Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

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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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
10
2016

What has trauma to do with work?

stress

 

Book review: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein

I read The Trauma of Everyday Life to inform my thinking for an event I am helping to organise on trauma in coaching. I hadn’t appreciated before I read the book just how much of a Buddhist take on the subject it would represent. It turns out Mark Epstein, a New York-based psychiatrist, is an established writer on Buddhism and its intersection with psychotherapy. He provides here a psychotherapeutic biography of the Buddha: how the Buddha’s own traumas informed his enlightenment and how this, in turn, shines a light on how best we can cope with difficulty in our lives. This is perhaps more interesting to me than a straight psychotherapeutic discussion. Though no Buddhist, I practice mindfulness. As a matter of philosophical disposition, I find the possibilities it holds out for caring for oneself more appealing than the path that working with an expert therapist offers.

Epstein adopts a broader and looser interpretation of trauma than one normally encounters in psychotherapeutic discussion. He distinguishes between the conventional view of trauma, as confronting a death or serious injury, and developmental trauma, when emotional pain cannot be held. Sometimes, these might converge – for example, Epstein refers to the Buddha’s own developmental emotional pain resulting from the death in his infancy of his mother. But Epstein also views the common difficulties of life through the lens of trauma and refers to the pre-traumatic stress with which we experience the inevitability of death.

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December
04
2015

Trust is not a message, it’s an outcome: the lesson for leaders from a defector from PR

Trust is an outcome.

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, Robert Phillips has ostensibly written a book on the bankruptcy of public relations. It’s more interesting, though, as an insider’s guide to the bankruptcy of much corporate leadership – and, more importantly, a cogent call to arms for leadership that can inspire trust. I say “call to arms” since this is not a manual for leaders of the kind that sells at airport bookstands. It’s more a citizens’ manifesto – stirring us from neoliberal slumber so that we may realise our distributed leadership and haul conventional corporate leaders into the service of a fairer form of capitalism. It’s a foretaste of how leadership must surely evolve to meet the challenges of our more transparent, networked society and the expectations of the Millennial generation who will soon inherit the workforce.

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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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February
13
2015

Coaching: a vocation for our times

Coaches follow in the tradition of shamans.

 

Book review: Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, by Simon Western

Simon Western seeks to challenge and expand our view about what constitutes coaching but, in so doing, he also challenges and expands received wisdom on what it means to be a leader in today’s complex and fast-moving organisations.

Coaching is a young practice, scarcely a profession. On the one hand, it has an inferiority complex in relation to other helping professions, particularly psychotherapy from which it takes much of its sense of good practice. On the other, it is rapidly being colonised by big management consultancies and business schools who recognise coaching’s threat to their turf. Talk of codifying what coaching should be through accreditation and even regulation is a sure sign of vested interests attempting to appropriate ground for themselves.

Western’s book, Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, investigates coaching as it is practised rather than how it is conceptualised in the literature. The strength of this approach is that it resists the tendency to reduce and constrain how coaching is defined. Instead, Western celebrates its diversity – from new age influenced life coaching through to corporate coaching interventions with their solutions-focussed processes and returns on investment.

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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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