Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

June
10
2014

The hard path of the whistleblower: apropos An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS

Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS

 

Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy is not only a cracking read but a psychological study in the gathering courage of a whistleblower in an organisation gone to bad.

It tells the story of the Dreyfus affair – the wrongful conviction and incarceration for spying of a Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. It is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, a spy chief who is both a party to the downfall of Dreyfus and a prime mover in the uncovering of Dreyfus’s framing by the military establishment.

Much of the power of the narrative derives from the fact that Picquart is a reluctant whistleblower. The youngest colonel in the army, he has a great career ahead of him. Moreover, he shares the casual anti-semitism of his age and has no great sympathy for Dreyfus. Nonetheless, when he discovers evidence that implicates a different officer, Esterhazy, in the spying for which Dreyfus was blamed, he cannot ignore the injustice and assumes his senior officers will think likewise.

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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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February
06
2013

Purpose and values in the NHS

NHS

 

It was only last month that we were asked whether a hospital, of all things, would ever need to consider its purpose and values. To those outside the NHS, it is self-evident that a hospital exists to treat people’s health problems and to save lives. Yet today both Robert Francis QC and the Prime Minister have dispelled any notion that the NHS can currently be trusted to deliver such a purpose.

Introducing the final report of his inquiry into the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal, Robert Francis spoke of an NHS trust that “put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety.”  Responding to the report, David Cameron condemned “a focus on finance and figures at the expense of patient care” in the culture of the NHS.

The facts of the Mid Staffordshire scandal were already established, in part by Robert Francis’s earlier inquiry but also thanks to the campaigning efforts of relatives of some of the hundreds of patients who needlessly died because of negligent and inhumane “care”.

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October
25
2012

Jimmy Savile and tacit knowledge: what the past can teach us about the present

A different era?

 

The Jimmy Savile scandal is a textbook example of wilful blindness. It viscerally underlines the necessity for leaders to  free up tacit knowledge in their organisations.

The BBC is not alone in facing questions about how it allowed a predatory paedophile to conduct a career of child sexual abuse stretching over decades – apparently to the knowledge of colleagues around him. The NHS, the police, sundry care homes and approved schools among others also have to account for apparent failures in their duty of care. But the BBC holds a special responsibility, having provided the platform upon which Savile built his celebrity as a family entertainer and sustained his powerful influence over vulnerable people. Such is (or was) the trust in the BBC that the halo effect it conferred over Savile possibly encouraged others to drop their guard.

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September
05
2012

Two questions and a good answer: a simple proposal for an ethical renewal of business

Thinking about why as well as how.

You’d think that the more protracted the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis become the more willing we would be to ask searching questions about its root causes. Sadly, this seems not to be so. In much public discourse, there is an often unspoken assumption that if only we could sort out the banks, fix the Euro and correct global trading imbalances we could all happily return to the days of uninterrupted growth.

It’s therefore welcome to find – in the shape of Will Morris, current chairman of the CBI’s taxation policy committee and Global Director of Tax Policy at GE – one senior business figure who acknowledges that things have gone wrong at a pretty fundamental level. And it’s even more welcome that he’s come up with a solution that is both simple and elegant. Sadly, his paper Not Just How but Why – which was published by Reform earlier this summer – has received precious little attention, which rather underlines my point.

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July
05
2012

Dysfunctional banking cultures: what they need is servant leadership

How do you set right a corporate culture beset with “systematic dishonesty” – as Barclays has been described by its former chief executive, Martin Taylor?

The scandal at Barclays over its rigging of financial markets seems to represent a turning point which will require all banks to take a long, deep look at how the ways in which they operate may contradict the public interest. Were we not already in the worst financial crisis in living memory, the computer failure at RBS – which has prevented customers accessing their money and is still ongoing at Ulster Bank – would count as a monumental banking failure in its own right, evidence itself of the incompetence, negligence and greed that over many years has overwhelmed an ethos of stewardship at the major banks. On top of that, came news last week that the big four banks had committed serious failings in their mis-selling of interest rate hedges to small and medium-sized businesses

Small wonder that the Governor of the Bank of England has described the banks as “shoddy” and “deceitful”. Or that the Director-General of the Institute of Directors has said the banks “should feel deep shame for the damage they have done”.

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