How to lead in chaos

By Martin Vogel

york against brexit
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?

A prerequisite is to recognise the new reality and accept it. I don’t mean, by this, accept the result and move on. The referendum wasn’t a football match or even a General Election. What it means is unclear. It’s evident that the politics of the result are in play. It’s anyone’s guess what the settled will of the British people will turn out to be once the options for Brexit are fleshed out. But there will be no returning to the status quo ante. The result has changed everything already. The Europe we voted to leave no longer exists: it’s losing its second biggest economy, a powerful voice for economic liberalism and its bridgehead to the Anglosphere. It is debating whether to respond by becoming more centralised and politically integrated or to acknowledge widespread Euroscepticism by changing course: either way, it won’t be the same. Whatever relationship we eventually reach with the EU, we will be viewed by our fellow Europeans with less trust and the ease of cultural exchange that we have enjoyed will become more inhibited. Europeans who live and work here are reconsidering their futures in what they perceive to be a less welcoming environment. Britain’s academics are already experiencing some disruption to their research collaboration with European peers. The temporary migrant workers on whom British agriculture relies to pick the produce for our dinner tables are already turning away because the slump in the value of the pound means they can get a better income elsewhere.

Looking more broadly, the vote probably marks the high watermark of globalisation. At stake now is how to preserve openness and internationalism as nations respond to the demand for greater internal cohesion. If corporations repeat the 2008 mistake of responding to crisis with more of the same, they risk provoking more extreme convulsions than we have just experienced.

Recognising these realities can help find our bearings. But it’s important not to mistake recognising reality for confidence about how it will play out. The variables are so numerous and moving so fast that it’s almost impossible to predict relationships between cause and effect: the very definition of chaos, as I pointed out last week. The contradictions between the different visions for Brexit – a buccaneering trading nation, open for business; or a closed economy that substantially curtails immigration – may be irreconcilable. As Alex Marsh has reflected, it’s hard to imagine any scenario that doesn’t disappoint Brexit voters and possibly lead to civil unrest. Even if an intellectually plausible strategy for Brexit can be conceived, there are real doubts about the capacity of the British state to execute. The Government is badly lacking in capability for trade negotiations and has negligently run down diplomatic capability (£). Across Whitehall, the normal business of government (challenging enough at the best of times) will be a second-order priority to disentangling Europe from the modus operandi.

This is an unsettling prospect for businesses and organisations, which traditionally look to government to provide stability, continuity and hence predictability. There’s a management fiction that organisations are somehow separate from the political and social context. But, in fact, corporations have been protagonists in shaping the environment which has seen a race to the bottom in employment conditions and the withdrawal of significant private sector employment from large parts of the country. Public sector bodies have often colluded with a managerialism that shows more dexterity for organisational survival than delivering public service outcomes.

It’s time now for public leadership. With government capacity over-extended, businesses and organisations will need to play a much more constructive role in constituting society and promoting its cohesion. This will happen only if people within them – at whatever level and in whatever function – begin to ask penetrating questions. They need to promote an emergent, conversational culture in which the organisation asks itself – as part of its day-to-day operations – what kind of society it wants to help emerge from this juncture, and what impact its operations will have on bringing this about. Beyond the necessary economic metrics of success, what are the social purposes that the organisation exists to support?

The individuals who exercise leadership will be those who can realise influence by working with others through networks. Rather than working the formal hierarchy, which moves slowly, they will build alliances informally (within and beyond the organisation). They’ll initiate experiments, optimising whatever resources and authority they can deploy to explore what small difference they can effect on behalf of the organisation. They’ll build on successes to garner more support and attempt more ambitious interventions. They’ll curtail failures quickly, learning as they move on. By promoting a conversation that tests constantly the organisation’s contribution to solving society’s problems, by experimenting and building networks of influence, these leaders will contribute to developing an adaptive culture that will evolve through practice a more socially relevant way of doing business.

At this stage of the game, what is needed is not definitive answers but space to explore a broader range of questions about corporate purpose. Anyone in the organisation can contribute to creating this space by being the one who insists on asking those questions. Scenarios of the future are more important than preconceptions about the present – an openness to the variety of different ways the current crisis could play out, and thinking through options for how the organisation might respond to each. It’s important that the appetite of business for stability doesn’t fuel demands for hasty resolution of the uncertainty around Brexit. The long-term interest of the country is in taking its time to find a way through that heals the divisions.

To adopt this enquiring and emergent approach is not just a responsible way for organisations to contribute to filling the vacuum of leadership. For individuals to lead in this way is also a psychologically sound way to ground themselves through upsetting and uncertain times. Oliver Burkeman makes the point in relation to those contemplating social activism, but it applies equally to corporate activists:

“Don’t kid yourself that you will single-handedly eradicate nationwide or global problems; instead, define and pursue small-scale goals, like joining a campaign with some connection to the issues that trouble you the most. Focus on activities you enjoy: these will be much easier to sustain. And there is certainly some relief in attending to your own wellbeing. Exercise, sleep, time spent in nature, meditation and socialising are all proven paths to increased happiness; they’re cliches, but only because they really work – and it isn’t self-indulgent to make time for them. Paradoxically, it’s through taking action, despite not feeling happy about the situation, that a deeper kind of happiness can arise.”

It helps, as Simon Western has observed, to maintain a sense of perspective:

“Don’t forget the real crisis is in Syria and other warzones and millions of displaced and fleeing refugees. Worrying about stocks and shares is in a different league to having to choose to put your family in a leaking boat, risking life of your children with no idea of what the future holds.”

But, in acknowledging that there are plenty whose life chances are more precarious than ours, it’s important not to belittle our predicament. Britain’s relative stability in comparison to places like Syria beguiles us into a false sense of security. Having just rejected the arrangements and values that have governed the economy and society these past decades, we have unleashed unsustainable hopes and unattractive passions. It’s precisely the things that underwrite that stability – like democracy, social justice and the rule of law – that now hang in the balance. We all need to pay attention and do our bit to guide ourselves carefully to a tolerable outcome.

Image courtesy Peter Lambert.