Take me to your (normative) leader

November 23, 2012 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I am grateful – not for the first time – to Keith Grint for alerting me to a distinction made by Amitai Etzioni in 1964 in his book ‘Modern Organisations’:

Etzioni distinguished between Coercive, Calculative and Normative Compliance. Coercive or physical power was related to total institutions, such as prisons or armies; Calculative Compliance was related to ‘rational’ institutions, such as companies; and Normative Compliance was related to institutions or organizations based on shared values, such as clubs and professional societies. This compliance typology fits well with the typology of problems: Critical Problems are often associated with Coercive Compliance; Tame Problems are associated with Calculative Compliance and Wicked Problems are associated with Normative Compliance. 

As regular readers of this blog (lovely to see you the other night, mum) will know, I think that more and more policy problems are ‘wicked’ by which I mean they are complex, intractable in the sense that they can be managed but probably not solved, contested both in terms of diagnosis and prescription, and – crucially – solutions involve changes not just in policy and processes but changes in social expectations, norms and behaviours.  The latter point links wickedness to the ‘social aspiration gap’ (which I have argued separates our collective hopes for the future from the trajectory upon which current modes of thought and action set us) and to ‘social productivity’ the idea at the heart of our 2020 Public Services Commission report that public services should be judged by their capacity to help people meet their own needs.

I have decided to try to delve deeper into this question of normative leadership; why do we need it, what exactly is it, what are the best examples of it in practice, what are the factors which build it and inhibit it?

Last week, following a tip-off from Caroline Haynes at KPMG, I gave the example of transformative normative leadership provided by the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma – if you didn’t follow this link you really should, it’s a great story. My thinking is at an early stage but the working definition of successful normative leadership is ‘the achievement by those in authority of enduring and benign change in social norms, which may involve, but does not primary rely upon, regulatory compulsion or financial inducement’.

Keith Grint differentiates this type of leadership through three dichotomies: questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction. This is a good starting point but I want to suggest other dimensions such as a focus on substantive mission not procedural means, a willingness to accept the risk of public failure, leadership y through exemplary action not mere exhortation.

My weekend request to readers is for more examples of normative leadership. It need not be mayors, or even politicians. It could be a head teacher, a social entrepreneur or a community organiser. But it is someone who successfully took it upon themselves to persuade people voluntarily to change their habits for the good of society.

This is the leadership we need right now. It is not the kind being offered by conventional leaders but rather than blame them, I am looking through this project to inspire them to believe it is worth trying to be braver and more ambitious.

And as it’s Friday, here is an old joke from the Soviet era to exemplify the failure of normative leadership:

Worried about the stirrings of revolt in the Gdansk shipyards, Soviet Premier Andropov takes Polish Premier General Jaruzelski on a walk in Moscow. He stops a young boy and asks:

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?

‘My mother is this great Communist nation, mother to all Soviet children’ replied the boy.

‘And who is your father?’ asks Andropov.

‘Why, that is Comrade Andropov the elder and father to the nation’.

‘And’ says Andropov ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘My ambition is to be a cosmonaut’ says the boy.

‘You see’ says Andropov to a chastened Jaruzelski, ‘this is the ideological rigour you must instil’.

Back in Poland,  Jaruzelski goes on a great propaganda drive in school, on the media and through every organ of the Party.

A few months later comes the return visit and the two leaders are out walking in Warsaw.  General Jaruzelski stops a child.

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?’

‘My mother’ replied the boy ‘is the Communist state, mother to all Polish youth.’

‘And tell me,’ says Jaruzelski ‘who is your father?’

‘Why my father is General Jaruzelski,  father to all Poland’.

‘And finally’, says Jaruzelski, turning to Andropov with a complacent smile ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’

‘Oh’ says the boy ‘that’s easy – an orphan’.

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33 years too late

June 19, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics 

In a talk to some up and coming councillors on Sunday I decided to try a new method of presentation. Influenced by the latest evidence about physical fitness, it was a kind of intellectual interval training. Over an hour and a quarter I delivered five packages of dense and quite challenging material, each about seven minutes long, interspersed with five minutes for table conversation and a couple of questions. For the record the sessions covered:

  • The idea of the social aspiration gap
  • The nature of wicked problems and the levels of meaning-making required to address them
  • Grid-group and cultural theory
  • The challenge of clumsy solutions
  • The kind of leadership needed to develop clumsy solutions to wicked problems.

Gratifyingly, by the time I came to unveil Keith Grint’s three dimensions of clumsy leadership (questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction) each had already been in some way adumbrated in earlier conversation. Given the pressures and conventional expectations of political leadership, I suspect only very regular work-outs will enable even the best intentioned of politicians to stay fit for purpose, nevertheless it was a good session and I plan to use the method again (RSA rates for my time are very reasonable!).

The question of political leadership is, of course, very much to the fore as we continue in the baleful state of being in a bad way while fearing something worse (Doctor to patient, ‘I have some bad news and some very bad news’: Patient: ‘Oh no! What’s the bad news?’: Doctor; ‘you only have 24 hours to live’: Patient: ‘Oh my God, what’s the very bad news?’: Doctor; ‘I forgot to tell you yesterday’).

So I was interested in a piece from Gary Younge published in yesterday’s Guardian. Younge reminds us that in 1979 Jimmy Carter responded to opinion polls for the first time showing Americans did not believe the future would be better than the past by speaking directly about this crisis of confidence.

From its opening passages, in which the President describes talking to ordinary Americans about their country’s problems and quotes comments critical of his own administration, it is, in many ways, a remarkable speech:

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world”.

Carter’s speech was delivered in the midst of the energy crisis and urged Americans to act together to reduce consumption. The President was also in political dire straits. Three days after the speech he received the resignations of many of his cabinet officers and a year later, against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, he failed to win re-election. Although the immediate reaction was mixed, given subsequent events Carter’s speech is generally taken as evidence against being candid and direct with the electorate, especially in the face of difficult realities.

But surely we are today in urgent need of the kind of courage, honesty and appeal to our better spirit which the American President bravely attempted thirty three years ago? Carter’s failure suggests an honest appraisal of challenges – and an admission of the limited power of Government without popular engagement and mobilisation – needs to be balanced with a message of reassurance. Without this, the inevitable media-driven search for ulterior motive would threaten to conflate candour about national peril with an admission of Governmental frailty. This is also why it may be easier for an opposition leader to take the risk of exposing doubt and vulnerability as the backdrop to an appeal to shared values and for collective action.

My session on Sunday convinced me that politicians feel trapped in a broken discourse between themselves, public officials, community groups and the public at large. They yearn for a different model of leadership, which is more powerful precisely because it is more thoughtful, subjunctive and modest. Some might say a crisis is the last moment for such an experiment; politicians should stick to the simple melodies of self-serving glibness that count today as oratory.  But as our country becomes an ever more fearful and pessimistic and as the day to day life of more and more citizens becomes harder and harder, who can really doubt the need for a leadership in a different key?

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