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The betrayal of purpose: reflections inspired by The Lehman Trilogy

Ann Treneman’s review in The Times of The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre concludes: “It ends badly in 2008, of course, but you knew that.” When I read the review, I took this to be a flippant comment. Having seen the play, I realise that her observation is more salient than I grasped. Stefano Massini’s saga runs for nearly three and a half hours in Sam Mendes’ production and only the opening and closing seconds deal directly with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The playwright’s interest is in the preceding century and a half as he interweaves the related threads of the evolution over three generations of the Lehman family from immigrant arrivals to scions of the establishment, the transformation of the company they founded as a shop in Alabama into a dynamo of American capitalism, and the shifting sands of the Lehman family’s relationship to their Jewish heritage. It’s a tale of our times, told from the past.

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The insurgency of decency

The march for a people’s vote on Brexit was a heartwarming occasion with 100,000 radical moderates quietly expressing their outrage with characteristic British understatement, self-deprecation and civility. Unlike the demonstrations of my younger years, there wasn’t a Trotskyist in sight to subvert the decency of protestors to their own ends. For a brief, glorious summer afternoon, it was possible to believe that Britain could find a way through the chaos it has brought upon itself and heal its wounds. People speculated whether the movement would be sufficient to bring about a change in course. I suspect not, at least not in the time left before Brexit is effected as a matter of law.

But in any case, there can be no going back to the world before 23 June 2016. Britain is already changed by the referendum, divided against itself and with the disinvestment plans of major employers at an advanced stage. More pertinently, there are other players in this drama. The EU shows every sign of wanting to cauterise its Brexit wound so that it can turn its attention to more pressing concerns. And the wider outlook for democracy and international solidarity has never looked so precarious in my lifetime. The Brexit referendum result, it turns out, was by no means an outlier but a precursor of a nationalistic and populist impulse which has swept through Western countries. Were we to decide against glorious isolation after all, and advocate once again for the rules-based order, it’s by no means clear that the world would want to listen.

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Engage a coach to save humanity from itself

Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.

This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.

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When it’s time to finish coaching

How to work with a coach, part 10

When is it time to finish coaching? And how do you end the relationship elegantly when you feel it’s time to part company with your coach?

Often, decisions about ending are determined in advance. There’s frequently an understanding that the coaching is a finite arrangement. This is partly philosophical: an assumption (not necessarily valid) that a client risks becoming dependent on their coach. Partly, it’s budgetary: the number of sessions is determined by the funds available. Whatever the reason, your coach will likely have a well-rehearsed model for bringing the coaching to closure.

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If your coaching isn’t going well

How to work with a coach, part 9

Sometimes coaching disappoints. But it’s a sign of the determined positivity that grips much of the coaching business that this isn’t well acknowledged.

As Steven Berglas, a psychiatrist turned executive coach noted in 2002, purveyors of coaching have an interest in inviting prospective clients into a story of readily attainable transformation. Coaching contracts are mostly short-term. This is ripe ground for clients forming misguided expectations of a quick fix. Coaches might reinforce this with an emphasis on behavioural change, the linearity of which defies the complexity of human experience. Because coaches mostly hold to a professional ethos of facilitating a neutral process, they can implicitly absolve themselves of responsibility when the product doesn’t deliver.

How do you know when coaching isn’t working? You might find yourself going through the motions: turning up for the sessions but not really engaging with the endeavour. Or you might be engaging wholeheartedly with the sessions but feeling that the process as a whole is not producing the outcomes you had hoped for.

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I, Tonya shows the role of power in achievements

triple axel

Before Christmas, I wrote a blog post with the title Effort more than talent is the key to achievement. True enough. But how could I have forgotten to mention another critical determinant: power?

Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya – starring Margot Robbie as the American figure skater, Tonya Harding – shows us how power, or the lack of it, can frustrate even the most promising blend of effort and talent.

Tonya Harding had both in spades. She was famously the first American woman to achieve the phenomenally difficult triple axel jump in competition (and only the second in the world). Her skating career came to an end after she was implicated in an attack on her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan. But, as portrayed in the film, this incident arose out of a wider nexus of class and gender relations that had held her back from the outset.

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Your work between coaching sessions

How to work with a coach, part 8

The work you do between coaching sessions is as important as the work you do when you’re with your coach.

Coaching can be conceived as a staging post for the stuff, in the world beyond the sessions, that the client wants to work on. It’s a safe place to try out different ways of being. Coach and client reflect together on what the client brings and might formulate ideas for action. There may be an opportunity to rehearse in the session. But it’s not like learning a musical instrument, where the pupil practises in private before performing publicly on the stage. For the most part, the client practises on stage as they put the ideas into practice directly in their everyday life.

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Working with your coach

How to work with a coach, part 7

How should the working relationship with your coach develop? It’s worth thinking about this if you want to get the most out of your coaching. Clients sometimes take a while to realise that it’s not the best strategy to sit back and let coaching happen to them. Coaching is a two-way street and it pays to lean into it.

Martha Stark, a psychotherapist, has described how there are implicitly three possible models at work in professional helping relationships. Which do you imagine yourself to be in as a coachee?

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Spielberg’s The Post offers a masterclass in public leadership

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee celebrate the court’s decision in 1971 to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Post combines three themes close to my heart: leadership, journalism and power – with an interesting gender dimension overlaying all three.

The film portrays the days in 1971 when the Washington Post faced a dilemma whether to publish leaked material, the Pentagon Papers, showing how successive American presidents had deceived the public about the country’s purpose and prospects in Vietnam. The scoop already belonged to the New York Times. But an opportunity to catch up arose for the Post when Nixon’s government obtained an injunction against the Times, and the Post obtained the material independently.

There have been criticisms that it is perverse of the film-makers to focus on the role of the Post in the the Pentagon Papers affair, when the Times was the bigger player and took the earlier risk. However, that is to misconstrue the drama in which the Pentagon Papers affair is merely the MacGuffin on which hangs a tale of press freedom and gender politics. It is precisely because the Post was the lesser player that it merits attention. It’s the story of how a faltering business, guided by a woman in a male-dominated world, steps into the big league and transforms itself into a pillar of democracy. The whole episode serves as a dress rehearsal for Watergate, when the Post made the running in holding Nixon to account and ultimately brought down his presidency.

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Failure of leadership at Oxfam

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in January 2010.

Oxfam’s sex exploitation scandal (£) is a case study in how easily leaders can trash the reputation of their organisation when, through wilful blindness, they convince themselves that they are acting to protect it.

In a series of articles, The Times has revealed how Oxfam betrayed its purpose to help the vulnerable in Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was a time when the country was devastated, and political authority had all but broken down. Senior aid workers in Haiti were able to seize the opportunity to organise the sexual exploitation of young women – including underage girls – whose desperation in the disaster presumably secured their compliance. There were said to be orgies and the exploitation of underage girls.

On Friday, Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, nauseatingly missed the point when he spoke of “the few” who had not upheld “Oxfam’s or society’s values”. Only, it seems that the few had acted consistently with Oxfam’s values which have been revealed to be duplicitous and self-serving.

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