A Holocaust story and its relevance today

Ostrava Nesselroth passage

I’ve been reading the story of how a liberal, prosperous community succumbs to nationalism and xenophobia. In relatively short order, it descends into violence and murder as democracy and the rule of law collapse. Ultimately, it is transformed from a progressive centre of enterprise and culture into a backwater. Its Jewish community is wiped out.

This is the story of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and the rise and fall of its Jewish community. It’s also the story of my father and scores like him who managed to escape the fate of the overwhelming majority of Ostrava Jews and establish lives for themselves elsewhere.

Ostrava and Its Jews by David Lawson, Libuše Salomonovičová and Hana Šústková is a labour of love that pieces together a picture of the community from archival records alongside the testimony of survivors. It represents in microcosm, a rich and detailed portrait of European Jewish life and its relationship with wider society before the Holocaust swept it all aside.

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Time for a break

Another Advent Calendar of blogposts comes to an end. Thank you for following. I hope you’ve found something worth reading here over the past 24 days. I’ve tried to leaven my tendency to the dyspeptic with more constructive fare. The Nick Cave post has been the most popular of the series. He has a discerning fan base who seem to find their way to Nick Cave related corners of the internet quite quickly. Unplanned, the series began and ended with reflections on accessing one’s whole self. Significant, perhaps, that I didn’t get round to writing about my own experience with this until the end of the run.

I’m taking a break from blogging now to make my overdue contribution to the festive preparations. I will resume posting in the new year, but not on a daily basis. Have an enjoyable break. Happy Christmas, happy holidays, however and whatever you celebrate.

Advent Calendar blogposts

  1. On bringing your whole self to work
  2. The benefits of dual nationality
  3. The serious business of playing the fool
  4. From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching
  5. Feeback without tears
  6. Nick Cave as coach
  7. Embrace boredom
  8. Messages from history for Brexit Britain
  9. Shaping disaffection is the way to mend broken politics
  10. Taking the pulse of an organisation
  11. Why write?
  12. England’s shame
  13. Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity
  14. Generating expansive conversations with open space
  15. A moderate proposal
  16. The leaders we create
  17. Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations
  18. The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity
  19. We’re better than this
  20. Britain’s duff leadership culture
  21. Grounds for optimism
  22. On getting it wrong
  23. Exploring voice
  24. Time for a break

Image courtesy Marilylle Soveran .

Exploring voice

One of the most stirring encounters that I experienced this year was a one-hour lesson with Nadine George on discovering your voice. Nadine has been teaching voice for thirty years to actors, directors and other creative types. According to her website:

“Having spent eight years researching the voice at the University of Birmingham Drama Department, Nadine has developed her own voice technique. She now works closely with many international theatre companies and drama schools all over Europe. She has been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland for the past 20 years, where her work is now the chosen technique taught by the Centre for Voice In Performance.”

What was I doing there? A good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I was sent to Nadine by my wife who had previously trained with Nadine, and who had an instinct that I’d find the lesson rewarding.

Her method is in a lineage that descends from Alfred Wolfsohn via Roy Hart. These were not names that meant much to me before this year. Suffice to say this is not an entirely performance-based tradition of voice work. Wolfsohn suffered shell shock during the First World War and used vocalising as a form of self-treatment after other therapies failed to help. While Nadine does not claim to be a therapist, she recognises that her work has therapeutic impacts.

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On getting it wrong

At its edges, the world of coaching is influenced by memes that originate in new age thinking. This isn’t entirely to be deprecated. Coaching’s porousness to diverse influences helps make it adaptive and less susceptible to the orthodoxy that eventually stifles professions. But occasionally an idea threatens to break through that needs to be stamped on if we are to maintain rigorous foundations for our work.

One such that I have encountered this year is the comforting notion that “you can’t get it wrong”. I think this translates as: “Don’t worry about messing up – there’s no single right way to do something, so just go ahead and imagine that the way you are doing it will meet the exigencies of the situation.”

I have come across this in relation to the practice of mindfulness and with respect to how to practice as a coach or supervisor. Before long, this kind of thinking will be infecting organisations and letting leaders off the hook for all sorts of things. The idea has a beguiling appeal and sounds like it’s in the same terrain as constructs that are helpful to dealing with a complex world. But, in fact, it’s opposed to them.

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Grounds for optimism

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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Britain’s duff leadership culture

The challenge of bringing fresh and adaptive leadership in a complex and volatile world is a global problem. But an insightful analysis by The Economist highlights distinctly British dimensions:

“Britain’s leadership crisis is rooted in the evolution of the old establishment into a new political class. This evolution has been widely hailed as a triumph of meritocracy over privilege, and professionalism over amateurism. In fact, the new political class has preserved many of the failures of the old establishment. It is introverted and self-regarding, sending its members straight from university to jobs in the Westminster village, where they marry others of their kind. It relies on bluff rather than expertise, selecting those trained in blaggers’ subjects like PPE and slippery professions like public relations and journalism (Mr Cameron worked in PR before going into politics, whereas Mr Gove and Mr Johnson, along with his brother, another Tory MP, were hacks).

“At the same time, the political class has abandoned one of the virtues of the old establishment. The old ruling class preserved a degree of gentlemanly self-restraint. Senior politicians left office to cultivate their gardens and open village fetes. The new political class, by contrast, is devoid of self-restraint, precisely because it thinks it owes its position to personal merit rather than the luck of birth. Thus meritocracy morphs into crony capitalism. Tony Blair has amassed a fortune since leaving office and George Osborne, Mr Cameron’s former chancellor of the exchequer, is following eagerly in his footsteps.”

The attitude described here infects leadership well beyond the sphere of politics. The Financial Times has described the rewards extracted by the top brass of the Crossrail project – where private sector executives have used a governance structure designed to limit political meddling to extract handsome rewards, despite failing to deliver the project this year as promised:

“The deal gave Crossrail’s bosses great freedom so long as they lived within their budget. They took full advantage, paying themselves handsomely. When (departing chief executive) Mr Wolstenholme left this year, he received £765,689, including a £160,000 bonus, and £97,000 for ‘loss of employment’, despite numerous signs that the project was unravelling. The previous year, he banked £950,000, including a £481,460 bonus.”

Duff leadership is a problem not just because it has adverse impacts on the issues it is trying to manage. The self-aggrandisement of the chumocracy combined with its ineptitude undermines people’s belief in change and thus their motivation to engage. Perhaps this accounts for the strange inertia as the country heads towards the possibility of a car-crash Brexit.

We need a revolution of distributed leadership. Looking to the elite to empower activists is a waste of time. People of initiative need to come together in self-organising common cause to brush aside the narcissists whose reign has failed.

Image courtesy Miguel Bruna.

We’re better than this

So the Government’s plans for the end of free movement are revealed. Sajid Javid speaks of Britain being open for business. But, in an angry thread on Twitter, Ian Dunt nails the true significance of the measure:

And of Labour’s complicity with Government policy, he says:

I find the anti-immigrant sentiment depressing, the more so when dressed up in liberal rhetoric. Britain doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a positive story of our experience of immigration. If politicians won’t speak up for it, we still have The Proclaimers.

The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity

Robert Conquest’s claim that “every organisation behaves as if it is run by secret agents of its opponents” seems outlandish at first glance. But if you allow yourself to reject the fake news, bullshit (non)sense-making that most organisations try to impose on us, it’s hard not to keep stumbling into the truth of Conquest’s law.

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Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations

The more it is cited, the more frustrated I become about “Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics” which is said to state:

The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The aphorism strikes me as so profound and relevant that I have often tried to verify its attribution. Conquest was a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, so his opinions on the politics of organisations carry considerable credibility.

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The leaders we create

It’s a cliché of politics to say that we get the leaders we deserve. If that’s true, it begs the question: what have we done to deserve the myopic and divisive leadership that has taken us to the precipice of chaos? A clutch of articles looking at Britain from the outside provide some answers.

The Economist considers how Britain’s European allies are looking on with bemusement at its collective nervous breakdown. For them, it’s not just that they are losing a close partner but also grieving the loss of an idea of what Britain represents. No longer sensible and reliable but a country revealed to be as chaotic and headstrong as any other:

“The biggest worry is not that the world’s view of Britain is changing. It is that this darker view of Britain is more realistic than the previous one. The Brexit vote could almost have been designed to reveal long-festering problems with the country: an elite educational system that puts too much emphasis on confidence and bluff and not enough on expertise; a political system that selects its leaders from a self-involved Oxbridge clique; a London-focused society that habitually ignores the worries of the vast mass of British people; and a Conservative Party that promotes so many pompous mediocrities. The reason Brexit is doing so much damage is not just that it is a mistake. It is a reckoning.”

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