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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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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Leading is about creating a shared sense of home

Why do I write so much about politics? Because there’s an inescapable link between our political situation and the way organisations are led. It’s a moot point whether organisations align with the prevailing political discourse or whether politics is shaped by the interests of organisations. At the moment, it’s politics that’s making the running. There’s a broad consensus across the political spectrum that, whatever path Britain takes in relation to Brexit, it needs to become more inclusive. There’s not much agreement (nor even much in the way of ideas) about how this is to be achieved. But I fear many organisations don’t yet grasp the demands it will place on them to overcome the alienation and social fracturing that blight large parts of the country.

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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 modest antidote to fanaticism

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a series of columns this year on the subject of moderation. He was responding to the increasing prevalence of fanaticism in the United States, which stretches from Trump’s “conspiracy mongering” to the neo-Nazis. We have our own problems with fanaticism in the UK, ranging from the hard-line Brexiteers who will have no compromise with reality to the misogynistic and anti-semitic left.

The problem with fanaticism is that it provokes righteous anger in those who oppose it. So a perfect storm of rage encompasses civic life. The last sentence of my previous paragraph might even have contributed to it.

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Universities and public value

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BBC Test Card image.

Higher education’s status as a not-for-profit public service operating in a globally competitive market is unusual. There are not many comparable institutions – and this can make HE’s travails, as it contemplates regulatory change, seem like a lonely struggle.

But HE is not alone. An analogous institution is the BBC. There are affinities in terms of cultural role, independence and longevity. But the most striking is the exposure to competition while pursuing public purposes. This creates a tendency towards managerialism and instrumentalism that can be counter-productive. To keep this tendency in check, and retain public support, the BBC turned to the concept of public value. Universities are now exploring the same avenue, as they try to regain public connection, revealed by the Brexit vote to be threadbare.

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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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Cut ego down to size in leadership

audrelorde
How can we presume to lead until we understand from where we’ve come?

Book review: Leadership for the Disillusioned by Amanda Sinclair

Amanda Sinclair published Leadership for the Disillusioned in 2007, shortly before the financial crisis that has done more than anything in my lifetime to undermine public trust in corporate leadership. It’s telling that the most resonant example she cites of leadership that chips away at our illusions is the collapse in 2001 of the energy company, Enron. The most resonant corporate scandal of its time, the Enron affair could nonetheless be explained away at the time as an isolated if grand case of fraud that didn’t call into question the contemporary view of corporate leadership as a largely benign practice that broadly benefits society. Since the banking crash, our social system has become more widely perceived as governed by an ideology of corporate self-interest that nearly brought society to its knees and continues to serve the enrichment of a tiny minority. Throw in (to name a few UK examples) the phone hacking scandal, the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal and the Jimmy Savile scandal and, if there were grounds for disillusion in 2007, there is widespread acceptance now that leadership as traditionally construed faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Sinclair’s book brings home the extent to which corporate thinking shapes how we view leadership. We’re culturally attuned to a managerialist model that construes leadership as invested in figures of formal authority at the apex of hierarchies. Leaders are action-oriented and ego-driven, their self-regard pumped up by status or absurdly inflated remuneration. The trend towards authenticity in leadership is of a piece with such ego-massaging, encouraging managers to identify themselves with their work role and self-actualise by bending others to their agenda.

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