Guardians of the Fallacy

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Why is there such a proliferation of fact checking websites? Things seem bad, but the idea that we are now in a post truth era is daft.  It is estimated that even 25% of Barak Obama’s claims were questionable (Trump 65%), and at any one time, from Nero to Trump there have been attempts to spin the truth.

Go back to the recent history of corporate governance to see the same problems. With the series of crises including Enron, where truth was hostage, to the great credit crisis, to The Mid Staffs Trust case. These events we characterised variously as unreal, madness, alternative reality, delusional thinking – the truth was lost. So, how do we spot the spin in the board and challenge the spinners?

First, we need to be clear what truth is about. These are some of the key theories of truth:

  • Correspondence. Statement corresponds to an objective reality. Not straightforward- need empirical confirmation.
  • Coherence. Does statement make sense, including is it rational
  • Constructivist. We construct the truth together. So what are out criteria?
  • Consensus all agreed….at least to some degree
  • Pragmatic enquiry into truth is self-corrective over time ifopenly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths.

All are important elements of truth and are important for checking truth.  But truth also depends upon our worldview and related values. These determine what we believe is significant in the world, morally, socially, professionally and so on, and thus determine how we view our social context (including what we exclude).

Alan Greenspan, chair of the Fed until 2006, for instance, failed to see the significance of over 100 financial crises before the big melt down. He thought this because he literally believed in the power of the market to adjust, whatever the crisis. He also was convinced by Ayn Rand’s view of aggressive freedom, focused on heroic individualism. Inevitably this means he did not see the world as interconnected and inter-dependent.  So we all need to challenge what people believe, what causes them to see the world in the way they do. Belief radically affects our view of truth and both perception of and practice in society.

Spotting beliefs demands that leader be held to account, even for their worldviews. Another thing to hold leaders to account over is their logical coherence. Leaders and politicians are often the guardians of the fallacy, moral and logical. A fun book to explore this is Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. Here are some of the most popular fallacies which leaders sigh up to:

  • Appeal to authority – Endorsements from powerful people are used to convince us.  But just because someone important believes something doesn’t mean we should support it too.
  •  Appeal to the crowd – Politicians like to look for support by showing how many people want their policies are in favour of it. This is the adult variation of the teenager’s, ‘but everyone is doing it!’. Just because the poll tells us a majority wants a wall does not mean that a wall is a good thing.
  • Straw man – Here an opponent’s views are misrepresented and ten easily destroyed. One of the most common errors is to misrepresent an opponent’s views. The classic case of this was the argument that Obamacare was developing ‘death panels’.
  • Ad hominem – ‘Playing the man not the ball’- attacking the person as a means of destroying the argument. All leaders love this one. But the fact that she is a Union leader does not make her argument about justice wrong, nor does being a Tory have anything to with arguments about the market.  This is a fallacy that good be used to awful ends in the work place, not least when a leader wants to marginalise a colleague.
  • Slippery slope – ‘If we allow same sex marriage then within a generation the family as an institution will be destroyed’. But there is no basis of this conclusion, and more often than not such arguments appeal to emotion not least fear- losing the family- or to prejudice.

Such fallacies do not provide effective support to any argument. So why do leaders in business and politics make such frequent use of them?

I suspect the answer is that we let them get away with it. Because we want to keep in with the boss we accept his argument. Because we share the same prejudices we assume there is merit in the arguments. Because we find the boss intimidating we keep quiet. Because we don’t hold ourselves to account for our logic, we don’t hold others to account.

We need to step up to the truth.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

 

 

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So You Think You’re Responsible?

The last blog suggested that the concept of responsibility should not be seen as primarily moral. Responsibility is something about who you are and your capacities. Some even suggest that responsibility is a virtue.

We need more clarity, though, and Aristotle suggests that it is comparatively simple. For him it is about imputability, and accountability. These are connected, and the first is about critical agency, owning ideas and practice, and putting this into practice in decision making.

Of course, as I suggested last time this is not simply about narrow rationality. Any ideas that we have are connected to feelings, which are in turn expressed through values- moral, social and so on. Much of the time seem to be operating at the ‘rational’ level but are actually operating at much weightier, unchallenged, feeling level. Jonathan Haidt says something similar in the way he sees different values at the heart of the Republican/Democrat divide.

Where I take issue with Haidt is precisely that critical agency is about testing those feelings so that they do not, of themselves, determine thought and action.

If we drill down this first mode of responsibility, critical agency, several integrated aspects emerge, including:

  • Critical thinking (cognition): the capacity to think rationally: to frame an argument (logically and with empirical evidence), and to critique an argument; knowing what you are talking about. As a practical skill this includes the capacity to identify logical and ethical fallacies, and how to challenge these. Don’t for one minute think this is common. Many of the leaders involved in the credit crisis did not have this capacity.
  • Metacognition and mindfulness: The first of these involves the capacity to the think critically about how we think, focused in reflective practice. The second involves holistic awareness, enabling both the development of the observing self and thus awareness of the self and social and physical environment, and the continually changing nature of life. This includes knowledge of one’s own capabilities and limitations
  • Critical awareness of the social and physical environment and the nature of the individual’s and organization’s relationship to these, and the consequences of actions. This goes beyond ‘stakeholder relations’ management, and even involves responsibility for how we perceive the wider environment. Such perception involves both appreciation of its complexity, i.e. who and what is involved, and judgement about the significance of related actions. Just try this out for yourself go to foyer of your workplace and recount to yourself what you see and what it means, and ask a colleagues to do the same. Then consider what accounts for any difference in perception.
  • Awareness of and the capacity to respond to the ambiguity of social environments. This applies at both board level and in relation to members of the organization and wider society, focusing on psychology and social psychology, which includes: the nature of group dynamics; strategies for addressing power asymmetry; dealing with power abuse; and conflict resolution capacities and techniques. Sen notes the importance of recognising diversity, embodied in multiple narratives, in the self, the organization and the wider political sphere. Conflict is precisely based in polarized perception which ‘rubs out’ the complexity, and thus humanity, of the other.
  • Critical appreciation of purpose. This is about the value of the person or organization, including the value to society. One of the key issues in the credit crisis was the failure of the finance industry to appreciate its value, and thus importance to a thriving society, in terms of providing a financial framework for all society. In turn there was no sense of individual professional value to the wider finance industry.
  • Critical appreciation of moral values (only now!) central to social practice within and outside the organization. This demands awareness of and critical reflection on such values. Key moral principles include justice, respect, dignity, beneficence, non-maleficence, and related principle which inform healthy and morally good relationships, not least freedom, equality, and community. Precisely because the first set of principles are so broad and complex this demands the skill of practical reflection- to see what they actually look like in practice. Precisely because the second set of principles are interrelated this demands critical reflection on how they can be embodied together.
  • Competency in practice. In the credit crisis many leaders and wider boards did not have competence in their areas, e.g. some major bank boards were dominated by retail not bank specialists. This demands that leadership is able to focus clearly on the core practice of the organization.

This is quite a list for just one aspect of responsibility. It involves autonomy, taking responsibility for each of these things; governing the self. It also involves authenticity; these are my feelings, my sense of value, my ideas, my relationships….

Each of these capacities is necessary for the practice of the others. You can’t develop moral judgement without awareness and appreciation of the social and physical environment; you can’t respond to the social and physical environment if you are not aware of how you relate to it or the value that you or your organization have, and so on. Each of them is involved in developing individual and organizational identity- knowing who I am/ we are. And each forms the basis of accountability

Prof.  Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

 

 

 

Leadership Responsibility

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The blog on 25th May began to think about professional responsibility. In this one I want to start to think about leadership responsibility, increasingly a focus in business studies (see “A Systematic Literature Review of Responsible Leadership: Challenges, Outcomes and Practices” Frangieh et al, Journal of Global Responsibility 2017, 2).

Following the credit crisis of 2007/8 several different leaders suggested that a new age of responsibility would be ushered in. For many reasons that age has not materialised. It raises major questions about what the nature of this responsibility might be, and these have implications both for governance and how we train for leadership responsibility.

Is it about getting systems of governance and regulation right- ‘this will never happen again’? This must be partly so, in order to provide frameworks of broad meaning, and expectations of practice. Hence the continued development of codes, reports and legal and professional regulation. The danger of relying solely on systems, however, is that they can take away from individual responsibility. We do what the code says and remain responsible for specific tasks but do not for anything else. Hence, cases like Mid Staffs hospital trust show regulators and professional groups responsible for their narrow area, but not for the overall purpose and project of health care. Enron had a well-developed ethical code, but did not practice responsibility. Regulation and codes are important but no enough.

Is responsibility about getting the moral foundations of practice right? Some argue that responsible leadership is based in values leadership or transformational leadership approaches. These approaches are important, and very much focused in how moral values, expressed in principles such as justice and respect, provide direction. However, responsibility, as idea and practice, cannot be defined in terms simply of moral values.

Moral values are important to any understanding of responsibility but have two dangers. A moral value can be used to bad ends. Even the value of care, for instance, has been used historically to confine the role of women; effectively subjugating them to a socially determined role of care for family. But also values, especially principles such as respect or justice do not determine substantive meaning. This requires critical reflection on what the principle actually means in practice context.  Key to this is the capacity to test prejudice, and critique ideology and practice.

Perhaps then leadership responsibility is about getting Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects right. Some see this ideally as about the practice of philanthropy, a business doing something for the greater good. Again, this is admirable, but not necessarily about the practice of responsibility. There are too many examples of ‘green washing’, where CSR looks good but does not encourage responsible practice in everyday life. BP, for instance, had what appeared to be a strong sustainability framework in place, but did not act responsibly in the Deepwater Horizon case.

Is responsibility about obligation to a contract for a project? ‘I have agreed to be responsible for this project in return for’ compensation of some kind. The leader should be judged on the targets hit, or not. Owning one’s particular role and the agreed targets related to that is important. However, once more it is not sufficient. In 1978 Ted Kennedy pushed the representative of Nestle to give an account of the company’s responsibility when breast milk substitute was being marketed in the third world, i.e. when the firm knew that poverty and unclean water would lead to the death of infants. The reply was ‘we can’t have that responsibility, sir’, and even as the representative said it he knew there was something wrong; leading, soon afterwards, to an apology.  Nestle at that point wanted to restrict responsibility for consequences strictly to the action of marketing and purchasing, and not to the context of that practice. Anything beyond that, Nestle argued initially, was the responsibility of the individual or the healthcare system or the government.

Many philosophies argue that it is not possible to extricate oneself from the interactive web that any business is involved in, something exacerbated by global social media which continually raises questions about business and its relation to politics, or the unintended consequences of business practice in relation to human rights . The dynamic of this is important to notice.

The defence which appeals to ignorance about unintended consequences, and therefore denying responsibility for those consequences, has a very short shelf life. As Nike understood well, once you know what the unintended consequences are the actor/firm becomes partly responsible for these if there is a failure to change practice.

There are two motivations for taking responsibility in such cases

  • The first is survival. Once the wider public realises what has happened there is danger of customer boycott, as in the Nestle case.
  • The second is about reputation and authentic leadership, i.e. that the organization has recognised the issues, learned and changed practice. In Nestle’s case this included working with other organization who shared responsibility for infant healthcare.

Responsibility then involves something about the character of the leader and organization, including the capacity engage with ideas, consequences and the practice of judgement in relation to context, i.e. the social and physical environment in which the organization operates. Exercising such judgement demands great care, not least an awareness of legal understandings of the term responsibility and the effect that an uncritical acceptance of responsibility might have on an organization.

The danger, on the other hand, of denying responsibility, viewed narrowly as culpability, might, as the Nestle case shows have equally bad consequences.  Denial of responsibility, for the action, about the significance of an action (‘it was just locker-room talk’), of awareness of the action, and so on, like the argument from ignorance, can only work once if there are substantive issues that need to be addressed.

So, like the professional responsibility blog, leadership responsibility involves something about the very capacities and character of the leader:

  • Does the leader have a grasp of intellect; does she own her own ideas?
  • Does the leader understand the value of her practice- both the practice her institution/profession and the practice of being a leader?
  • Is the leader aware of and responsive to the social and physical environment in which she operates?
  • Is the leader aware of and responsive to the complex environment in her organization?
  • Does the leader have a grasp of the key moral values which provide a framework for practice?
  • Is the leader able to give an account of these things to support and develop significant practice?

This suggests that responsible leadership involves at least three elements:

  • A learning/teaching strand, much like the last blog, enabling the development of autonomy and responsiveness in the organization.
  • A directional strand enabling the organization to determine and develop its direction.
  • Relational strand, which involves awareness and responsiveness to the wider social and physical environment.

Responsibility in all this is as much epistemic, awareness of self and society, as it is moral; as much psychological, awareness of dynamics and the capacity to listen, as intellectual, grasp of ideas; as much about communication, and related skills, as about grasp of value and purpose.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Leadership, Governance and Global Responsibility

End of Season

Your might forgive the good people of Huddersfield and Reading for not worrying too much about the up-coming election. As I write supporters of both teams, to say nothing of the players and managers, are preparing themselves for the big final. The prize, a season in the Premiership! An even bigger prize is being debated in the general election and if you add all this together you get a sense of some very different views about leadership. I wonder if sport might have a few things to say about leadership to the politicians?

A new book by Sam Walker, The Captain Class: the Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams suggests it has. Walker offers an interesting analysis of some of history’s greatest sports team, from the Hungarian football teams of the 1950s to the recent rugby All Blacks. The rise and fall of these teams correlates almost exactly with the appearance and departure of the captain. Of course, there may be many other variables at play, but this does suggest as prima facia case for how influential leadership can be. Across these examples Walker argues that we see nothing of the stereotypical ‘great man’ leader, no flashy charisma, and often they are not the most talented member of the team.

For me one thing stands out with these leaders: they avoided lime-light. Their focus is not themselves.

Richie McCaw, the great All Black flanker was offered a knighthood in 2011 and turned it down. Carla Overbeck, the skipper of the great US Women’s football team of the 90s, did not join in the victory parade but went straight home. When asked what she was doing while her team mates were being feted, she replied ‘three loads of laundry’. Tim Duncan, captain of the NBA Antonio Spurs team, accepted a salary less than his market value. Carles Puyol, skipper of Barcelona FC, unrelentingly kept his team focused.  Those of us from Yorkshire might complain that Walker did not include the great cricket team of the 1960s and the inimitable Brian Close; but that’s for another time.

The conclusion of David Walsh (Sunday Times, May 21, 2017) is that Walker’s study points to servant leadership. I am not totally convinced about this, partly because I am always sceptical of leadership theories which try to sum up everything (cf. Robinson and Smith 2014), and partly because there seem to be several different variations on servant leadership theory.

Often it is characterised as ‘serving the followers’. The way this is expressed, of course, aims to create dissonance with the traditional view of leadership. However, ‘serving followers’ is a problematic idea because it puts followers at the centre of the leadership. This is far from the case in the examples that Walker notes. McCaw, as leader points to something greater than ‘followers’, the team, the sport and New Zealand itself. His focus is on the value (not values) of the team and of rugby, and he helped the rest of the team to focus on that. Overbeck’s leadership takes us beyond that. ‘Get a life’, seems to be her message, success is no everything. Her identity as sportsperson and leader was much more than a winning captain of a successful team. This is the antidote to Bill Shankley’s,

‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’

Leadership is about getting life in perspective, not just focusing on followers. And Puyol takes that a notch further when we read of him breaking up a celebration by two Barcelona players. He though that it was disrespectful to the opposition and might just fire them up. Here the leader is both focused on moral values, in this case respect, the moral framework of the sport (see Gardiner, Parry and Robinson 2017) as well as success.

Duncan goes even further. As leader he focuses not so much on followers and more on relationships in the team and club. In effect he focuses on justice, in other words fairness; right relationships and how this is expressed in terms of reward.

How does politics tie in with all of this? Central to the debate thus far has been the cry ‘which party will give us the strong leadership that is required for Brexit’. But it looks like we have quickly got over the idea that strong leadership is the main issue, and that authentic leadership is about staying focused on the meaning and practice of what really matters.

Hence, the issues emerging in the Labour manifesto have halved the Tory poll lead. Let me be clear I am not signalling support for any side. However, the more our debate focuses on justice, respect, and a balanced view, i.e. non-polarized, of Brexit, and actually works that through in detail the more responsible leadership will be practised in the campaign. Contrast that with leadership on both sides of the referendum which showed a lack of respect for the opposition, and sought to polarize and mislead. They were neither true to the issues or to the electorate.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

Practising Responsibility

The idea of professional responsible leadership has emerged in recent times, but what does it mean to be responsible, and can you teach it?

In the next few blogs I will be exploring this. Maybe we should start with the simple question: are you a responsible person?

It is actually not an easy question. Few people want to be seen as not responsible, still less irresponsible. But to decide what that means requires an exploration of who I am. Most people then reflect on the things they are responsible for; family, job and so on.

So how does being responsible for something or somebody make you a responsible person? I guess through what that responsibility tells you about your identity and your relationships. If I am a teacher I am responsible for educating people, which means being committed to these people through the experience of learning. But as soon as that commitment is entered into I am responsible for both meaning, relationships and practice in education.

So, as a responsible teacher I take responsibility for knowing what I am doing; the nuts and bolts of how you teach, and developing good practice. The teacher is responsible for the meaning of this, that is, the significance of this practice. Rowan Williams drills this down to the nature of the person as a learning being; learning is a key part of what it means to be human.

Crikey! Now I am responsible for something which many would see as of ultimate significance; what I do makes a real difference. Of course, I am not responsible for all of that myself. I share that responsibility with other members of my profession; which is nice. But rather than lightening my responsibility this deepens and develops it! I am not just responsible for my little corner of education world. I am also responsible, with my colleagues, for the integrity of the teaching profession.

Maintaining the standards of teaching practice maintains the meaning and significance of that practice and expands the community of learning, such that new learners recognize and realize that meaning. The learner begins to understand what he or she is doing and why it is important. The teacher and the teaching profession can be seen as social leaders; committed to the development of a key pre-moral good for society. Hang on… I can you hear already saying this is more than a pre-moral good. At the heart of good teaching is autonomy, the capacity to govern the self, and this is both a moral and psychological good, key to community and health.

This is all starting to get pretty heavy; shades of Satre, Levinas, Bauman, the Abrahamic religion, and universal responsibility. At this point we may want to deny this responsibility, or at least draw a boundary around it. Boundaries are important for mental health and order. But boundaries, like rules, cannot determine who we are and how we develop and negotiate responsibility. So part of my responsibility has to be to keep open the conversation about the different ways I view and practice responsibility, more of that anon.

To this point the responsibility has been for ideas, value, values, competent practice; all of which connect to the project of teaching. Lurking behind that is commitment to the people involved, which in teaching we must assume is the student.  Or must we? If I am responsible for the vision embodied in the teaching profession am I not also committed to the profession and to the members of that profession, summed up in the idea of the community of learning? The student becomes part of that community of learning, and so in turn becomes responsible for the community. Of course the commitment does not end there.

What about the different professions within the community of learning, the local community, the wider society, the supporting government? So is there a conversation which explores that commitment and its implications? It becomes hard to predetermine how we fulfill such responsibility without listening to these groups; without conversation. This suggests a responsibility to have a conversation, both as the basis of sharing responsibility and as recognition of the value of the project to all those involved.

Let’s pause there. Just two questions:

  • Is there evidence of reflection on this kind of responsibility in your institution or profession?
  • When did you last have a conversation about the significance of what you are doing?

As always, we encourage debate and feedback!

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

King John…umph!?

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Shakespeare has a way of getting there before us, not least when it comes to leadership. So what would he have to say about the leader of the free world? My view of Mr Trump has been oscillating over the last two weeks, partly because in the midst of all the recent problems I find myself warming to him (please note that is not the same as agreeing with him).

Part of the reason is because, as Trevor Noah notes, Trump has all the skills of a stand-up comedian. He is good at one liners, and when he moves into his next fabulist story there is a chutzpah there. When he comes out from behind the White House PR team he almost raises sympathy with his belief that he is the victim. Please remember, as I smile, I am not agreeing.

Then it came to me…. the American people have elected Sir John Falstaff as their leader, and this is part of the reason why his base stay loyal to him; they like him.

It is fascinating how we English have taken Jack Falstaff* to our hearts. There are a dozen or more pieces of classical music focused in on him, the most affection of which is Elgar’s symphonic study. Commentators on Henry IV parts I and 2 regularly note Shakespeare’s fondness for the character, and many other writers see him as a quintessential figure of fun. Hence, most commentators see the moment when the new King, Henry V, turns against his old pal, as emotionally challenging; seen by some as a betrayal:

‘I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace
(Henry IV, Act 5, scene 5)

Well, yes, this is a cataclysmic moment, but precisely because the new king has to establish himself as leader. The two plays leading up to this moment have been precisely about how Prince Hal has grown into leadership. Alongside the demands of leadership, is the fun of Jack Falstaff. Hal swithers and has his fun even in a comic trial where Falstaff is to be ‘banished’. His response, quick as a flash, is both fun and poignant, and thus more appealing:

‘No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’.

But the poignancy is really focused in the knowledge of Hal (Harry) that he will eventually have to do just that. If we weren’t attracted to Falstaff there would be no sense of poignancy. Further, without that attraction, which leads to Hal on several occasions tolerating Falstaff’s behaviour, we would not get a sense of the reality of his struggle to become a leader. This is the struggle that makes him address the tension between the Lord of Rule (his father) and the Lord of Misrule (Falstaff, often characterised as Hal’s surrogate father).

So, what do we have in kind Jack Falstaff?

  • First, we have a man who is obsessed by himself and his gain. Every opportunity he has he looks to make the most of it, from the recruitment of troops to his relationship with Hal.
  • Second, Falstaff is a fabulist who always inflates numbers and events, the two attackers who relieve him of ill-gotten gains soon become eleven, and he fights the dead Hotspur to the death.
  • Third, it is not clear that he really believes that he is sweet, kind, true and valiant but that is what he tries to project; he inflates himself (metaphorically and literally). This is the opposite of Aristotle’s virtue of truthfulness (alethēia) the truthful representation of the self. Falstaff had long ago lost the capacity to actually see his self. Contrast that with Hal and Hamlet who are forever observing the self.
  • Fourth, Falstaff paints himself as a friend of the little man, the ordinary soldier. Hence, in perhaps his greatest speech, he reflects on honour, how this is captured by the rich, and is of no value to the poor. Contrast that with Henry V’s troops prior to Agincourt and their thirst for authentic honour.
  • Fifth, Falstaff is man who actually has no ideology and no moral compass. His world view is centred in himself.
  • Sixth, he is a man who always denies responsibility, either for the event or the significance of the event, preferring to blame others.
  • Seventh, he is a man who does not know boundaries and who cannot read the signs from others. Just before Henry V’s powerful words to Falstaff, Jack is literally outside the boundaries that separate the people from the king. Three times he shouts to the king using an informal title, ignoring the initial responses. He crosses the boundaries and is lost.

Leadership demands a focus on others, service, a grasp of actuality, clear purpose and direction, the capacity to own failure, not denying responsibility, a grasp of clear boundaries and, perhaps above all else, that virtue of truthfulness.

Interestingly, Falstaff and the US president raise questions as to whether truthfulness is not more important than the truth about this or that. It might be argued that our perception of external reality is itself dependent upon truthfulness. When you inflate the self, reality inevitably becomes both inflated and opaque. But because your sense of self-esteem depends upon that inflation you have to keep defending the story of eleven brigands or the biggest crowds ever. These are the measure of who you see in the mirror, and soon become the measure of how we see the organisation that you lead.

Revd. Dr. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

*The character is referred to throughout this blog piece, and indeed throughout society, as both John and Jack, Jack being a common derivative of the name John.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Politics and Business: Who is Governing Whom?

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What has business got to do with politics? Go to a business school and you might be hard pressed find any answer. Yet business has everything to do with politics; regulation, taxes, opportunities for enterprise; government investment in business and infrastructure; lobbying; corruption; the nature and purpose of business, and so on. There is more than enough for a module there.

The arrival of Mr. Trump on the scene makes it even more interesting. Now we have a business man leading the free world. Wolin, Hedges and others have argued that what has led to this, certainly in the US, is the ‘incorporation’ of democracy. Business behind the scenes has dominated politics, through intense lobbying, leading to a form of an ‘inverted totalitarianism’, not based in ideology but rather in materialism.

Wolin argues that this is focused precisely on subverting genuine democratic dialogue (whilst at the same time avowing to uphold democracy), and substituting this with populism and propaganda. At the same time it is the corporate centred policies, not least de-regulation, which have led to the major financial crises, and the growth a remarkable wealth gap in the US[1]. Now, though, the face of corporate democracy is less behind the scenes. The president of the USA is a businessman with no experience of public service, voted in to fix the ‘mess’ that politicians have got the nation into. This is not the place to analyse this thesis in detail. However, it is clear that underlying this dynamic are many myths which reinforce this vision.

One key myth is that business leaders are ‘magical’, able to solve any problem. Mr. Trump is the most remarkable manifestation of this myth, but as I write a billionaire business man is being touted for an external review of the intelligence agencies in the US, and the new president’s cabinet is populated mostly by billionaire businessmen. The myth of the fixer replaces the ideal of the wise leader.

In turn this is supported by an academic myth, prevalent in business schools, that there is a science of fixing (HuzzardBennerand Kärreman 2017), we only need to develop the models and then everyone can use them. The fixer does not engage with people so much as use the tool, the magic tools of seven steps, more or less. Sliding in behind this is the myth that the business leader does not have be an expert in the area concerned. They have the unique capacity to fix anything, health, higher education, and so on. And how quickly governments have ingested this myth, from business leaders ‘fixing’ Higher Education in the UK (Dearing 1997, Browne 2010 HE reports) to a climate change sceptic, with no scientific expertise, endorsed as the head of the EPA.

It is remarkable how robust these myths have become, and they dominate issues such as the remuneration of the CEO. Whenever the high rewards of CEOs are questioned we see the same mantras: the limited market of those capable of fulfilling these posts; money as the only motivation of business leaders; the danger of losing such magical figures to foreign fields; the high level of risk and stress which demands bonuses even when the business is failing. Few of these arguments have empirical credibility, or logical or moral coherence (Kolb 2006), and behind them is the figure of the ‘great’ leader who is necessary if we are to secure survival and success.

Who says so? Nonetheless, the myth stays firmly in place, partly because there is not the time and the space to actually think about it. A good example of finding time and space is the UK Green Paper on corporate governance which has invited contributions about CEO remuneration, amongst others. This includes one from the Centre. It remains to be seen if the debate will lead to an effective engagement with justice in the workplace, without involving the workplace in that dialogue. Wolin’s thesis suggests that this kind of debate is the last thing democracy incorporated wants. The fixer doesn’t have time for debate and dialogue, or reflection on purpose, still less for regulation. There are too many objectives and tight deadlines; most of them, of course, put in place by the fixer.

I am not suggesting that testing such myths is easy, not least because there are many other narratives which make effective public debate difficult and which provide flying buttresses to maintain the myths. The rise of Trump has been accompanied by: the Christian Right and nationalists who share the anti-intellectualist stance; the gun lobby and others who see the elites as robbing them of freedom (even the freedom of mentally ill to own guns); the poor who have been left behind and who have lost faith in politicians; those who fear the incursion of aliens, i.e. Muslims. None of these narratives are ‘bad’, but there is little effective public dialogue to engage them, supportively or as challenge.

This raises the question of how they are to be tested, because contained within those myths, and others, is a breakdown of rational discourse. Along with the demise of the expert is a distrust of empirical evidence, along with mistrust of the intellectual is the demise of rational thinking, and the reality that anyone can be president of the US is confirmed.

Simon Robinson, Director of the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

[1] In the USA in 2016 the top 10% of families holding 76% of total wealth