Who will lead us from this chaos?

By Martin Vogel


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.

One respondent, who is a psychotherapist, told me:

“I particularly appreciated your points at the end about big business needing to be more sensitive, less voracious, in relation to the contexts in which they operate. However, I fear that that they and the world in general are probably about at least a thousand years off being psychologically and politically mature enough to achieve this – demonstrated most powerfully by the farce of Boris Johnson and his completely narcissistic approach.”

I appreciate the reasons for such sentiment. But the termination of Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions – and the broader convulsions under way in both the main parties – suggest the narcissistic style of politics may, for now, be reaching its limits. It seems likely that business culture too will be convulsed. In my contacts with clients this past week, Brexit has been the uppermost concern. It’s not just that organisations face uncertainty. Relationships and life chances are already being disrupted: expected investments are being called off, European suppliers are pricing more risk into their contracts with UK businesses, British academics are already being rebuffed by those holding European research funds. As one visits organisations, there’s an atmosphere of dislocation: on the surface, people are going about business as usual; but the context is that everything has changed.

Organisations have a huge part to play in how we as a society respond. In my view, that needs to be towards a more socially cohesive way of doing business. But don’t make the mistake of waiting for somebody senior to set the direction – or, worse, of assuming your hands are tied. If ever there was a time for distributed leadership, this is it. In case you haven’t noticed, nobody has a clue what the future holds. So we have to work this out together.

The first thing to understand is what kind of leadership our situation demands. Using Snowden and Boone’s framework, it’s self-evident that the UK and the EU have toppled over into chaos. In chaos:

“The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist – only turbulence.”

Chaos demands that leaders prioritise, above all else, establishing order. You can see this reflected in the demand of some EU politicians that Britain begin the Article 50 process of withdrawal while British politicians establish that this is the one thing that won’t happen quickly. Both sides are trying to establish a point of stability from which to work out.

But the turmoil in our institutional arrangements with our neighbours and partners in Europe is not the only dimension of chaos. At the societal level, we face a crisis of rationality whereby the assumptions which governed our cohesion as a nation have shattered. Will Davies puts this best in describing the corner into which we’ve driven those who have least to lose:

“Put bluntly, many Leave voters suffer from a desperate lack of hope. It may be that exact lack of hope and a desire to harm the system that brought it about that caused them to vote for the referendum. Strange as it may sound, every time pro-Europeans argued that leaving Europe would be economically disastrous, this could have increased the appeal of Brexit on an unconscious level for many people.”

This alienation at the level of communities throughout Britain has been a big driver of the disruption at the national and international level. But if this has turned the political, social and economic environment chaotic, there’s a deceptive sense of continuity in most organisations – where life seems merely complex. This, in itself, presents new risks. Most organisations are in denial about their complexity and operate as if they are complicated machines with predictable inputs and outcomes. If there has been, hitherto, a mismatch between the prevailing leadership style and complex reality, it can only compound matters to continue to apply uniformly the complicated mindset when the world beyond the organisation has turned chaotic. The grounds for optimism may seem flimsy. But let’s try.

While chaos can be frightening, it presents opportunities for influencing things for the better. As the writer on organisations, Margaret Wheatley, has it, chaos serves a function:

“It is in the darkness of chaos that our self-organizing processes, our creativity, comes forth.”

Snowden and Boone concur:

“People are more open to novelty and directive leadership in these situations than they would be in other contexts.”

This does not mean that such leadership must come only from those at the top of the organisational hierarchy. In fact, this is rarely the case. Insofar as the most senior executives may be the individuals at greatest remove from the social fracturing that has contributed to this breakdown, they may be least capable of sensing the way forward. In other organisations, the chief executive may be the one who most appreciates the need for change but can be frustrated by vested interests lower down.

If the creativity we need now is for organisations to act with more consciousness of their integration with society, then that creativity – that leadership – must come in some measure from the edge, from those closest to the organisation’s interactions with the communities in which they operate.

The uncertainty we face will not pass soon. It calls for a new ethos of organisation: one in which public leadership displaces managerialism; where eclecticism and experimentation displace linear thinking and dogmas; where individuals work with others in networks to further ethical purposes instead of being trapped in hidebound silos of instrumentalism.

Don’t be tempted to dismiss these reflections as idealistic fantasy. As Simon Western, one of our best theorists of contemporary leadership, puts it, global corporations already know they need to distribute leadership:

“Their businesses will fail if they don’t manage this task. For without leadership at the edge how can they know what customers desire in this fast changing world? For unless they unleash talent throughout their organisations, how can they expect to compete in a global economy? If global corporations are trying to achieve this, why are not our public/political bodies? Success depends on harnessing the talents of all, of trusting people to take leadership, followership and responsibility. Top-down hierarchy isn’t working anymore in this fast changing networked, globalised, digital society.”

In case you’re wondering who is going to bring this new ethos to life, take a look in the mirror. Remember, everyone is as confused as you. If anyone is going to shape our destiny, it might as well be you. Ask yourself what you want to achieve at work: is your purpose to fulfil some dismal economic metric or is it to contribute to positive outcomes that can help us to heal? Now is the time to set a new direction. You can do it. Don’t wait to be asked.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.