Miscellany: narcissism, storytelling and more

By Martin Vogel

Narcissus by Caravaggio

An unrelated assortment of pieces could each have prompted a blog post. But since it’s been a busy week, I’ll note them in passing.

Corporate purpose and organisational form

John Kay, apropos the Co-op debacle, provides a timely back to basics primer on who should be held to account and how when things go wrong in organisations:

“The public company has become the dominant form of business organisation because it seems to offer clear answers to these questions. Shareholders put up the money and control the executives. True, the reality often falls short. Shareholders are often diffuse and disengaged. The cost of bad business decisions may fall instead on employees, creditors and taxpayers. But, on balance, the corporate form works tolerably well.”

But that’s not the end of the argument because John Kay makes the good point that there are many hybrid organisations – such as privatised utilities, hospitals and universities – that need to develop distinctive frameworks of control because they combine trading and social purposes.

This raises an interesting question about the relationship between organisational form and corporate purpose. Given the critique of “socially useless” capitalism that has developed since the financial crash, hybrid organisations are worth studying for what they can tells us about the ways in which commercial enterprise and social purpose can be successfully combined. The oft-praised model of the John Lewis Partnership shows how a business can do well by empowering and respecting staff and focussing on long-term growth. It’s possible to achieve this in public companies too, as the example of Unilever demonstrates – as does Apple, whose chief executive recently called on climate change sceptics to consider disinvesting in Apple if they were concerned that sustainability initiatives could damage profitability.

Storytelling in organisations

The FT’s business commentator, Andrew Hill – responding to an in-house interview by the new chief executive of Microsoft – offered a critique of corporations’ attempts to draw on the techniques of storytelling to make their communciations more resonant:

“There is a risk the corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves.

“A story, as all the manuals will tell you, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Writers always plot out stories before they tell them; they know what is going to happen to the hero. But business, unlike fiction, remains inherently unpredictable – however easy it is for ghostwriters and biographers to recast a successful business leader’s life after the event as a tale of obstacles overcome and goals reached.”

These are sound points. However, the interest in narrative techniques in corporate environments was a sensible corrective to the excessively quantitative and model-driven discourse that has become the norm in business. To the extent that storytelling prompts leaders to pay more attention to the qualitative and emotional aspects of organisational life, it can make leadership communication less dry and alientating. There is always the risk of glib storytelling itself becoming an alienating approach. But, as management becomes increasingly data-driven, it’s as well to remember the enduring value of compelling narratives.

To thy own self be true

And finally to a defence of narcissism in the era of the selfie. The Economist reviews Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love by the philosophy writer, Simon Blackburn:

“A sense of self is a precious thing, he argues, and he reminds us what a disaster it is to lose it – to dementia, for example. Although self-consciousness can be debilitatingly intense, as in adolescence, the lack of it has its perils too, not just for propriety but for morality… Sometimes, he writes, it is plain that the balance between self-interest and a proper concern for others has been seriously upset. For him, a clear example of this is ‘the ‘greed is good’ culture that spread across banks and boardrooms in the last thirty years’.”

It sounds an interesting book. I’m often struck how people lose their sense of self in organisations. In coaching, the first task is very often to help people reconnect with who they are. On one reading, the ‘greed is good’ culture could be considered the product of excessive self-regard. On another, it could be a symptom of people losing themselves – in the sense of becoming disconnected from the social fabric in which one’s self is rooted. I’ve heard it said more than once that a prime driver for change in the finance sector is the dawning awareness of pariah status when banking directors and their spouses attend dinner parties.

Image courtesy Wikimedia.