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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Jasper Johns shows us what mastery means

flag

I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.
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Survival is insufficient: lessons for leadership from Station Eleven

shed

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, depicts the collapse of modern civilisation when a flu pandemic sweeps across the world and (twenty years later) the dystopian society that is established by small clusters of survivors. I read it on the recommendation of the Financial Times’ business books podcast – although I refrained from listening to the episode until I’d completed the book. I enjoy it when novels appear on lists of business books, something that happens too infrequently. In truth, insofar as fiction provides insight into the human condition, almost any novel is more rewarding of a leader’s time than a business book, most of which are mediocre. But I can see why Station Eleven caught the FT’s attention.

The novel portrays how utterly dependent we are on organisations and the technology we manage, and how fragile is the fabric they weave. The virus that initiates the story originates in the Republic of Georgia but spreads rapidly in two respects: those infected develop symptoms within hours and are dead within two days; and, in an interconnected world, it is transmitted around the globe before most people are even aware that this disease in a distant land threatens their country. In Toronto, where the novel is initially set, chaos breaks out in the first 24 hours as hospitals are overwhelmed, parents fail to return home to their children and the mobile phone networks become congested. Within a few days, the familiar presenters on the television news networks disappear, to be replaced by whoever is still able to staff the office. Within a fortnight, the networks are off air. In short order, the electricity grid collapses as the staff needed to operate it die off; with it goes the internet, eliminating at a stroke the world’s knowledge. Motor transport becomes impossible and, before long, the surviving population settles in whatever locations they had reached when the plague took hold (for one group, a provincial airport to which their plane had been diverted) or to which they can travel on foot.

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The hard path of the whistleblower: apropos An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS
Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS

Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy is not only a cracking read but a psychological study in the gathering courage of a whistleblower in an organisation gone to bad.

It tells the story of the Dreyfus affair – the wrongful conviction and incarceration for spying of a Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. It is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, a spy chief who is both a party to the downfall of Dreyfus and a prime mover in the uncovering of Dreyfus’s framing by the military establishment.

Much of the power of the narrative derives from the fact that Picquart is a reluctant whistleblower. The youngest colonel in the army, he has a great career ahead of him. Moreover, he shares the casual anti-semitism of his age and has no great sympathy for Dreyfus. Nonetheless, when he discovers evidence that implicates a different officer, Esterhazy, in the spying for which Dreyfus was blamed, he cannot ignore the injustice and assumes his senior officers will think likewise.

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The value of culture lies in its capacity to enrich lives

The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess
The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess

Organisations of all kinds face a new challenge: to demonstrate that they create value for society and not just for themselves.

A reckoning has been a long time coming after the financial collapse of 2008. But it’s arrival is unmistakable – not just in the mood music of the party leaders as they compete to compose the best tune on moral capitalism. It’s evident in the furore around the aborted bonus of the RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, the broadly sympathetic hearing given to the Occupy protestors at St. Paul’s, and the public revulsion over the phone hacking scandal which brought about the Leveson Inquiry into the role of the press.

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Art in the time of austerity

National Portrait Gallery

We’ve recently completed a project with the National Portrait Gallery, who engaged us to develop a draft social value model. We spoke to people at all levels of the National Portrait Gallery’s staff as well as external stakeholders such as corporate sponsors.

We found this a striking instance of the specifity of making a social value case. It’s tempting to think in generic terms about the social value of any given sector. But each institution is different. The National Portrait Gallery has unique characteristics which differentiate it from other galleries and museums. These are rooted in its founding purpose, which was to tell the story of Britain through portraits of men and women of achievement. Unusually for an art gallery, this means that the subject of the artworks is of greater importance than their artistic merit. Is the National Portrait Gallery, therefore, most similar to other galleries in their role as custodians of arts or to museums which curate artifacts of historic interest? To what extent should it stay true to its Victorian mission to tell a canonical story of Britain versus a contemporary, post-modern one to foster critique of hegemonic narratives and encourage a more inclusive portrayal of Britain?

The answer to these question are determined in part by the view one takes of the social value that the Gallery should deliver under different scenarios of how the economic crisis will play out.

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Focus ruthlessly to deliver your purpose

Obsessive about focus

Few organisations know how to focus on their core purpose. The technology company, Apple, is one. Its chief executive, Steve Jobs, is famously obsessive about focus. Apple infuriates as many people as it delights by stripping away that which it considers inessential. But it is now worth more than a number of its close competitors combined. “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” said Jobs in 2008. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

How many arts organisations would see their purpose in these terms? My guess is that focus would be an underrated virtue in many. This may be the case for two reasons: either the organisation is not very clear about its purpose and therefore finds it hard to know what should be the object of its focus, or the leadership has clarity about the corporate purpose, but does not know how to align the organisation’s activities behind the mission.

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Searching for a silver lining

Nobody likes cuts. But is it too outlandish to see an upside to financial uncertainty? Perhaps not. Organisations that navigate the storms ahead may gain more autonomy to set their own destiny. A possible outcome could be that they reconnect with their fundamental purpose and refresh how they deliver value to audiences.

This may sound panglossian. In austerity, our energies concentrate simply on survival and the niceties of maintaining and delivering a vision recede to the sidelines. But it can be a mistake to treat the values that inform an organisation as too costly a luxury to merit attention at a time like this. Clarity about what an organisation exists to achieve is central to making good decisions in the face of challenge.

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Book review: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

When humans evolved into seals

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos is a Darwinian satire on the mess humankind causes for itself as a result of having evolved big brains. Set in the late 20th Century, it charts the breakdown of society and the near extinction of the human species — caused by a cocktail of hedonism, financial crisis and viruses. The twist is that the story is narrated from the vantage point of a million years hence, from which perspective the culture and behaviour of 20th Century humans seems inexplicable. The few surviving humans of the future — a small colony that settled on the Galápagos islands — have evolved a more stable equilibrium with their environment with small brains, minimal language and a simple life in which the only concern is when to dive into the ocean to catch fish.

The novel has a fragmented narrative but is brimming with ideas. Reading it in the wake of the financial crisis of the early 21st Century, it resonates more strongly possibly than it may have at the time of publication. Vonnegut evokes the rapidity with which society can break down when people no longer believe in the value of money: a catastrophe to which we came closer than most of us care to imagine.

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Mind the gap: how to focus on your purpose in the arts

gallery
Empty gallery.

A theatre won funding to improve its engagement with disadvantaged groups. It approached the challenge as the chance to spread the word about its work. But it discovered that to get the target groups through the doors, the work would need to change. What the theatre was doing from day to day turned out to be irrelevant to a section of the community it was meant to serve. This is an example of the gap that can occur between the way an organisation behaves compared to its avowed mission, one that provides the sense of purpose from a shared understanding among everyone who works in a company.

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