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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The politics of being apolitical

Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.

This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.

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Networked populism: the defining leadership style of our era

New model leaders?
New model leaders?

If, as I wondered in my earlier post, eco-leader is not the defining leadership discourse of our age, then what is?

If you look at the actually existing leadership narratives that are currently to the fore, you might label the dominant discourse networked-populist rather than eco-leader.

Trump and Farage are its most eloquent symbols. Both worked outside established structures, with seemingly outlandish agendas which, against the odds, they brought to fruition using networks of influence. (Jeremy Corbyn shows similar characteristics – though, in his case, the mastery of networks that brought him to prominence seemed to be his backers’ rather than his own.)

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The oblique path to a better way

scapegoat

This is the third of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 2 discussed the challenge of self-leadership to preserve ones values and imagine a better future.

In imagining a future that is better than demagoguery and despotism, we need to be patient with ourselves. The Brexiteers and the Trumpistas offer beguilingly simple plans. Our reticence is founded on the realisation that things are more complex. It is not a sign of ignorance but wisdom that the way out of this mess is not immediately apparent. We will reach the higher ground through persistent but adaptive intent – or, as John Kay would have it, by taking the path of obliquity:

“In obliquity, there are no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes. Oblique problem solvers do not evaluate all available alternatives: they make successive choices from a narrow range of options. Effective decision makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations. Problem solving is iterative and adaptive, rather than direct.”

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Navigating dark times

This is the second of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 1 explored the anxiety that political upheaval can evoke.

I am not in denial about Brexit. I am an enthusiast for the intent of the European Union, to work together to overcome nationalism and avoid war, but not for its sclerotic inability to reform itself. I accept that, for now, the Government is obliged to try to make Brexit happen. I could see some opportunity in this if Britain and its European partners were able to enter into negotiations fully engaged in understanding what the Brexit vote has to say to both sides.

But I am alarmed that leaders in public office are conniving with the populist mood to shut down collaborative enquiry as to what Brexit could be. Instead of bringing the nation together in common endeavour, the Prime Minister aligns with those who shout down any expression of scepticism and who inflame fears that the referendum result might be subverted.

I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the status quo ante. It’s long been our contention here at Vogel Wakefield that the socio-economic settlement of the past three or four decades has broken down and we are in the midst of an inter-regnum. The existing order suffered a collapse of trust after the financial collapse. Not just the banks but organisations of all descriptions and across sectors were revealed to be dysfunctional and self-serving. The system as a whole was seen to have been reconfigured around the interests of crony capitalism.

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Universities must define which market they are in

two-universities
Universities of East London and Oxford

Like it or not (and assuredly, many don’t) universities exist in an increasingly marketised environment. Current, proposed changes to the sector bring all this in to sharp focus. The new regulatory regime set out in the current Higher Education and Research Bill is particularly significant here. The introduction of the TEF means that for the first time universities will be assessed on the quality of their teaching, as well as that of their research. This is going to put some universities in the Russell Group in particular in a very challenging position. Such has been the status accorded to research over teaching (something actively encouraged by government policy up until now) that many universities have cross-subsidised their research from the fees they earn from teaching. For how much longer can that go on, or to the extent that it has? Faced with not being rated “Gold” for teaching and losing the fees that go with it, will some universities be able to afford to cross-subsidise? And if not, what happens to their research rankings?

What’s more, universities are set to face yet more competition for students. Already some continental universities (Maastricht is a good example) are actively courting the British market. Further down the line the challenger institutions envisaged in the current Higher Education Bill could present a real competitive threat – particularly, if as seems likely, they innovate in terms of the flexibility they offer students.

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Leading mindfully is a radical challenge to corporate orthodoxy

meditating

Book review: Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair

I sometimes wonder whether we have reached peak mindfulness in the corporate world. So widely discussed – apparently embraced by banks, Google, the US Army – yet so hard to integrate into organisational culture. Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair at first looks like a contribution to the bandwagon. But it is, in fact, a profoundly subversive exposition of the philosophy of leadership. It takes us to places that aren’t routinely part of the discourse of management theory: the role of the senses, the pursuit of happiness, the erotic dimension of leadership. In its evocative depiction of what leading with integrity looks like, it highlights the malpractice inherent in leadership as we know it in most organisational contexts. Reading it before and after the Brexit referendum, I also found in the book insights on how Britain finds its way through the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead.

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How to lead in chaos

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?

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Who will lead us from this chaos?

YourCountryNeedsYou.jpg

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.

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