In his e-book anti-hero, Richard Wilson describes the malign characteristics of the heroic leader as over-confidence, a lack of empathy, inflexibility and being unable to recognise uncertainty. Conversely, the benign characteristics of the anti-heroic leader are being empathic, humble, self-aware, flexible and comfortable with uncertainty.
There is some tilting at windmills here. I suspect even Fred the Shred would have denied neatly fitting the former list or totally rejected the latter, but I also have a semantic quibble: Surely, to exercise the qualities Richard extols under the growing day to day pressures of organisational leadership is itself heroic? We might particularly think this having explored something rarely acknowledged, that leadership is inherently tinged with pathos.
The very pursuit of high office has elements of delusion and futility. Lacan plangently described falling in love as ‘giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist’. Our ambitions and the objects of our desire are displacements of our instinctive desires. The claim of leadership may be dishonest. We say it is to make the world better but it is really an attempt to make us feel better. While the fulfilment of that ambition is futile as we are likely to find the desire that drove us remains unfulfiled. Whisper it quietly to the young and ambitious, but they will probably one day abandon leadership not because they are satiated but because they are defeated or exhausted.
And when we give up the struggle how quickly the waters close over our heads. The one thing of which most leaders can be sure is that a few weeks after their leaving party their successor will be announcing plans for a root and branch strategic review with a mind to achieving transformational change in what the new leader sees by implication as an outdated and creaking institution. If you want to feel the full force of the transience of status try visiting somewhere you used to be a leader a few years after you’ve left it. New staff won’t know who you are and old ones will try to hide their embarrassment at the fact that it has long become a recognised fact that your reign was mediocre at best.
Finally, heroic leaders often remain unsung. We live in a short term world with a shrinking attention span and little or no respect for the recent past and those who inhabited it. Yet, a large part of good leadership is about laying down long term foundations and addressing weaknesses and risks before they turn into problems. Some of the best and bravest decisions any leader makes may remain virtually unknown until years later when a successor – who may be of little merit – gets the credit for a long since made investment. This may have been more bearable in a slower moving, more deferential world with a more settled and self-assured leadership class but when blame and reputational disaster can move so fast, it is hard to expect leaders to await their reward in heaven. In my view Richard definitely left one leadership virtue off his list – stoicism.
None of this is to say that I would advise against the ambition to lead. It would after all be pretty hypocritical to do so. Love may be ‘the hysterical illusion we are no longer alone in the world’ (Lacan again) but it also makes life joyful and motivates great acts of courage and compassion. Leadership may be self-deceiving and futile but it also solves problems, drives progress and can release our most noble capabilities. To understand the tragedy of leadership is not to abandon it. As the stoics argued, resignation – particularly resignation we have chosen to adopt – can be a source of wisdom and comfort.
On Monday I had the honour of interviewing the great writer and practicing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Near the end (I won’t say when because you ought to watch the whole thing) an audience member asked about coaching for leaders. Phillips wanted to know what the purpose of the coaching was seen to be; merely to make the boss a better profit maker perhaps?
I am a supporter of leadership coaching. Partly for the reasons I have given, leaders need a safe place in which they can stop leading, unburden and be human. But coaching, like analysis, should not promise, or perhaps even offer, to provide instrumental success. Coaching may make us wiser in part because it makes us sadder (I have heard analysis described as ‘replacing hysterical neuroses with everyday melancholy’). Equally, and this possibility should perhaps be explicit from the outset, it might inspire us to find somewhere a little less exhausting to displace our insatiable desires.
Text messaging and social media have become an increasingly common part of customer service. Here are two contrasting examples:
New parents can sign up to any number of information services from the NHS, the third sector or private companies. One common service is a text that coincides with the infant getting older, initially weekly and then monthly. The texts can be very reassuring telling parents what they are likely to expect at any precise age: for example, reassuring the parent of a 16 month old that it is perfectly normal for a toddler to veer between being completely charming and utterly inexplicably furious.
At the recent Fairbanking awards held at the RSA many of the accounts that were highly rated, including the first ever to receive five stars, had systems for texting people warning people of the danger of going overdrawn and encouraging them to save. The best accounts seem to increase substantially the propensity of customers to save for ‘rainy day’ items like holidays, houses or weddings.
The significance of the second example lies in the possibility that it offers a way out of the free banking problem. As Adair Turner argued last year, the problem with banks offering free current accounts to customers in credit is that it is not the basis for a viable retail business model. For this reason, the banks have to find other ways of making money which they have consistently done by misleading offers, dodgy fees and dodgier products. For years bank leaders have admitted off the record it is almost impossible to find a virtuous way of making money out of customers as long as free banking (which is unusual in other countries) persists. When asked why they don’t simply start charging, the banks freely admit that they don’t trust their rivals not to swoop down and opportunistically steal their customers.
But if, through texting and other means, banks offer an effective and personalised information and support service we may find a way out of this deeply damaging dead end. Income on accounts in credit can be made in two ways – either through a differential on the interest rate earned by the bank and paid to the customer or through a service charge. To win a Fairbanking seal of approval accounts like the RBS/NatWest Instant Saver with Savings Goals have to show both that they offer interest rates broadly in line with the market average and that they don’t use the old trick of offering bonus rates at the beginning which quickly taper off once the customer has been hooked.
More broadly, there is little doubt digital and social media based customer service will grow and grow, but a game changer could come if we start to select and judge these services by their behavioural efficacy. So, for example, an important part of deciding which gym to join might be the digital customer engagement service it provides; by combining behavioural psychology with personal data and algorithmic learning these services might soon start (if they haven’t already) to provide more than just useful information; they will promise – like the Nat West bank account – to help you personally meet your goals.
As customers we can then judge the service by that same criterion: Did the nudging from the gym make me go more often? There may, of course, be other criteria we apply. ‘Go to the gym NOW you lazy git’ may work as a message but I might also find it offensive. However, the technology should quickly be able to work out what kind of messages you respond to well – especially when it gets easier to trawl data and combine information from different products to develop a fuller picture of our motivational character. It is already the case that platforms like Google and Amazon seem to know our tastes better than we do.
Hopes for this new world of relational services should be tempered by some reservations. Raised expectations must work both ways. If I am regularly getting personalised text messages it would be unforgivable for the service provider to then worsen the deal I am getting without alerting me. As the exploitation of information imbalances and customer inertia have been an integral part of the business plan of banks and energy companies for decades, this is a major challenge and one I suspect most these companies don’t yet fully appreciate.
Also, perhaps the behavioural impact will be less than we hope. What works is not necessarily what sells. The impact on saving levels of the NatWest account described above has impressed behavioural economists but it may be a one off or may not last. After all, globally billions of pounds are spent on diets that don’t work and self-help books that only make us more miserable. One reason diets fail (apart from the dubious motives of those who promote them) is that we are living in an obesogenic society. Individual nudging can be useful but it needs to be part of a strategy that includes wider public education and engagement, shifts in social norms and sometimes state regulation.
While relational services in the public and private sectors hold the prospect of helping us live bigger, better lives we should never forget that major and sustained behavioural shifts are inherently social phenomena.
I was flattered to be asked to give a speech at Southampton Solent University this morning, at their Vision for 2020 Conference. Southampton is close to my heart as I was at university there so I was delighted to accept.
In a slight departure from the norm (for me), I’ve done a full text, which has gone to local RSA Fellows and the local press. The core idea is that the institutions, businesses and communities of Southampton make fifty commitments to improve the city to coincide next year with its fiftieth birthday as a chartered city.
If you ‘re interested, you can read it here: Speech to Southampton Solent University October 2013. It would be fantastic to have thoughts from Southampton Fellows (thanks to those who have sent me emails – I’ve had some really helpful comments).
After the speech the audience will be discussing the idea so I’ll add some reflections later.
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, Uncategorized
A lively argument on the Today programme (at 30 minutes) offered a fascinating example of cultural theory.
Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for a school of thought which labours under the unhelpfully vague title ‘cultural theory’. I offered my own interpretation of the theory in my annual lecture last year, as well as applying it to key challenges facing modern Britain. To recap in the briefest of ways, the theory identifies four ways of thinking about and approaching complex organisational or social change: the hierarchical perspective (think leadership, strategy, bureaucracy), the solidaristic (think tribe, values, community), the individualistic (think acquisitiveness, markets, enterprise) and the fatalistic (think apathy, scepticism).
The theory goes on to argue that the best (‘clumsy’) solutions combine the first three – active – modes (whilst recognising the ubiquity of fatalism) but that these are always difficult to create and sustain because each perspective gains much of its legitimacy and energy from its critique of the others.
There are lots of interesting implications and applications of the theory, many of which I have written about over the years. The Today programme item brought alive an example of what happens when the different ways of thinking are aligned in a particular way.
The debate was over Greenpeace’s continuing opposition to all forms of Genetically Modified food, and in particular, ‘golden rice’. The crop holds out the possibility of major advances against the scourge of vitamin A deficiency, which every year costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people in the developing world and the sight of hundreds of thousands more.
Presenter James Naughtie chaired a very lively debate between two environmentalists, both with strong and impressive records of research and activism. On one side was Mark Lynas arguing against the Greenpeace line, on the other was Dr Tony Juniper defending opposition to GM.
At the end of the debate Naughtie said ‘well, that has given us a very clear picture of where the dividing line is!’
So it had – but not just of the issue itself. Also on display was a classic confrontation between cultural paradigms.
The ‘Allow Golden Rice Now’ campaign which Lynas was promoting is a combination of the hierarchical case (a big solution backed by scientific experts and deliverable by bureaucracies) and the individualistic one (solving problems through markets and technological innovation). These two perspectives are ranged against a solidaristic critique, suspicious of big business, hostile to top down solutions and instead emphasising the need to change power structures and promote different values and behaviours amongst both power holders and subsistence farmers.
The structure of the debate was Lynas on the attack and Juniper on the defence, which reflected the two-against-one balance of the debate. Because many of us feel guilty about our lack of action on the environment (and due to a generally misplaced tendency to trust NGOs more than Government or big business) we are inclined to defer to Greenpeace on environmental issues but here were the other perspectives seeing they at last had their chance to kick back.
Listening again to the debate I formed some tentative conclusions:
It is rare to hear the different perspectives so clearly aligned in alliance and opposition – that’s why the debate was so fascinating – but such differences can often be discerned in more opaque debates.
The divides between cultural perspectives receive much less attention than more obvious ones (which often overlay them) – such as left versus right – but they can be more important in explaining why the right (‘clumsy’) solution isn’t found and wrong (‘elegant’) ones promoted.
When there is such a clear alignment of two against one (and many traditionally solidaristic voices in this space don’t agree with Greenpeace) the one is likely to lose. If I were Greenpeace I would be planning an elegant retreat from this particular battle.
And – if the NGO does change its stance - progressive advocates of Golden Rice wanting to introduce the crop while avoiding the dangers of farmers being dependent on big business, or technology being used as an excuse not to address issues of power and engagement, could do a lot worse than getting the advice of Greenpeace: thus a ‘clumsy solution’.
I am writing this post in snatches on the slow and beautiful train journey from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry City. Every few moments my eyes are drawn to the windows and views of rolling countryside, sandy beaches and slate grey sea. Fast changing skies, one moment blue and sunny, the next dark and rainy, add to the experience.
Two thirds of the way through the year and with the biggest events having passed, much conversation is turning to the question of legacy. The long term impact of an event can be divided into the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘moral’. The former legacy refers to things like facilities, infrastructure and regeneration; the latter to values, relationships and intentions.
The 2012 Olympics seems to have scored pretty highly on the former but disappointingly on the latter. There may be many reasons why an Olympic impact on ways of thinking, connecting and behaving has proved elusive, not least that the whole idea of a social echo from major one-off events may be more based on hope than likelihood. But things for London were certainly not helped by the ambivalence of politicians before the Games. So widespread were worries about organisation, security and UK sporting performance, so loud had been the critics and pessimists, that political leaders were worried to say the Olympics might stand as a national statement of values just in case that statement turned out to be tarnished by failure.
Of course, since the success of the Games there have been innumerable attempts to claim a moral legacy. But applying a post hoc rationale or seeking to bask in reflected glory often looks like exactly what it is – contrived opportunism. So if Derry’s year – which clearly is a success – is to leave a moral legacy then the time to articulate that is surely running out. Political and civic leaders need now to develop credible but ambitious accounts of how the spirit of the cultural festival can be carried into 2014 and beyond.
An important part of this story – and for this, my second point, I am grateful for the insight of RSA Fellow Kevin Murphy from VAI – must surely be about how a vital part of the year has been about the discovery and promotion of the cultural energy which already existed in and around Derry and which can be recognised and nurtured when the year of culture bandwagon has moved on.
A powerful example are the flute bands. For so long associated in the minds of outsiders and republicans with sectarian Unionist politics, the year of culture has included a community wide celebration of the Apprentice Boys band. In an article for the event I am attending, Kevin describes his dawning realisation of the scale of flute bands and the role they play in civic cultural engagement and in providing a route into musical participation for youngsters.
Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided and largely segregated community and, as the violent flag protects in Belfast earlier this year underline, resentment and the potential for violence simmers not far below the surface of everyday life. Yet a better future surely does not involve the suppression of distinctive community culture, much less its cynical use as the soundtrack to conflict, but its celebration as part of what is vivid and vibrant about this beautiful part of the world.
Culture makes possible things which conventional politics finds intractable. Which takes me to my third point (made more fully in this post). Struggling with austerity and facing rising needs, wise place leaders understand the importance of doing things differently. Achieving more with less and building the resilience of communities (what is somewhat dryly referred to as ‘demand management’) involves a step change in local collaboration between agencies and leaders in every sector, in public engagement particularly through connecting to a sense of community agency, and in the capacity for innovation.
If collaboration, engagement and innovation are our goals then surely arts and cultural organisations have huge potential in disrupting the way things are and prefiguring and prototyping how they could be? This offers a third way between the intrinsic and instrumental case for arts subsidy. Arts can achieve social impacts but rather than merely aiming for the conventional metrics of public service delivery, these impacts can be distinctive to the artistic imagination while still being concrete and measurable. Such an aspiration involves challenges both to the working methods and aspirations of arts organisations and to the capacity for risk taking and imagination among place leaders.
The greatest legacy of the Derry year of culture would be for arts and culture to become integral to the future ambition, capacity and inventiveness of the whole city.