Why Values Must Always Be Open to Fresh Ideas

Winston Churchill is famously credited with saying that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others… Although often quoted as a humorous aphorism, his deeper point was that despite an inherent inefficiency, the checks and balances of an open society are the best way to secure progress, peace, and prosperity for all. I sometimes wonder if his conviction was a comfort when having led his country through the Second World War, he was promptly voted out of office.

The benefits of an open society were further explored around the same time by the philosopher Karl Popper. As an Austrian of Jewish descent, he had close experience of the dark side of authoritarianism. His core insights were founded on the contrast between the rich battle of opinions that democracies thrive on, and the limiting dogma of societies dominated by a single party, person or cultural creed. Applying the methods of scientific inquiry to politics and government, Popper was a standard-bearer for diversity, freedom, and the meritocracy of ideas.

Today, many of the world’s larger companies and organizations have as much power and influence as nation-states. Indeed, the reach of multinational corporations has long been a cause of concern for governments and international law. Recently, for example, the policies and practices of the technology giants controlling social media have rightly come in for scrutiny, given their role in public debate. It’s no coincidence that the world’s most repressive regimes all seek to limit their availability as a means of stamping out critical thought.

Businesses of course are not democracies in the true sense, and indeed there is a good reason why this is so. The combination of ownership rights and the need for clear direction requires a hybrid model in which a range of views are considered, but without recourse to a vote on every issue. Companies in the democratic West also operate in a wider context of competition and regulatory law that provides a range of checks and balances which are lacking in more centrally controlled economies. Perhaps most importantly, the best businesses recognize that their long-term prosperity lies in being open to fresh ideas and challenges, validated on merit rather than any alignment to an orthodoxy.

All of this explains why I think we should have pause for thought when someone as powerful as Elon Musk makes a bid for Twitter. Is it right that effectively he alone decides whether former President Trump should or be given access, or that one or other view is acceptable or too dominant?  Are we comfortable that the checks and balances I spoke of earlier can continue to work when there is such a disparity of influence and dominance of ownership? Twitter, for all its faults, is unarguably one of the most influential political platforms on Earth. And that’s why I’m queasy about the prospect of it coming under the control of anyone individual, regardless of whether they’re a benign saint or an evil genius.

In recent years I’ve written a lot about values and their critical role in the health of organizations. What’s become clear to me is the essential tension we must hold between being steadfast in our beliefs while remaining open to challenges and ultimately their change. This is why values are best determined by a commitment to ‘inside-out’ thinking, ensuring we listen carefully to the views of those within the organization as well as the best thoughts from beyond. A sure sign that values are not representative or effective in their purpose is when they become overly aligned to one particular viewpoint.

There are no easy solutions to achieving this. In a sense, we will always fail in our pursuit, just as listening and compromise will always be frustrating to those who are certain they are right! In the case of Twitter, I’m at least reassured that it will continue to operate under the competitive pressures that are perhaps our greatest insurance against closed thinking. Meanwhile, as leaders—in business, politics or indeed our daily lives —we must all be torchbearers for Popper’s open society of ideas and opinions. And in doing so, we would do well to remember Churchill, and recognize that the path of innovation and inclusion will often seem like the worst possible way… bar all the rest!

Ukraine: a war of values as much as weapons

To write on geopolitics as momentous events unfold is fraught with danger of a sort. Had I started this article last week, the context, as well as your response to my thoughts, would likely have been different. It may well be that what I have to say now will look foolish or naive in but a few weeks or even days’ time. Such is the pace and magnitude of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact across the globe.

And yet to stay silent, even temporarily, would also be cowardice of sorts. There are lessons in what is unfolding that ought to be aired in a manner that is, if only in some very small way, a challenge to the dead ends of Putin’s autocratic mindset. If in doing so I risk the potential to misread or misspeak, I can take heart in Hellen Keller’s assertion that Security is mostly a superstition… Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.

When I first learned of the invasion, I felt very perturbed. It’s difficult, I think, for many Americans to fully appreciate the proximity of events to my friends and colleagues in Europe. The borders of what we once knew as the Eastern Bloc are but a few hundred miles away from my childhood home. The knowledge that tanks are rolling across lands that we had hoped would become free from oppression is a sadness that’s more visceral than any trans-Atlantic reportage can convey.

Let’s not be too romantic though; Ukraine was not some pillar of virtue and by no means the best example of those former Soviet-controlled countries that reclaimed their identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Indeed, in 2021 it was only 86th in the ranking of world democracies and came 16th out of the 29 post-socialist countries in the Freedom House Index. Like many former Soviet states, Ukraine was at best a nation in transition. 

But for all its faults, the government in Kiev was slowly rejecting the authoritarianism that remains the legacy of so many former communist states. Importantly, the new president, who has been elected on an anti-corruption platform, was looking to the West and not the East for a vision of a more prosperous future. And it is surely this, more than any threat of joining the EU or NATO that so threatened his Russian counterpart.  What Putin fears is not Ukraine’s weapons but its emerging values; his existential nightmare is not the physical threat to his borders, but the possibility that a mindset of freedom might seep over them. 

  And it is this that is the greatest sadness of all.

For this is a war of lost opportunity, not just in Ukraine but in Russia and its satellites too. Had I been writing in the early eighties, I might have queried if the socialist states could ever transition to an open market model. Today that battle is over, with precious few countries in the world rejecting private enterprise; even China is effectively capitalist in nature.  But if the economic axis is now determined, its political equivalent—the spectrum running from freedom to authoritarianism—is just as divided as ever. 

As individuals, at times like these we can feel powerless, having to trust in our leaders and institutions to make the right calls. Militarily and politically, that is broadly true, but it seems to me that we can still make a difference, however small, by looking again at our own spheres of influence and recommitting to the values that we believe—indeed know—are right in and off themselves.

In this respect, Ukraine should be wake-up call for each and every one of us—and especially so to those in positions of influence— reminding us all of the precious nature of freedom from oppression, of meritocracy and open-minded debate; of the immense benefits that flow from the messy world of liberal values as opposed to the sterile structures of autocratic control.  From our families to our communities and our workplaces, rekindling our commitment to these values is perhaps the most important message we can send to those seeking to deny them to others. 

Lasting success will mean holding to our beliefs not only when threats are immediate but when they are distant too. We must be always be prepared, in our businesses and beyond, to pay a price today for dividends that take time to mature. The pictures of military convoys may galvanize our solidarity and resolve— and I sincerely hope they will—but in time the news reports will surely fade, and it is then that our vision and faith are the most vital assets we will possess.

In drawing on them we would do well to remember again the words of Helen Keller, who in facing immense challenge urged us all to…  Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye. 

Her advice has never felt more prescient.

The Diversity Dividend

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many executives who take pride in having an ‘open door’ policy. Their approach is founded on the idea that every employee should feel able – and indeed, be encouraged – to make suggestions on the policy and performance of the organization. It’s an excellent ethic and an important signal from those notionally at the top that the best insights often come from colleagues who are closest to the action. I try to keep my door open every day! 

But the idea that by living this policy, we are open to truly different perspectives can be misleading.  At its most basic, the diversity of opinions we receive rather depends on who comes through the door. If our organization is overwhelming peopled by white middle-class graduates, then it’s likely that the views expressed will converge around that particular cultural outlook. Similarly, as was typically the case early in my career, if the gender bias is predominantly male, then the feedback will have its equivalent limitations.  

The need to embrace difference is rightly higher than ever in our consciousness and increasingly enshrined in legislation and corporate governance.  A growing culture of meritocracy is helping too, driving social mobility not only in companies but in schools, universities, and recruitment processes.  The examples I mentioned above include race, social class, and gender, but diversity definitions also extend to age, sexual orientation, faith, disability, and even cognitive mindset.

This latter point is especially interesting because, from a pure performance perspective, it’s arguable that the key benefit of diversity is to challenge our most comfortable notions with constructive alternatives. A Board made up entirely of extrovert thinkers – regardless of their race, gender, or social class – is less rounded and adaptive than one that includes a compensating balance of more reflective mindsets. We have long understood that the most successful teams are built on a mix of mutually supportive skills, and yet too many organizations are still characterized by homogenous reasoning, even if roles and responsibilities are well-defined.

It seems to me that opening the ‘doors of our mind’ to thinking differently is perhaps the greatest diversity challenge.  Only entrenched bigots would today deny the moral force of, say, ethnic and gender equality; most of us go further and acknowledge the wider definitions and categories I referred to above.  But it is something slightly different – and indeed, especially difficult – to diversify our internal rationality and logic. If you doubt this, think for a moment about your attitude to personal risk and ask what it would take to change your mindset.

Risk is not necessarily the best example, but it serves to illustrate that there are legitimately different methods of reasoning and that true wisdom comes only after listening and considering the full range of relevant perspectives. This is what I call the ultimate diversity dividend. Embracing difference in both its external and internal manifestations will reward us at every level and every day, not only because it is right ‘in and of itself’, but because a flexible mindset – in tandem with a diverse organization – will deliver better and more sustainable decisions. 

Before concluding, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I referred above to ‘relevant’ perspectives. It’s a small but often overlooked aspect of diversity that’s worth a moment’s reflection, too. 

If I have a health issue, I would be well advised to consult with a range of medical practitioners, but I’m unlikely to solicit the views of the local mountaineering club. On the other hand, if I were in need of an environmental risk assessment, they might be an interesting group to call upon. The point is that both tangible and cognitive diversity needs to be appropriate to the task; as my children remind me, asking folk over fifty for their views on the latest popular music is not the best focus group.

But even then, there may be exceptions.  So, while the door of my office is not open for anyone on the street, the doors of my mind are never firmly locked. And you know what – and here’s a thought to finish on – there being so is one of the greatest joys in my life. From people to politics, faith to agnosticism, age to youth, ethnicity to orientation… it is surely our variety and difference that makes our lives so worthwhile. That’s a dividend more valuable than gold, and the really beautiful thing is that it’s freely available to us all.

Does a fish stink from the head?

The phrase ‘a fish stinks from the head’ is a common expression that refers to the criticality of leadership in organizations. Typically, it’s used when strategies are failing and direction is unclear. The implication is that those at the top need to shape up, demonstrating the commitment and behaviors that are required to get back on track. At root, it’s founded on the notion that those in positions of authority are central to success and have a responsibility to lead from the front.

And I agree. Taken as a whole, the expression contains an underlying truth that we do well to remember. But like all aphorisms, it’s also a simplification, and if followed too literally can blind us to other, more subtle, aspects of leadership that are just as vital to maximizing performance.  Not the least of these is listening to the well of talent, experience, care, and attention that’s embedded in those with less senior positions.   

I was reminded of this last week when reading the summary of the report into the holding of parties at the center of UK government during the strict lockdowns of 2020.  At the time I was living in London and can well understand the anger of the British public at the apparent disregard of the rules by their elected leaders. The idea that the lockdown applied only to the ‘little people’ is classic ‘stink from the head’ behavior. 

But it was a line about the fear of speaking up that caught my eye. What the report also highlights, is that not everyone working in Downing Street was happy with the slack attitude of those at the top. One especially relevant passage states:

Some staff members wanted to raise concerns about behaviors they witnessed at work, but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it.”

This is bang on the money, and while shocking that it should be the case in central government—where presumably, the vast majority of employees will be highly intelligent and astute individuals—it is not uncommon in many organizations. The result is that their talent and experience, and perhaps most importantly, what I referred to earlier than their ‘care and attention is lost to any assessment of the overall direction of travel. At worst, this can result in tragedies far greater than the fallout of a political scandal.

In the 1990s Korean airlines had one of the worst safety records in the world, despite having well-trained pilots and the same planes as equivalent companies across the globe. Flight recordings of high-profile crashes demonstrated that communication in the cockpit was shaped by a cultural hierarchy that meant subordinates were unwilling to question those in authority.  Even when fuel levels became critically low, co-pilots of the now infamous Avianca 52 fight to JFK airport did not directly challenge or inform the captain who in his tunnel vision had lost sight of these critical details.  The plane crashed just outside New York.

The history of the Korean airways has been well documented, with popular summaries in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Mathew Syed’s, excellent Black Box Thinking. What’s relevant here, is that to solve the crisis, Korean airlines embarked on a program designed to ensure that all on the flight deck had a voice, and were able to speak up when they had concerns. What’s more, their speaking out was to be seen not as a problematic challenge to authority, but a positive contribution to the overall safety and success of the mission. 

In the case of passenger airlines, the need for coordination and collective contribution seems obvious to us now. Indeed, the hierarchical deference of Korea was always much less of a problem in those cultures (such as the US) where there is a lower prevalence of what is sometimes known as ‘power-distance’.  But as the recent report into the UK government—and countless examples of company failures—demonstrates, there’s still a long way to go in ensuring free-flowing communications up and down organizations.

The reality is that large companies are just as complex to steer as an airliner, or for that matter Ten Downing Street or the President’s Office. The need, therefore, to pay attention to the concerns of those closest to the implementation of decisions is absolutely vital.  No leader has all the answers; even the best can become distracted or fixated; their very distance from subordinates can distort perspective and lead to well-meant but wildly misconceived judgments.

This is why it’s equally vital that we have cultures and values which counteract these tendencies. The worst boardrooms are not necessarily those lacking in experience, it’s those that are echo chambers, reinforcing the perspectives of a single leader or an elite few. The history of the last thundered years is one in which the reach of communications has proliferated beyond any recognition, and yet so many of its worst tragedies—from the First World war to the Great Depression to China’s Cultural Revolution, to name but a few—could all have been avoided had subordinates spoken out sooner. 

Of course, those speaking must also listen. Somewhat ironically, given the title of this post, fish do not have ears as such, but they do have intense sensitivity to sound and vibrations around them—in some species, it’s integral to their bones! No doubt UK Premier Boris Johnson wishes that he’d listened more to the concerns of those in his own office – for a politician supposedly in touch with the people, his oversight is astonishing. Whether he’d have paid attention is a question that most of those who sit in judgment on him will now answer for themselves. What’s beyond doubt is that in his laxity he’s lost control, and that regaining it may well be beyond him. 

There are lessons here for us all.

4 Principles For Adaptive Leadership

When considering the qualities needed to lead an organization, especially in times of disruption and uncertainty, the ability to adapt is often one of the most coveted qualities for leaders. As such, I’ve reflected on the tremendous amount of change and adversity that we have collectively faced as a result of the challenging but necessary COVID-19 lockdowns. In the past months, just as businesses were on the cusp of returning to the office and resuming normal routines, the Delta variant quickly demanded laborers and managers to alter their course and reconsider how to keep employees safe.

This is only one of the more recent examples of the disruption we have experienced in the past two tumultuous years. Factors like variants and spikes in infections make it apparent that this need for an adaptable and responsive approach to leadership will continue to be the norm. But one thing that will impede progress and growth is panic. With this in mind, I believe that leaders and managers must take a step back to look at the full-wide picture before proceeding with new strategies moving forward. 

But simply being able to “adapt” or showing “adaptive actions” is not enough: organizations that wish to employ an adaptive leadership style must cultivate a few key characteristics to ensure optimal performance. In recent years, many business leaders have realized that the single-figure, top-down leadership model is outdated and impractical. No single person can solve every problem, which brings in the need for adaptive and collaborative leadership.

While leadership styles have been transformed over time throughout the years, adaptive leadership, in particular, embraces learning and continuous growth. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to try new tactics to solve problems. They should also encourage innovation and creativity from their employees, even if the solutions don’t always work.

Let’s go over the 4 principles to guide adaptive leadership: 

  1. Leading Through Reflection

Reflection is both an internal and external process that promotes self-awareness, understanding, and improved critical thinking skills. Learning to be present, aware, and attentive to our experience and interactions with people throughout the day is an important element of adaptive leadership.

  1. Developing Clear Organizational Purpose

Studies and surveys demonstrate that organizations founded on strong social values have more engaged teams, attract talent at less cost, have increased employee retention rates, and enjoy more positive customer relations and brand reputation. Leadership in the next decade will require greater attention to these issues, not only as a requisite of political correctness but as a means to drive performance.

  1. Cultivating an Unbiased Mindset

An ideal group leader should take a selfless and unbiased approach to leadership and credit the company’s success to the contributions of every member and not himself alone. As such, leaders should never let personal desires and feelings interfere with decisions associated with the group and should source collective views from members of their team before taking any action.

  1. Leading With Empathy

Employees will be more committed to the success of the company if they feel inspired by leadership. A successful company generally boasts a roster of employees who enjoy working there. Giving employees a voice, equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed, and inspiring them to drive the company forward is beneficial to the company at large. 

Demanding the truth

New subordinate looking at hospitable boss welcoming her to take her workplace

Modern physics tells us that all reactions and events are a consequence of four fundamental forces of nature. Three of these – electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces – are not immediately obvious to the layperson. Despite the growth of popular science, most of us don’t pretend to fully understand the complexities they involve. But the fourth force – gravity – is not only all around us, it’s intuitive to the way we live our everyday lives. 

All of us, at least from an early age, understand that if we drop a cup of water its contents will spill to the floor. We also know that although gravity may appear weak, it’s ultimately insistent. It takes the weight of the world to keep my laptop anchored to my desk, and yet I can lift it with ease—or at least, I can for a while! Try holding your arm at shoulder height without assistance and see how long you last… Nothing escapes gravity, least of all our vanity in thinking we might cheat it.

I open with this metaphor to science, because I like to think that over recent months, we’ve been witnessing a pull of a different sort. In domestic politics, the Coronavirus pandemic, the environmental crisis, and even the world of sport, I sense the persistence of truth weighing ever heavier on those who would seek to cheat us (and perhaps themselves) with illusions and lies. 

As I write, the UK is in political turmoil over the behaviour of those in positions of power during the lockdowns of 2020; in the US we are seeing something of the equivalent as more facts surface about the practices and character of our last administration. Only last week, in a bizarre series of events, we saw the undoing of Novak Djokovic in the face of evidence that even he couldn’t ‘wish away, no matter how strong his will to win. 

These are topical and even somewhat humorous examples of what some might consider being a long-overdue comeuppance. But the malaise of self-deception—as well as that of misleading others—is one that afflicts many businesses and their leaders too. Most often, I sense it’s not so much a matter of intent to deceive, and even less so of malice or prejudice. Rather, the denial of facts in our strategies and predictions stems from a mixture of wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and even good old-fashioned pride.  

Which as we know, often comes before a fall!

The deep truth is that facts, like gravity, will inevitably win out. Markets in structural decline cannot will themselves to grow; organizations with toxic values cannot tweak them into acceptability; and while chasing unprofitable business may shore up the top line, it will surely tell a different story in the end. As one of my former colleagues used to say, ‘we must face reality as it is — not as it was, or we would wish it to be.’

Telling the truth, especially when others don’t want to hear it, can take real courage. Typically it is easier to sugar the pill, and of course, in our personal friendships, there are times when we might judiciously keep our counsel. But when we have a formal responsibility to others, it’s vital that we ground our decisions (and the actions which follow) in our best judgment of the facts as we see them. 

Objectivity, analysis, and truth to data are as integral to good leadership as are inspirational words and a compassionate spirit. We may convince ourselves otherwise, but awaiting our self-deceit will be what the Greeks knew as nemesis: the inescapable downfall that is the consequence of our arrogance. 

The good news is that our nose for the truth is intuitive too. Following it isn’t complex; we know when we are deceiving ourselves, or hoping, fingers crossed, for a miracle to save the day. And so it should be no surprise that others can sense this too. Those leaders who act with honesty and integrity in the face of vested interests or established dogma will be rewarded with loyalty and admiration that in the long run gives them leeway for the mistakes that all of us inevitably make. 

But if staying’ true to facts’ is one of the hardest qualities of leadership, then so too is being open to opinions and ideas that challenge our perceptions. I don’t believe that truth is relative – at least not in the context under discussion here—but I do recognize that none of us has a monopoly of it. Our job as leaders, like that of scientists, is to listen, observe and make decisions based on the best available evidence. In that way, our failures, as well as our successes, can add to the body of knowledge, so long as we declare them both for what they are. 

I remember at junior school being told the story of Isaac Newton’s epiphany as an apple fell from a tree to hit his head. Whether that tale is fact or myth doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that it helped to explain a phenomenon that we instinctively knew to be there. Perhaps, to understand the power of truth, we need to see more high-profile exposures; more of our politicians, businesses, and even some of our supposed sporting heroes shown to be what they are. Only then can we appreciate our world as it truly is —the good and the bad; the honest and the cheats; the facts and the lies.  These are the forces of ‘our nature’, playing out in the harmonies and discords around us every day. But for all the clatter they create, it is the bass note of truth which, like the pull of gravity, quietly and insistently sets the tone and tempo of progress for the good. We do well to listen out for it among the noise.

Defining leadership

How might we define leadership?

This is a question I’m often asked, and especially so since I wrote my book Fair Value – reflections on good business.  Behind the inquiries, there is a sense of a wish to make the process of learning to lead more formulaic and less intuitive. That my book was primarily about values and their adaptability doesn’t satisfy their desire for clarity. It seems that we are comfortable with the idea that values can be subjective, but in the case of leadership we want to pin it down, identify its essential traits, so we can measure and monitor our progress.

Last week, I was listening to a podcast by Ben Morton interviewing the colossus in the world of leadership that is Jim Kouzes. In his book, The Leadership Challenge, co-written with Barry Posner, they define the process of leadership as ‘the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.’  That seems about as good as it gets, and I’d encourage you to check out any of their publications, or indeed listen to Ben’s excellent podcast conversation. 

And yet, I’m still uneasy with definitions of this sort.

In fairness to Kouzes and Posner there is much more to their work than a mere definition. As experienced researchers, they recognize the need for flexibility, and it’s surely significant that their headline summary describes leadership as an ‘art’ not a science.  Furthermore, their model identifies five exemplary practices that include role modeling, vision, challenge, enablement, and engaging the heart! In many ways, the practice of these tenets is similar to the principles of virtue theory – the idea that we learn to be good citizens, not so much by following strict doctrine as by demonstrating good behavior in, or daily lives. 

In a different context, I was reflecting on this difference after listening to Malcom Gladwell’s superb Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. In the academic tradition, the learning of an instrument goes hand in hand with an understanding of musical theory, the relationship of chords and their progressions, harmonies, structure… And yet there are others, like Simon, who play largely by ear, their genius guided by an intuition of what sounds right rather than any set formula.  At the apogee of attainment, there is invariably a fusion of the two. 

And it’s this goal of a synthesis that shapes my personal sense of leadership and values. 

The two aspects, it seems to me, are indivisible —indeed, more than that, they cannot properly exist without each other. For if we were to take Kouzes’ definition above — and strip it of any element of virtue —then we might reasonably conclude that Stalin or Hitler are as equally great in their leadership qualities as, say, George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi. Some dry academics might be comfortable with that assessment, but I’d counter that it’s not how we think and act in everyday life. In practice, we describe the former as despots and the latter as heroes, whose qualities we admire and seek to emulate.

And the key difference is in the values they lived by.

A while ago I took a walk outside the city and on the trees and rocks were many lichens. For centuries, we regarded these humble organisms as a sort of plant, and superficially it’s true that they look a little like moss. But, in fact, we now know that they are a combination of a fungus and an alga — a symbiotic life form that exists only because each plays its part. Interestingly, they are a superb indicator of our air quality, almost indestructible but flourishing most when environmental conditions are right. As an allegory for sustainable leadership, there are few better examples.

That’s a somewhat lyrical note to conclude on. But my point is that perhaps we need to see leadership and values in a more expressive and emotional light. For I believe it is the subjective and yet intuitively right elements that are most critical for our understanding of the terms. In their search for clarity, this answer may not be what my enquirers expected, or indeed hoped, to find. But the truth is the best definitions are not just linguistically tight, rather, they are those that are most deeply felt. 

Thinking The Unthinkable

Across Europe and North America, political leaders are beginning to think the unthinkable. Two years ago, the suggestion that we would need medical passes to travel, attend events, or enter a restaurant, would have been shuddered at. Today these measures are commonplace, and the scope of sanctions for those who won’t play ball is getting ever wider. What’s more, the prospect of mandatory vaccination— a line that none of us could have imagined would be crossed—is now considered by many to be both necessary and urgent.

My interest here is not so much in arguing for a particular path, as in exploring how we best find a way through. Whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of the options, we cannot simply shirk the debate—for like the virus, it is already out there. The implications for the role of leaders—and the values they espouse—are therefore profound. 

But first, let me return briefly to the pandemic. 

There is a long and deeply held tradition in liberal democracies that compulsory medical treatment is a line we do not cross. Citizens it is claimed, have the right to make their own decisions about their bodies, even if they make objectively poor ones. The role of the State is to provide information and even to persuade, but (with a few extreme exceptions) not to compel, either directly or indirectly through the imposition of coercive sanctions.  

And in normal circumstances, most of us would agree.

But in times of crisis, the contrary view would home in on that word ‘citizen’. Our societies are collective endeavors and cannot be meaningfully reduced to supposedly independent individuals. Free riders who take of society’s benefits without appropriate contribution are universally disparaged. Furthermore, in the democratic West, there’s an equally long and deeply held tradition that the exercise of our liberty should always be limited to the extent it impinges on the freedom of others. 

And so, we have a values stand-off. On the one hand, there is the sense that there ought to be limitations to the State. On the other, growing anger that the actions of a minority are impacting our collective wellbeing. It’s a classic political and moral dilemma: the idea of medical compulsion is uncomfortable, but so too are the restrictions that everyone must endure because of a resistant minority.

What does all this mean for leadership?

I believe it was right for our governments to first pursue a strategy based on information and persuasion. Good leadership does not seek out conflict for its own sake and if momentum can be achieved without confrontation then so much the better. In this regard, trust in both the messages and the messengers is essential, and sadly, politics being what it is, this has been undermined all too often. 

It seems to me that the values which are typical of most progressive companies would have been excellent creeds for our politicians to have lived by: transparency, togetherness, speed and service to others… these, and many similar standards, will be familiar to anyone with experience of modern organizations.

But what if persuasion is not enough?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen countries in Europe and jurisdictions here in the US take increasingly strident lines. Austria will compel vaccinations from early next year while Germany is openly discussing similar measures; in France, the pass sanitaire is becoming essential for all but the most basic of needs. Even in the UK, one of the most reluctant countries in this regard, there is no mention of the need for a national debate. 

And surely here is where leadership has the most crucial role to play. 

For it is essential, in these circumstances, that leaders proactively facilitate an inclusive discussion, ensuring all sides have the opportunity to speak their truth. This process should not be used to delay decisions or abnegate responsibility for their taking, nor should it be the genesis of a fudge that pleases no one. Rather, it’s about using leadership as means to respectful understanding, which more than anything requires careful listening and consideration—before then acting decisively.  

And in that regard, the positive consequences of the action that’s chosen should also be made clear. In leading through divisive issues, we have a responsibility to set out a ‘roadmap of rewards’, showing the milestones ahead and the benefits that will be shared on reaching them. There will always be a resistant few, but our best hope of reaching out to those who are not entirely inflexible is by being transparent about the critical junctions and decision points we face. If progress is not as we had hoped, leaders might reasonably commit to revisit and reconsider in light of those circumstances. 

But a word of warning here. That willingness to reconsider should not be at the expense of a steadfast determination to follow a chosen path. Ultimately, no decision of this sort can be scientifically proven. As leaders, we must at times rely on ‘value judgements’ and the clue to the best of these is in the name. Decisions arrived at with sound reasoning and rooted in commonly held standards and are not guaranteed to succeed, but having made them, we should hold firm until evidence suggests otherwise. 

It’s often said that we are all leaders, and in the context of complex organizations this is undoubtedly true in the sense that we must each take responsibility for our actions. This must not, however, be misinterpreted as permission to act the maverick or undermine policies that have been fairly talked through. Leadership at an individual level is about actively contributing to a collective success even if the strategy is one that you might prefer to be different. If that policy is too far removed from your own values, then it’s time to move on. 

If that is difficult to contemplate, it is but a precursor to some issues we may soon have to face. I sense the next few months are likely to see us in political and moral territories that were unimaginable not so long ago. At times like these, leaders are wise to remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which reminds us to …trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…   Whatever paths we chose, I sense, like the crossing of the Rubicon, that there will be no going back. Perhaps more than anything these moments require us to show bravery, by which I mean courage of the sort that seldom wins medals but often wins wars— the sort that listens, considers, and ultimately act in accordance with our values.