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Plus ca change

August 19, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Two themes occurring separately and together in weekend media commentary were the state of politics and the state of Ed Miliband. In relation to the former, commentators have quoted the Hansard Society’s annual survey of political engagement showing the lowest recorded figure for the percentage of the public saying they are interested in politics (42%). In relation to the latter the so called ‘summer of silence’ and the resulting sniping from various Party figures is being worked up into a silly seasons leadership crisis.

For what it’s worth, my own take on the electoral picture is that very little of significance has changed. The predominant public feeling remains ‘none of the above’ and there is little or no sign of either of the two parties making any significant incursions into the territory of the other.

True, when confirmation came of economic growth, Labour looked wrong footed (itself a bizarre message failure) but Miliband’s focus on living standards is wise given that most families will be worse off in 2015 than 2010. And while the Labour leader’s personal ratings are grisly, in the face of UKIP pressures and the unrepresentative nature of their own activist base, the Conservatives are running the risk of seeming to abandon the middle ground.

For two years I have been telling anyone willing to listen to ‘buy Cleggs’. Whatever the Lib Dem poll ratings indicate, their incumbency skills mean they are unlikely to lose many seats in 2015. Given that ruling parties rarely if ever increase their share of the vote at subsequent elections (sorry Dave) and that leaders rarely if ever fully recover once the electorate judge them not up to the job (sorry Ed) the likelihood is that the voters will plump for a centre right Coalition or a centre left Coalition rather than choose a clear winner.

All of which leaves me saying this year exactly as I did last. There is a crying need for one of the party leaders to use the new political season and their conference speech to disrupt the miserable stasis that is English politics. Without such boldness it is difficult to see any of the parties making much headroom in the next election. Yet, all the signs are that none of them has the capacity or motiation to find either a message or a way of communicating it which lifts them above the fray and makes a connection with the 58% and rising who think politics is less important than the price of fish.

Given that nothing has changed and that nothing seems likely to change, it is reasonable to ask why I bother writing about it. The spur was a clever piece in the Observer yesterday by Catherine Bennett. Bennett identifies a syndrome which she terms ‘I only had the prawn cocktail’, referring to those people who refuse to share the bill after a meal out on the grounds that they ate less than other people.

She quotes arguments that only graduates should shoulder the bill for higher education, only train users should be expected to stump up for subsidising railways and only parents should pay for childcare subsidies. The details of the argument can be contested – in each of these three cases it is still the case that the taxpayer at large contributes substantially – but the deeper point concerns the apparent inability of politicians to summon up a case for the common good.

Yet without some account of the common good and, what is more, an account which sees that good extending into our responsibilities to the future, democracy is nothing more than exactly what its critics have always warned of: an ugly and unequal fight of self-interested causes to rig the game, articulate grievances and mobilise populist indignation. Indeed, it is interesting that the policy which has the greatest credibility among voters (even if they don’t always like the consequences) – austerity – is the one which is most often couched in terms of social responsibility as well as voter self-interest.

The tragedy in Egypt is an extreme case but it shows the frailty of democracy in the absence of some notion of shared national interest and common good. We aren’t on the road to Cairo, nowhere near it, but unless our leading politicians try to aim higher not only will the greatest ambition of the parties be partial victory in a game of ‘who’s least worst’ but we will soon be recalling that 42% figure with fond nostalgia.


A responsible society. An enterprising economy. New leadership for new times.

May 21, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

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

Fairness/solidarity Progress/hierarchy Freedom/individualism
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.


Leadership is tough and then you die

March 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 

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.



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’.


The university of hard knocks?

September 6, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

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).


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