Monthly Archives: September 2016

Millennial Leadership – less capture and more reconstruction

The metaphor of a political earthquake is over used, but already 2016 is a political year where it can be properly said. We have seen the shaking institutions, from the EU and Brexit to Theresa May’s new government to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

But to understand the shaking institutions we need to talk about the growing pressures deep below, growing over years until something has to give. Pressures such as – increasing inequality, wage stagnation and decline, ultra long working hours and commutes, unaffordable housing costs, student debt, climate change, species extinctions, food banks, social care cuts and the NHS in a permanent winter. A mess.

It seems to me that the general style of leadership practiced in recent years has been failing to deal with the mess. Let’s call it capture leadership.

This capture leadership has been the prevailing model for the last 30 to 40 years, for examples:
– capture a public organisation and privatise it to sell off assets
– capture a company management team and self-award big pay rises
– capture a media outlet to promote an agenda
– capture a party machine to further that agenda.

This capturing model is not just about now – the extraordinary political summer of 2016. It has been happening repeatedly such as with David Cameron in 2005, with New Labour in the 1990s, with the Social Democrats merging with the Liberals in the 1980s. Each successor took courage from the previous example, and for many years the capture model of leadership went from strength to strength.

It wasn’t all bad, but below the surface the pressures of its contradictions continued to grow and in the end these deep forces have severely shaken the surface institutions, leaving only hollow structures in their place. The model of capture leadership was always short-term, was always subtractive, whether it was asset stripping, pay stripping, or vote stripping.

The alternative leadership model I would suggest is reconstructive.

This is additive leadership, it aims to leave an organisation better than it found it. It is optimistic, visionary, inclusive. It understands the damage that has happened and has a new culture and strategy to make good change happen. It is hard work and needs careful thinking. Being reconstructive, it does mean dealing with toxic legacies and mistakes, and importantly it means incorporating these lessons learnt within the reconstruction and not just leaving them in a pile in the corner.

Reconstructive leadership is not about offering a replacement of what has gone – more of the old – because that just delays and denies change and increases the pressures.

Nor is it a displacement – it’s our turn now, we are in charge and your turn willcome later – because that just shares the captured organisation with a complicit opponent.

The risk today is that reconstructive leadership is just too difficult. Capture leadership is always easier to do – I’m in charge now, so give me the keys and the company credit card. Reconstructive leadership is harder – we are in charge now, so come in and let’s get round the table to sort this mess.

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Is there a left Brexit?

The essence of Brexit was commonly seen as a right-wing project, and essentially focused on immigration. And this project struck a chord with so-called Labour voters in so-called Labour traditional heartlands.

I say so-called because actually the Labour vote in such areas has been in decline for a number of years. Plus the routing of Labour in Scotland.

All familiar stuff, but what would a left-wing exit from the EU look like?

So far we have, from various quarters, basically a bit of a shopping list:
1. protect workers rights
2. protect the environment
3. allow state aid to companies
4. remove market forces from public services
5. continue with EU educational and research networks.

On the free movement of people it gets a bit more vague. Something along the lines of – yes to free movement but with conditions on higher wage rates and local advertising.

Yet every indication so far is that the negotiations for Brexit will be for single market access in goods and services, with London’s financial services being the likely sticking point.

On this scenario we could have a future where UK firms manufacture two standards of, say, kettles. The CE standard will be allowed to be sold within the EU. The lower, rougher, cruder (though not necessarily cheaper) UK standard kettle will be allowed for British sales only. Free market rules. Fewer rights, such as removing working time limits. Less mutual recognition of social rights such as pensions and health care.

Perhaps we can start a new, more positive conversation. Let’s take the above shopping list as a good start but also consider these ideas as well:

6. free movement of people
7. a minimum income based on adult citizenship
8. changing agricultural subsidies to protect biodiversity
9. supporting rural businesses and communities explicitly
10. rebuilding a second language education to 18 years of age
11. agreeing a standard functional level of English for personal service work
12. focusing state aid to market failure such as the lack of investment in low carbon technologies.

Of course, having a list does not guarantee that we will get it all. But we have to start the conversation, especially with people who voted out.

British rail – we need rolling stock and instead we get rolling heads

The departure of Simon Kirby this week as the departing CEO of HS2 has to be a worry.
We have a new minister in charge in Theresa May’s new Cabinet, and I for one suspect that the new minister wanted to make a mark and show everyone who is in charge. So a head had to roll. 

And it rolled to the cheers of the Stop HS2 campaigners, who no-one could criticise for being gracious. All good theatre and PR, but does it help Britain and our transport problems?

The existing railway is close to failure. Overcrowding is evident everywhere, and even staunch Conservative voters want a national, not-for-profit service reinstated. Two off-peak journeys this week had me standing for 30mins and 70mins. A two-car pacer, once an hour, between south Manchester and Chester on the day of the horse races – oh, the fun we had!

But behind the overcrowding is the less obvious creaking infrastructure, though a close look outside the train window at the state of the trackside gives a sense of it.

And perhaps worst, the design of the railway remains set for the late 1940s. New towns are ignored, old stations stay open in the middle of nowhere. Ardwick in Manchester has one train a week, a so-called Parliamentary service on a Saturday morning, to avoid the legalities of full closure.

Turning back to HS2, it shows the possibility of future investment in 21 century rail. It has merit – it is less disruptive and adds more capacity than an upgrade. It connects HS1 and the Channel Tunnel to places beyond London, a promise denied in the 1990s. It does have its challenges, but truth be told, most of these revolve around what best to do with Euston. Nearly all the housing impact is within a few miles of Euston in inner London. Solve Euston and you pretty much resolve HS2.

But here we are, with another review and another rolling head.

At the risk of being old and sentimental, the 1990s settlement between Michael Heseltine and John Prescott recognised that infrastructure development requires stability far beyond the cycle of general elections and Cabinet reshuffles. Less drama, less PR, but real impact and real benefits for future generations. Hopefully it is not too late to still succeed and achieve this now.

We share our food

This week there are reports that the parent company of a newspaper had made record profits with its four directors sharing £18.3m in pay, while the journalists have not had a pay rise in eight years.

If people have become just company units, resources, commodities, then what is the point? To make ever-more money for ever-fewer people? While two life-chances pull further and further apart: the drudge on 50 hours a week, long commutes, tiny holidays, their little income lost on rent and utilities; the lucky few in cosy gated communities with lawyers and accountants to guard their off-shore treasure island.

What defines us as human, as distinctive from other primates or mammals? What was it that put us on a different path, leaving the wilderness to be fully human, to create agriculture, cities and culture? I would suggest it is our social nature that made us different – crudely, we are different because we share our food. Eating together defines and completes us. It encircles the family. It seals a deal. It marks a transition in life. Even when we could perfectly well eat alone, we are drawn to share.

The journalist Kate Adie in her autobiography The Kindness of Strangers (2002) tells the story of when she and a TV crew were filming in a town after an earthquake. They had found a woman stranded in the street with her small children, who in turn had found a few eggs and had started a fire under a flat stone to make an omelette. She had a small piece of cardboard which she used as a spatula. The crew started filming for the evening news. As they finished the woman looked up and divided the meal into two, half for her and the children, half for the TV crew. All the crew were mortified.

Today’s level of unchecked greed by a few powerful interests, with the inequality that has resulted, is basically the enemy of civilisation.