Forgive me if this is an overstatement, but surely there has never been a time when our major political party leaders have been held in lower regard? There is the one who is apparently unable to manage his own Party, the one few people seem to think could manage the country and the one who simply has no friends.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a talented young MP who was telling me of his plans to leave politics. ‘I’m bored’ he said ‘I don’t believe in politics anymore and, truth be told,’ he said, as he cast his eyes around the atrium at Portcullis House ’nor do most of us’. A Conservative MP said to me that his Party’s obsession with Europe is partly based on genuine problems with the EU, partly on the divisive Thatcher legacy but also ‘because at last people have got something in politics to get passionate about’.
Is there anything that can be done? Regardless of party affiliation is there a message or strategy that could lift politics out of the doldrums and offer a credible policy platform. As a purely academic exercise I’ve had a go.
The rather obscure starting point is this table
|Ends/vision||The good society (2)||Human progress (1)||More of whatever we want (3)|
|Means||Invest in public sphere, redistribute (3)||Strategy, bureaucracy (2)||Self-interest, markets (1)|
|Culture||Tribe, flag, movement (1)||Statism, deference (3)||Consumerism (2)|
In the columns I have merged two frames of analysis. The first is from cultural theory and its three ubiquitous ways of thinking about and seeing change: the individualistic, the hierarchical and the solidaristic (NB there is also another passive form – the fatalistic).
The second uses the three core ideas of the Enlightenment as identified by Tzvetan Todorov: universalism (which I translate as fairness), humanism (the belief in progress defined by greater human flourishing) and autonomy (freedom).
These two sets of concepts (which have been the focus respectively of two of my annual lectures), one about ideas the other about frames for seeing and acting, don’t map neatly onto each other. ‘Universalism’ asserts the equal rights of all people (although in the Enlightenment this actually meant well-off white men) whereas ‘solidarity’ is about the interests of those defined as in the group while ‘fairness’ stands somewhere between and also brings in notions of just desserts. Also, hierarchies can be ambivalent about progress (think of the Roman Catholic Church). It is also important not to assume that individualism and solidarism line up on a right left axis. Nationalism and even racism can be as much expressions of in-group solidarity as trade unionism and – as the Commons debate yesterday emphasises – social conservatives don’t think individual rights trump all other considerations.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of my argument, there is sufficient overlap based on clustering of ideas and feelings around three fundamental human instincts (individual survival, desire and ambition; kinship and social belonging; and leadership/followership).
In each box there is a number. The numbers represent a view of the relative power in contemporary society of each way of thinking in relation to, first, their account of the ends to which change should be aiming, second, the means which should be used to achieve that change, third, the cultural milieu in which change takes place.
The argument is that hierarchy is most powerful when it comes to the task of describing the ends of change. To put it simply, we need leaders to tell us where to march towards. Solidarity/fairness is less powerful when to comes to ends partly because it is often a rather nostalgic or defensive expression, and also because its definition of the good society (whether it’s socialist utopianism or nationalist nostalgia) tends to sound rather pie in the sky. The perspective of individualism leads to a suspicion of the whole idea of purposive ends – where we get will depend on our choices with the hidden hand of the market ensuring progress.
When it comes to means – the method of change – individualism has the strongest hand; a position which is even more pronounced in today’s complex world. If we could achieve change simply by people doing what they feel to be in their own interests things would be pretty simple, which is why markets can be so fast moving and innovative in comparison to bureaucracies (hierarchy) or collectives (solidarity).
Finally, in terms of cultural mores, while individualism offers only the shallowness of consumerism and hierarchies tend to be fractured both horizontally and vertically, it is the domain of solidarity that provides meaning and belonging for us social beings.
Therefore, in modern society, the most effective model of change will involve leaders defining ends which inspire, using means which achieve those ends through alignment with individual choices, with processes of change being humanised by a culture resonant with solidarity and mutual obligation. To use a mechanical metaphor, hierarchy sets the direction, individualism provides the engine and solidarity is the oil.
How does this translate into a political programme? First, we need a new type of leadership (I have described this here). Second, we need both to draw on individual aspiration as the most effective means to change while also helping people to aspire to what will genuinely provide fulfilment not simply what advertisers tell them they should want: freedom to produce, create and connect rather than freedom merely to consume and possess. Finally, we need to find ways of generating new forms of solidarity and mutual obligation in a diverse, fast changing world.
Politicians are often told by their advisors to try to ‘own the future’. This means rather than simply hypothesising a better world, describe the things already happening that prefigure that world and then show how you are the person to liberate the forces of progress and remove the barriers to change.
As I said in my last post commenting on the possible end of the social recession, there is enough material to start to describe what we might mean by a responsible modern society. Also, with the growth of interest and engagement in enterprise (traditional, social and micro) we can begin to see the outlines of a new venturesome economy.
Sadly, when it comes to new type of leadership, at least in the political sphere, I can only refer back to my opening sentence.
As the third and final in a series, this post explores how institutions might understand and manage the forces which can lead to behaviour that undermines their legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders and the broader public (I am grateful to my readers for some very helpful comments on the earlier posts).
I have so far argued that many organisations – like most people – have a deep attachment to a discourse of self-pity which, combined with the will to survive, provides the enabling context for unethical decision-making (or decision avoidance). Ultimately, organisations need to behave as if they were operating in a glass box: if they are making decisions which most people outside the organisational would find unjustifiable they are storing up problems and risking further reputational damage.
This might sound like a pious injunction. Organisations might set such a goal but how do they live up to it? Here are three methods which, pursued in concert by organisational leaders, might help:
Name and tame the hurt: The group therapy process I described in the first post enabled participants to name the scars left earlier in their life which they had subsequently used to excuse bad choices. This is only step one but it is difficult and its power shouldn’t be underestimated.
Leaders need to find the pain at the heart of their organisation (why we feel under siege/hard done by/doomed) and name it. Only then can those leaders work with their organisation to transcend those feelings, showing that whether or not they were ever justified, they should not be a constraint on the organisation trying to do the right thing now and into the future. It will often be that part of the pain concerns feelings towards management so this too has to be identified and discussed.
Change the choice architecture: The phrase ‘choice architecture’ was coined by the same people who developed the idea of ‘nudge’, itself derived from insights provided by behavioural economics and social psychology. The point is to make ‘good’ choices easier and ‘bad’ choices harder, for example, putting healthier food closer to the counter in self-service canteens or opting people in to pension schemes.
The discourse of organisational self-pity generally refers to a set of adverse contexts which make it hard for the organisation to succeed while behaving ethically. Rather than simply exhorting leaders to be braver and more ethical we should encourage them to realign the forces around them so that doing the right thing is easier, and the bad thing harder.
Honest, open and independently verified social and environmental auditing might be examples of the latter. The decision of Unilever CEO, Paul Polman to stop quarterly reporting and to refuse short term investing is an inspirational example of the former.
Very often organisational or professional self-pity is of the ‘no one understands us’ variety. This is a corrosive form of self-pity to which the answers are ‘maybe they do and that’s the problem’ of ‘if they don’t you have to get out and find a way of engaging people rather than using their alleged ignorance an excuse for self-indulgence’.
A recurrent example of this problem in charities is that the activities the organisation could undertake that would have the most impact are not the things their funders or stakeholders most value. A failure to address this conundrum is the single biggest explanation of the profound level of underperformance that plagues our third sector
Accept the possibility of an honourable death: My interest in institutions stems from an analysis based on a set of ideas (unhelpfully) named cultural theory. This theory suggest there are three active ways of thinking about and pursuing change; individualism, hierarchy and solidarity. The analysis of my 2012 annual lecture was that these forces have become disastrously unbalanced in modern society. In particular, hierarchies have become frail and ineffective.
But cultural theorists also say there is a fourth, equally ubiquitous but generally passive way of thinking about change – fatalism. I have always found it hard fully to accommodate the fatalist dimension of the theory but perhaps I am beginning to.
Good organisations and their leaders know, accept and admit that they are involved in the messy business of juggling ethical goals with organisational self interest in changing and challenging contexts. This is not a problem that can be solved forever but must be continuously and reflexively managed. This is the stuff of leadership but it is also ultimately exhausting.
Freud talked about exchanging hysterical neurosis for everyday melancholy. Leaders need to recognise that sooner or later they will run out of runway. The dilemmas I am describing can only ever be successfully managed for now. Directly contrasting a plethora of theories which promise the possibility of transcendent, post conventional, leadership, sane leaders with integrity know that sooner or later they and or their organisation will lose the capacity to juggle successfully and then the right thing to do is to move on.
Going back to the charity sector, another problem is the difficulty organisations have with admitting that their best is behind them, their organisational form is no longer fit for purpose and that it is time to have big party, celebrate and pull down the shutters.
‘Fine words from the CEO of a 260 year old organisation’ you may well say. True dat. Across its distinguished history the RSA has suffered very long periods of ineffectiveness and has in the last few years substantially re-invented itself. But I am under no illusions that two weeks after I accept the inevitable mortality of leadership (or it is pointed out to me by the Board) the new CEO will – quite rightly – be telling the staff and Fellows it is time for a radically different approach!
That is my hurt, but now I have named it, you know it really isn’t that bad.
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’.
Usefully, for me at least, two of my current interests have converged. On the one hand, there is my annual lecture with its thesis that the three major sources of social power – hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration – have become unbalanced. On the other hand, there is the case Patricia Kaszynska and I have been building for a much more critical look at the political consensus behind social mobility as the primary route to address injustice.
In ‘The Twilight of the Elites’, Christopher Hayes see these issues are clearly intertwined. He argues that the modern American social elite has stitched up control of society using the rationale that those already at the top have a near- monopoly of the only talent that matters – a particular form of intellect. It is this narrowness of talent and the detachment of the elite from the rest of society which has led to a wide range of leadership disasters (from Enron to Katrina) and thus to ever lower levels of public trust.
That the question of how to restore and maintain the authority of leaders, particularly political leaders has been around for almost as long as political philosophy doesn’t make it any less important. The new dimension, in comparison to the times of Xenophon or of Machiavelli, is the coincidence of democratic Governments both elected by the people and, more often and not, despised by them. And, of course, this crisis of legitimacy extends to most other large and powerful organisations.
There are those who are not concerned. Some say it is a good thing that leaders are weak and worried, other argue that being distrusted does not impair the determined leader’s capacity to get things done. I don’t agree, believing not only that we need credible leaders to make wise decisions for the long term but also that feeling well led (whether in a nation, an organisation or a family) is important to our sense of fulfilment and well-being.
I have written before of Professor Keith Grint’s contrast between conventional leadership and that needed for many ‘wicked ‘ modern problems: he calls for leadership ‘about questions not answers’. ‘about relationships not structures and ‘about reflection not reaction’. I like these dichotomies and think they are important to making change happen, but in terms of winning consent for that change I think Grint underplays the need for leadership as authority. In these post-deferential times, the characteristics which experience and reflection lead me to prize most in political leaders are:
First: a leader who builds a compelling and noble mission (not just vague fluffy values but a tough minded theory of change) and then convinces us over and again that this mission can be achieved, but only if we too play our valued part.
Second, a leader who is secure in her own position and is not, therefore, endlessly weighing up how to balance the interest of inner circle and allies with those of the wider citizenry.
How might the absence of these qualities be linked to the increasingly closed circle of privileged, career politicians?
Is it perhaps that mere cleverness is by its nature rational, utilitarian, pragmatic and thus lacking in the conviction necessary to define and stick to a mission (albeit that pragmatism will be need to achieve the mission)? Is it also that the confidence and authority necessary to mobilise citizens and keep allies in line comes from having a biographical hinterland which gives leaders fortitude and impresses followers?
If so, it might mean that some people are just not cut out to lead (I will keep a diplomatic silence over whether this includes our current crop of leading politicians).
In its critique of Labour’s record, the Coalition is in danger of reinforcing a model of authority which undermines a core principle of the Big Society…..
I hope he’s having fun but otherwise, to be honest, I don’t give a damn about Andrew Rawnsley’s holidays. It’s not always been like this. Until quite recently I was on the list of people The Observer would approach to fill in when their esteemed columnist had a well-deserved rest. I played this super sub role for other papers too; The Times, FT and Standard all had my number. But the ‘phone stopped ringing some time ago.
Maybe I just wasn’t good enough; the world is full of discarded newspaper columnists. Perhaps comment editors have forgotten me. A complaint to the Charity Commissioners led my Trustees to err on the side of caution and ask me some time ago to avoid blog posts that could be construed as political advice. Or is it just that – five years after leaving Downing Street – I am too much of a mouldy old has been.
Anyway, being a mature, magnanimous and deep thinking person I let such thoughts detain me for no more than a couple of hours before deciding to read the Observer piece today by the new holder of the ‘Andrew Rawnsley is away’ crown; Rafael Behr. The well-made argument of the piece is captured in its last paragraph:
“The coalition will work hard in 2011 to pin the blame for all the bad things happening on Labour. Some of that blame will stick, especially if Ed Miliband makes himself an easy target, standing on too many barricades. But the strategy relies on the public dwelling on the worst bits of Britain before the coalition and forgetting the best bits. It relies on people thinking of the New Labour era as the bad old days. I suspect that goes against the grain of popular memory. And while memory is a bad historian, it is the stuff that political loyalty is made of.”
I leave readers to judge whether Behr is right about either Labour’s record or the Coalition’s tactics. My concern is with the model of leadership implied by an account of the Labour years that focus almost entirely on failings by Government.
As part of my general immersion in thinking about organisations (and as part of my new year’s resolution to be a better CEO in 2011), I am reading a fascinating book called ‘Leadership without Easy Answers’. Here is its author, Ronald A Heifetz writing about what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’:
“Making progress on these [complex] problems demands not someone who provides answers from on high but changes in our attitudes, behaviour and values. To meet challenges such as these, we need a different idea of leadership and a new social contract that promote our adaptive capacities, rather than inappropriate expectations of authority. We need to reconceive and revitalise our civic life and the meaning of citizenship.”
The creation of a Big Society – relying as it does on citizens stepping up to the plate – needs this kind of leadership. At his best David Cameron gives the sense that this is the leadership of which he is capable of and which he wants to offer. The problem is that our political culture (a toxic mixture of elitism, adversarialism and populism) constantly drives politicians towards more conventional, and superficially easier, models of hierarchical, bureaucratic and charismatic leadership.
The last few weeks have seen the Coalition emphasise its determination to drive radical and comprehensive change in areas as diverse as welfare and health care. There has even been talk of a ‘Maoist’ revolution being driven from Whitehall. At the same time there is the constant assertion that everything which went wrong under New Labour was the result of the failings of its leaders. Indeed, the idea that the public was carrying on in sublime ignorance of the irresponsible, venal and incompetent behaviour of Labour’s leaders speak to the idea that ordinary citizens can – and perhaps should – wash their hands of any responsibility for what Government does and what it achieves.
The trouble for the Prime Minister is that a Big Society isn’t a cynical society but an active and open-minded one – and in his critique of the previous government, perhaps he has to be careful not to unleash a public mood that will corrode the very possibility of change he seeks.
Here is Heifetz again:
“In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They have also to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation.”
There are now two fundamentally different ideas of leadership jostling at the heart of the Coalition’s self-perception and public projection. The first has the confidence to have a nuanced account of what Labour got right and wrong, it emphasises the importance of people being engaged and taking responsibility in policy and social change and it promotes an open and experimental political culture. The second says citizens were the passive victims of Labour’s leadership but can now sit back and be saved by the reforming zeal of a new more dynamic cadre of leaders. The credibility of the Big Society relies on the first model, but just recently the second seems to be prevailing.