Michael Žantovský’s biography of Václav Havel is a striking portrait of moral leadership, compromised by office, but all the more admirable for that. Havel was the Czech dissident and suppressed playwright who led his country through one of the world’s few peaceful revolutions to become its first democratic president after the fall of Communism.
I’ve long been interested in Havel, one of the most significant political leaders of my lifetime. But there’s much to sustain the interest of the general reader: not least, the insider account of how the dissheveled, self-effacing Havel and his coterie of artists and intellectuals took office and toured the world, bewitching the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton.
I’ve just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I should declare an interest here, facing as I do my 60th birthday this year and having a close relative undergoing treatment for cancer. It is a sobering, important book that is shocking in its critique of the medical profession’s approach to death, made all the more powerful by the author being Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Gawande’s chief concern is with the “medicalisation” of death, a process that identifies death as the great enemy to be denied at every turn, regardless of the cost to the patient. So prevalent is this attitude that, as Gawande makes clear, it’s the patients who are as desperate to deny the inevitability of death as their doctors.
Book review: Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, by Simon Western
Simon Western seeks to challenge and expand our view about what constitutes coaching but, in so doing, he also challenges and expands received wisdom on what it means to be a leader in today’s complex and fast-moving organisations.
Coaching is a young practice, scarcely a profession. On the one hand, it has an inferiority complex in relation to other helping professions, particularly psychotherapy from which it takes much of its sense of good practice. On the other, it is rapidly being colonised by big management consultancies and business schools who recognise coaching’s threat to their turf. Talk of codifying what coaching should be through accreditation and even regulation is a sure sign of vested interests attempting to appropriate ground for themselves.
Western’s book, Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, investigates coaching as it is practised rather than how it is conceptualised in the literature. The strength of this approach is that it resists the tendency to reduce and constrain how coaching is defined. Instead, Western celebrates its diversity – from new age influenced life coaching through to corporate coaching interventions with their solutions-focussed processes and returns on investment.
Book review: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, by David Harvey.
When I mentioned to people that I was reading a compelling Marxist take on the crisis in capitalism, I was not greeted with the warm curiosity that normally follows the mention of an interesting new book. In fact, most people looked at me as if I had ventured beyond the pale. Stalinism has much to answer for: not least, the blight it has put on open-minded critique of the conditions that prevail in liberal democratic capitalism.
I find this puzzling. Like many, I was sheep-dipped in Marxist analysis at university. Though I flirted with radical left wing politics as a student, having grown up with Czech heritage, I was all too aware of the failures and tyranny of life under what was termed “actually existing Communism”. Long before the European revolutions of 1989, I made my peace with the market economy. But I have retained a lifelong appreciation of the value of critique.
Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism by David Harvey exemplifies the insight that Marxist critique can still generate. A geographer by background, Harvey appropriates Marxist thinking and makes it his own, bringing a freshness that cuts through the common sense that our marketised, financialised society is the natural order of things.
Last week, acting in my role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill, I introduced Tom McLeish as a guest speaker at a fund raising event. Tom is a polymer Physicist and Pro-Vice Chancellor for research at Durham University. He is also a Lay Reader in the Church of England and has just published a book entitled Faith and Wisdom in Science. Demonstrating an impressive breadth of knowledge, he makes a strong case for both science and theology being disciplines that share, if not the same methods, then at least a fascination with questions concerning the physical world, its structures and processes. The result is a genuinely fresh and positive contribution to the mostly (by now) tedious and sterile science/religion debate.
Beyond this however, one of the things that fascinated me most about Tom’s book was its argument that science is facing a crisis of both meaning and purpose. As he puts it:
“There is a narrative vacuum where the story of science in human relationship with nature needs to be told.”
As an arts graduate, I’m well aware of how the humanities have long been afflicted by the loss of “metanarrative” so celebrated by “post-modern” theorists and which – in my view at least – leads to artistic output that is often as pointless as it is self-referential. That there is such a crisis in science had never occurred to me, which makes me realise how much I’d fallen (unconsciously) for the lazy assumption that science is somehow, of its essence, a “value-free” activity, as if any such activity is ever possible.
The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.
Book review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
In the years since the financial crisis, we’ve honed a conviction here at Vogel Wakefield that the way most businesses and organisations are run is bust. Public distrust has been engendered not just by the financial crash but scandals in sectors as diverse as the health service, the media, supermarkets, the police and Parliament. Such is the depth of distrust that we envisage society eventually breaking decisively with the economic settlement of the past three decades. What the shape of the new consensus will be, who can tell? But the future surely entails profound changes for the way organisations are run. The public wants businesses to exercise greater stewardship of community assets and to operate in a more socially-oriented way.
If this vision sounds nebulous and, frankly, utopian, the exciting thing about Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, is the detailed portrayal it presents of successful companies that are making real today the model of tomorrow. His view of the forces of change is broader than ours. Where we envisage this as a paradigm shift in contemporary capitalism, akin to that from social democracy to neo-liberalism thirty years ago, Laloux sees a fundamental shift in human development, the kind of shift that occurs as human consciousness develops. In this, he draws on the work of Piaget, Robert Kegan and, especially, Ken Wilber.
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.
I’ve just recently returned from holidaying in the United States on the coast of Maine. While there I happened to meet Professor Fred Kaplan, who is a distinguished author of literary biographies. His most recent, Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer, is a book that I found fascinating, not least for its insights on leadership. In Lincoln’s case – and many in the US believe him to have been the greatest ever President – there can be no doubt that his love of literature played a pivotal role in shaping and sustaining him as a leader. This seems to me a point worth pondering given that we now live in a culture that values the explicit and measurable over the implicit and inherently unmeasurable.
At Vogel Wakefield HQ yesterday we were undertaking our annual strategic review and pondering our deep motivation for building our own business. We reached a startling conclusion: we don’t surface in how we present ourselves to clients our real passion for what we do. Instead, we neuter it by smothering it in business-friendly language. Our passion is to challenge the things that are toxic in organisations: to inspire people both to align themselves in their working lives more closely with their positive values and to push organisations into making a more positive contribution to society.
It’s not that all corporations are toxic nor that they make no contribution. But we have worked in organisations long enough to have developed a deep aversion to the negatives caused by internal politics, short-term perspectives, spin and the like. We have reached a stage in life where we can do more to mitigate these negative impacts on others, and to preserve our own welfare, by holding ourselves outside the organisation and working with those within.