Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

December
12
2017

The politics of being apolitical

Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.

This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.

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December
02
2017

Networked populism: the defining leadership style of our era

New model leaders?

New model leaders?

 

If, as I wondered in my earlier post, eco-leader is not the defining leadership discourse of our age, then what is?

If you look at the actually existing leadership narratives that are currently to the fore, you might label the dominant discourse networked-populist rather than eco-leader.

Trump and Farage are its most eloquent symbols. Both worked outside established structures, with seemingly outlandish agendas which, against the odds, they brought to fruition using networks of influence. (Jeremy Corbyn shows similar characteristics – though, in his case, the mastery of networks that brought him to prominence seemed to be his backers’ rather than his own.)

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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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November
11
2016

Universities must define which market they are in

Universities of East London and Oxford

Universities of East London and Oxford

Like it or not (and assuredly, many don’t) universities exist in an increasingly marketised environment. Current, proposed changes to the sector bring all this in to sharp focus. The new regulatory regime set out in the current Higher Education and Research Bill is particularly significant here. The introduction of the TEF means that for the first time universities will be assessed on the quality of their teaching, as well as that of their research. This is going to put some universities in the Russell Group in particular in a very challenging position. Such has been the status accorded to research over teaching (something actively encouraged by government policy up until now) that many universities have cross-subsidised their research from the fees they earn from teaching. For how much longer can that go on, or to the extent that it has? Faced with not being rated “Gold” for teaching and losing the fees that go with it, will some universities be able to afford to cross-subsidise? And if not, what happens to their research rankings?

What’s more, universities are set to face yet more competition for students. Already some continental universities (Maastricht is a good example) are actively courting the British market. Further down the line the challenger institutions envisaged in the current Higher Education Bill could present a real competitive threat – particularly, if as seems likely, they innovate in terms of the flexibility they offer students.

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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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April
25
2016

Cut ego down to size in leadership

audrelorde

How can we presume to lead until we understand from where we’ve come?

 

Book review: Leadership for the Disillusioned by Amanda Sinclair

Amanda Sinclair published Leadership for the Disillusioned in 2007, shortly before the financial crisis that has done more than anything in my lifetime to undermine public trust in corporate leadership. It’s telling that the most resonant example she cites of leadership that chips away at our illusions is the collapse in 2001 of the energy company, Enron. The most resonant corporate scandal of its time, the Enron affair could nonetheless be explained away at the time as an isolated if grand case of fraud that didn’t call into question the contemporary view of corporate leadership as a largely benign practice that broadly benefits society. Since the banking crash, our social system has become more widely perceived as governed by an ideology of corporate self-interest that nearly brought society to its knees and continues to serve the enrichment of a tiny minority. Throw in (to name a few UK examples) the phone hacking scandal, the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal and the Jimmy Savile scandal and, if there were grounds for disillusion in 2007, there is widespread acceptance now that leadership as traditionally construed faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Sinclair’s book brings home the extent to which corporate thinking shapes how we view leadership. We’re culturally attuned to a managerialist model that construes leadership as invested in figures of formal authority at the apex of hierarchies. Leaders are action-oriented and ego-driven, their self-regard pumped up by status or absurdly inflated remuneration. The trend towards authenticity in leadership is of a piece with such ego-massaging, encouraging managers to identify themselves with their work role and self-actualise by bending others to their agenda.

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February
29
2016

Tim Cook: public leadership in action

Tim Cook: public leader

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

 

Apple’s showdown with the Obama administration over the latter’s demand that it decrypt the phone of one of the San Bernadine terrorists is a test case in public leadership. The dispute counter-poses the social goods of national security and citizen privacy. The FBI wants the former to trump the latter. Apple is arguing for the two to be held in a more considered balance. What’s interesting from a public leadership perspective is that Apple is taking a considerable risk; it’s by no means clear that things will play out in its favour. This is no mere PR stunt.

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