Reputation, and Governance as Listening


What is your company known for?

That is not a rhetorical question or a hook for an argument. Can you write down what your company is known for? For most companies that is the start of a learning process not an end, because to answer it you need to ask others about you and the organization.  I can hear the frustration already growing with cried of ‘I haven’t got time for this kind of navel gazing- too many rabbit holes to get lost down’.

Whilst we are at it I wonder why rabbit holes get such a bad press. For the rabbit they are places of safety, nurture and community. Far from places where you lose the trail they are the end of the trail; the physical end but also the purpose of being a rabbit.

So maybe, unlike the white rabbit, we should take the time to think about what we are known for. Of course, ‘known for’ means ‘valued for’. This is what reputation is. So who are we going to ask about this?

Jim MacNamara suggests that this has to be all stakeholders, inside and outside the organization and that to achieve this requires an ‘architecture of listening’. He suggests that listening involves:

  • Recognition of others’ rights and views
  • Acknowledgement
  • Paying attention
  • Interpreting what is said to gain understanding of others’ views
  • Giving consideration to what is said
  • An appropriate response

This involves the practice of listening skills and Carl Rogers in the context of therapy suggests that underlying that is the trinity of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. 

All three of course are needed for any effective listening. Empathy recognises the shared human experience of the other. Congruence is about matching and balancing our responses, not least body language and verbal language. And we all know the listener who says ‘I am listening’ but signals that they don’t have the time for it. Unconditional positive regard can be summed up as equal respect. All this points to careful listening, without which it is hard to know what we are ‘know for’. Without this kind of feedback it is all too easy to paint an image of our organization that bears no relation to reality- at which point we become known for being ‘two-faced’- inside and outside the organization.

MacNamara’s research suggests that many leaders believe they communicate through listening and dialogue, but that the vast majority of communication in organizations is in fact one way transmission. You have got to ask why you might think that you communicate through dialogue and yet do not actually do that. The most likely explanation is that we simply have not worked out what listening is. There is nothing odd about that. Ask your spouse, child, or parent, and the answer will ‘he/she never listens’- always on the I pad, always meeting a deadline, always……

The suggestion then is that one of the key aspects of reputation management is effective listening, both to understand the organization and its relationship to society better and to present a congruent face to the work force and beyond.  So how can it be developed in your organization? There needs to be a culture of listening, which raises the expectation of being ‘listened to’.  That sounds like hard work, but is surprisingly easy. It demands the development of clear anchor points in the web of the organization and beyond, such as:

  • Board meetings and annual meetings that give space to dialogue, hearing the different stakeholder narratives. Most annual meetings focus on the party line.
  • Biennial reviews of the values and vision of the organization. Here the different voices within the organization can be heard. Do the different groups accept the board’s views? Do they see these ideas actually being carried put in practice and so on? There is great benefit to bringing stakeholders from different perspectives and interests, together in one place, so that the listening becomes part of on-going dialogue. This is where the attention of the leadership can actually be tested, and real trust developed (cf. O’Neil 2002).
  • Working with other groups such as universities or the IOD to build dialogue platforms with external stakeholders around the issues of the region.

Effective listening needs such anchor points where the dialogue is unrehearsed.   Three things make this unrehearsed quality important. Rehearsed dialogue means no surprises and no genuine listening.  Unrehearsed dialogue is a mark of authenticity; the leader does not have to refer back to a text.  It is focused in openness to personal encounter, not simply to rational or ideas. The Germans have a great word for this, Zwischenmenschliche (genuinely interpersonal), suggesting that such dialogue does not attempt to change or control the other. Unrehearsed dialogue genuinely holds the parties involved to account, and so helps to develop trust.

Reputation begins with listening then. It begins with valuing questions, not just about what we are known for, but about what we want to be known for.

The work from the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility focuses on enabling these questions to be explored and taken seriously.



Let’s Compromise

General Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, in a recent interview has suggested that a key reason for the US Civil War was the inability to compromise. I have some sympathy with the General as he seems to be in the middle of a polarized debate every day of the week. You can feel his desperate need for peace. And part of the argument about compromise hangs on the view that there were honourable people on both sides of the war.

There are, however, several problems with this ‘diagnosis’:

  • First, simply because there were good people of both sides does not make their moral position equivalent. There were good people in Nazi Germany but this did make their position a cause for compromise.
  • Second, honour is a tricky word; as reading Shakespeare will tell you. When Mark Anthony speaks to the crowd over the body of Caesar his speech is peppered with recognition that ‘Brutus is an honourable man’. By the end of the speech the crowd begins to turn against Brutus and the conspirators, not because Mark Anthony had questioned his honour, but because he had invited them to reflect on the life of Caesar. By extension, this questions the judgement of the honourable man. This means that you can be an ‘honourable’ person with lousy judgement and poor eyesight. Brutus could not see the merits of Caesar or that Cassius was manipulating his sense of honour.
  • It is fair to say that Robert E. Lee, the object of Kelly’s argument, believed what he was doing was honourable, but that he was short sighted, politically and morally. He could not see the consequences for the USA and he could not see the humanity of the slaves he fought over.

Shakespeare develops this theme in Henry IV part 1 and 2. At the two extremes we see Falstaff, prepared to imitate honourable behaviour for his own ends, and Hotspur whose thirst for honour was meant he could not see the consequences of settling scores against his honour. In the middle of these two is Henry V who learns the meaning of honour as shared by all and based in equal respect; ‘we band of brothers’.

So, when you begin to open your eyes to the Civil War, you see several things which come as a surprise to many:

  • First in January 1808, just over forty years after the War of Independence, Jefferson got the abolition of the slave trade into law; that was a few months before the UK abolition.
  • Second, however, whilst the Quaker inspired work kept going to the abolition of slavery itself in 1833, the US became bogged down in the attempt to keep the Union together in series of compromises. In response to the third of these Lincoln returns to politics and his argument is partly that you cannot govern if you haven’t worked through the meaning and practice of the founding vision, in this case,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

You cannot hold the principle of human equality whilst you are buying, selling and killing human beings with impunity, and it took the US another fifty odd years to address this and more than a further century to work at what it meant to be equal and different. This was not a matter of compromise, it was a matter of integrity; the willingness to stand up for big values and the willingness to keep looking critically at what we do and to challenge each other.

If they had not gone through that they could not have governed the USA. The same is true, albeit much less complex, of the governance of any organization. The big ideas demand regular reflection and compromise, in calling out abuse or injustice, will not do.



Guardians of the Fallacy


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



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

resp lead

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

Ongoing dialogue and partnership with business, professions and public bodies, designed to influence and drive governance, leadership and integrity