Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

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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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
27
2016

Morbid symptoms that precipitated Brexit

gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is easily the most cataclysmic political development of my lifetime. I have spent the last days stunned and despondent; absorbing the news more than making sense of it.

Although I count myself thoroughly European, it was not a foregone conclusion that I would vote Remain. It is self-evident that the EU, as an institution, is ossified and dysfunctional, incapable of addressing the seismic challenges it faces with the Euro or of mustering an effective humanitarian response to the refugees arriving at its borders. Conceived to heal division, the EU has become a wrecker of social democracy that has engendered extreme right-wing politics across the continent.

Such concerns did not persuade me, though, of the prospectus for leaving. That Britain’s economic interests lie in being part of the EU is a no-brainer. A bigger consideration for me was the case for staying engaged in Europe’s conversation, trying to keep it’s project for co-operation on the road. As the referendum campaign unfolded, the xenophobia and hatred stirred up by the Brexiteers dispelled any notion that there might be a decent argument for leaving.

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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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May
15
2015

After the General Election, the forthcoming politics of organisation

It doesn’t have to be like this: the politics of organisation, circa 1984.

 

Earlier this year, I attended a talk at the RSA by Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Laloux was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped after reading his book. But what has stayed with me also was a throwaway comment by Matthew Taylor, chairman of the RSA and former advisor to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Reflecting on the paucity of organisational life, Matthew observed that we need a politics of organisation. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what we need and, at last, people are beginning to get it.

The politics of organisation was, of course, one of many absences in the General Election campaign. One of the successes of three decades of neo-liberalism is that what happens inside organisations has been ruled out of court for politicians. But at the same time, organisations – particularly private corporations – have become increasingly central to how our society is, well, organised. Most of us work in large organisations to earn our living and, with the hollowing out of the state, depend on them for the delivery of our public services. And what is left of life is increasingly mediated by the likes of banks that are too big to fail, food retailers whose chains extend from the convenience shop to the out-of-town megastore, and global internet businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. How we experience them as employees and consumers and how they impact on society in general are among the most significant influences on our lives.

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March
21
2015

Apple Watch: how the quantification of life assists managerialism

Apple Watch blackSimon Western has ruined my eager anticipation of the Apple Watch (launching late next month, pre-orders from 10th April). In a profound and reflective piece, he discusses how the Watch (as opposed to the humble watch) represents the latest and most decisive step towards the creation of a neurotic age.

Key to this argument is the insight that technology is not simply an appendage to human life but changes what it is to be human. As Simon Western says, we are so affectively attached to the brands and products of the technology companies that they become a part of our emotional, physical and cognitive being. Apple is foremost in facilitating this attachment – with its celebrated competence in combining the disciplines of arts, humanities, science and technology in the service of the development of products to die for. But it is far from alone, as exemplified by the signal obssessions of our day: monitoring of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email; the pre-eminence of collecting selfies above experiencing life; or the quantifying of one’s lifestyle.

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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
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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