I mentioned to people that I was reading a compelling Marxist take on the crisis in capitalism, I was not greeted with the warm curiosity that normally follows the mention of an interesting new book. In fact, most people looked at me as if I had ventured beyond the pale. Stalinism has much to answer for: not least, the blight it has put on open-minded critique of the conditions that prevail in liberal democratic capitalism.

I find this puzzling. Like many, I was sheep-dipped in Marxist analysis at university. Though I flirted with radical left wing politics as a student, having grown up with Czech heritage, I was all too aware of the failures and tyranny of life under what was termed “actually existing Communism”. Long before the European revolutions of 1989, I made my peace with the market economy. But I have retained a lifelong appreciation of the value of critique.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism by David Harvey exemplifies the insight that Marxist critique can still generate. A geographer by background, Harvey appropriates Marxist thinking and makes it his own, bringing a freshness that cuts through the common sense that our marketised, financialised society is the natural order of things.

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December
11
2014

Science in crisis

Tin oxide, viewed through an electron microscope. Science needs to overcome the negativity caused by excessively managerialist justifications of its value.

Tin oxide, viewed through an electron microscope. Science needs to overcome the negativity caused by excessively managerialist justifications of its value.

Last week, acting in my role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill, I introduced Tom McLeish as a guest speaker at a fund raising event. Tom is a polymer Physicist and Pro-Vice Chancellor for research at Durham University. He is also a Lay Reader in the Church of England and has just published a book entitled Faith and Wisdom in Science. Demonstrating an impressive breadth of knowledge, he makes a strong case for both science and theology being disciplines that share, if not the same methods, then at least a fascination with questions concerning the physical world, its structures and processes. The result is a genuinely fresh and positive contribution to the mostly (by now) tedious and sterile science/religion debate.

Beyond this however, one of the things that fascinated me most about Tom’s book was its argument that science is facing a crisis of both meaning and purpose. As he puts it:

“There is a narrative vacuum where the story of science in human relationship with nature needs to be told.”

As an arts graduate, I’m well aware of how the humanities have long been afflicted by the loss of “metanarrative” so celebrated by “post-modern” theorists and which – in my view at least – leads to artistic output that is often as pointless as it is self-referential. That there is such a crisis in science had never occurred to me, which makes me realise how much I’d fallen (unconsciously) for the lazy assumption that science is somehow, of its essence, a “value-free” activity, as if any such activity is ever possible.

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October
24
2014

How all organisations tend to the dysfunctional in their own way

Taylorism: not without its ethical claims.

Taylorism: not without its ethical claims.

 

Book review: A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations by Chris Grey.

A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations by Chris Grey took me back to my roots in sociology. It was a welcome, if disconcerting, journey which made me question whether, even from my critical perspective, I’m too complicit with the orthodoxy of our age.

The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.

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October
23
2014

Judging non-judgment

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All through my professional life, I have cultivated the quality of non-judgment. It’s a foundation of my work as a coach. Yet – as my increasingly trenchant views on this blog attest – I also appreciate space in which to exercise judgment and I facilitate others to do the same. Is it possible to value judgment and non-judgment simultaneously? I think so.

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October
10
2014

The paradigm shift in action

Buurtzorg, a higher level of consciousness in organisational form

Buurtzorg, a higher level of consciousness in organisational form

 

Book review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

In the years since the financial crisis, we’ve honed a conviction here at Vogel Wakefield that the way most businesses and organisations are run is bust. Public distrust has been engendered not just by the financial crash but scandals in sectors as diverse as the health service, the media, supermarkets, the police and Parliament. Such is the depth of distrust that we envisage society eventually breaking decisively with the economic settlement of the past three decades. What the shape of the new consensus will be, who can tell? But the future surely entails profound changes for the way organisations are run. The public wants businesses to exercise greater stewardship of community assets and to operate in a more socially-oriented way.

If this vision sounds nebulous and, frankly, utopian, the exciting thing about Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, is the detailed portrayal it presents of successful companies that are making real today the model of tomorrow. His view of the forces of change is broader than ours. Where we envisage this as a paradigm shift in contemporary capitalism, akin to that from social democracy to neo-liberalism thirty years ago, Laloux sees a fundamental shift in human development, the kind of shift that occurs as human consciousness develops. In this, he draws on the work of Piaget, Robert Kegan and, especially, Ken Wilber.

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June
20
2013

Organisations need outsiders to challenge their dysfunctional narratives

Groupthink is rarely healthy

Groupthink is rarely healthy

 

I’ve been reconnecting with my work on narratives in coaching for a seminar I held this week for a City law firm. I was struck by how the prism of narratives helps us understand the enduring power of organisational cultures that foster corporate scandals – and by the questions this raises for our ethical orientation as coaches.

The problem of dysfunctional organisational cultures just won’t go away. Dysfunction is such an anodyne word, it barely scratches the surface of the harm that is wrought by self-serving organisational cultures. This week we heard how a cover-up at the Care Quality Commission of its own failings in inspecting a hospital in Barrow contributed to the needless deaths of at least eight mothers and babies. An organisation that exists to protect the public interest in health care put protecting its own reputation above the safety of patients.

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