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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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

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Brexit complexity

uk ireland eu

Brexit is shaping up to be the object lesson par excellence in how not to lead in complexity. First this week we have seen the Government’s negotiating strategy (if one can call it that) for getting to Phase 2 of the Brexit talks blown to pieces by its negligence of the Irish border issue. Then the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitted that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various sectors of the economy, despite having previously insisted on several occasions that such assessments were in hand. So the Government is navigating what is the biggest peacetime challenge that the UK has faced in generations, not just with no real understanding of what its impact will be but no attempt to understand. It’s almost as if the truth would be too frightening for ministers to know.

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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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Dark times ahead?

Brexshit

Since the result of the Brexit referendum, nearly six months ago, I have found it hard to write. I spend too much time reading about developments and not enough time ordering my thoughts. As a consequence, this blog post covers a lot of ground and will be split into three parts.

But there’s a more subtle reason for my writer’s block: my mood swings. This month, watching the Supreme Court display Britain’s constitution working properly, I’ve been able to think that we might find a way through the challenges ahead with good sense and collegiality. But having seen – amid the broader global context of political upheaval – the intolerant and hysterical reaction to the earlier High Court ruling on Article 50, I experience a foreboding about what the Brexit vote might unleash.

I don’t think I’m alone. The foreboding extends beyond the cosmopolitan bubble I inhabit in London. I see it the eyes of visitors from northern cities. I heard it amid the chat of scores of More United supporters who turned up from far afield to campaign in the Richmond Park by-election for openness and tolerance.

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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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