An Alternative World Cup

For the last month, the eyes of the sporting world have been fixed on a Middle Eastern Emirate, one-tenth of the size of New York State. In what has been the most political FIFA World Cup to date, the litany of controversies has, at times, threatened to overshadow the spectacle. Like most fans I’m thankful that sport has ultimately shone through; but like many others, I’m left uneasy at the wider context and particularly our willingness to wash over issues that we would not tolerate at home.

From media coverage in the run-up to the finals, I was surprised to learn that Qatar is effectively a modern creation, gaining independence as recently as 1971. It’s a ruling system, however, is nearer to medieval. The Emir (Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani) holds all power, appoints his own government, controls the courts… and no doubt sanctioned the bribes that allegedly secured the World Cup finals in the first place. In a country with a population of 2.5 million, fewer than 320,000 are citizens, enjoying a per capita income that’s the fourth highest in the world.

The quid pro quo for these native Qataris is the sacrifice of their freedom. They are caught in the classic position of a ‘complicit elite’, knowing their country is out of step with modern values but fearful that change would harm their privileged position. And so they — and to some extent, we too — live with the absurdity of hosting the showpiece of a sport that promotes diversity, inclusion, and opportunity in a tin-pot nation-state that does precisely the opposite.

Of course, not every nation in the World Cup finals has a liberal system of government. Of the 32 countries, less than a quarter are classified (albeit extremely toughly) as ‘full democracies’ by the longstanding Economist Intelligence Unit survey. More positively, the Freedom House Index would rate around three-quarters of free societies in the broadest sense. Notwithstanding the variance, there are a number of participants from what are clearly authoritarian regimes, including the hosts, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Thinking about all this, I began daydreaming of an alternative format in which the games were decided on values rather than goals. In my imaginary world, FIFA stood for the International Federation of Freedom and Association — with contests that matched the countries on their human rights and democracy records, playing extra time with political engagement, empowerment of women, or lack of corruption. How might the teams do then I wondered, and who would reach the round of eight, semis, and ultimate play-off?

Looking at the various indices for democracy and freedom you could be forgiven for feeling depressed. Whole swathes of the world’s population live under repressive regimes or what is euphemistically described as ‘hybrid’ systems. The Middle East — except for Israel — is wall-to-wall autocracy; Africa has a few beacons of hope but is otherwise pretty bleak. And let’s not be complacent about those closer to home — to my mind, one of the greatest sadnesss of this century has been the retreat of democracy in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and the majority of the Balkan States. 

But if this paints a gloomy picture, there is brighter news from my fantasy alternative…

For in fact, the results would not be that different to those which played out. In the real world England thrashed Iran and drew with the USA (seems about right?), Argentina beat Mexico, The Netherlands trounced Qatar, and Saudi Arabia failed to make it through the group stages. I’m cherry-picking here of course, but with a few exceptions (Canada and Switzerland really ought to have done better) and recognizing that there has to be victors, it’s been a strong World Cup for values.  Morocco has been the surprise and perhaps outlying team (they rate at best mid-range on most indices) — let’s hope their success on the field acts as a fillip for their country’s freedoms too. 

In many ways, these results should be no surprise. For there’s long been a proven correlation between liberal democracy and the unleashing of talent. Some — me included —would argue it is more causal in its nature. The very act of freeing people from restraints turbocharges the abilities and creativity we all possess in some measure. And from these richer pools of opportunity emerges, ultimately, the flair and genius that we see in Messi and Mbappé. Does anyone seriously think they would have been as likely to flourish in Russia?

This capacity transcends wealth too. Qatar and the middle eastern emirates are a-typical outliers in that other long-standing correlation — the one between freedom and prosperity. They may have the cash to build stadiums but until they change their systems, they’ll never have the capital to compete. In contrast, consider the progress of Croatia, a far from perfect or affluent nation, but it seems to me, one determined to look forward not back. In six World Cups, they’ve been runner-up twice and bronze medalist once. Don’t tell me that’s nothing to do with their history and struggle for independence.

And so to the final. For all that I am European by descent, I was neutral in the values stakes. On the one hand, we had France – arguably the cradle of modern democracy; on the other Argentina, a nation that, despite many issues, has transformed itself from the days of dictatorship and military juntas. It ranks second only to Uruguay in the Southern American democracy index. I was indifferent too on sporting grounds; may the best team win, I thought as the game kicked off. 

How appropriate then, that what followed was perhaps the greatest ever final — the old and new guards of footballing genius slugging it out over ninety minutes, the extra time, and eventually penalties. So good was the game, that in the end, for neutrals at least, the result was almost incidental. Because what had really won, was not just a team —and certainly not Qatar as a host — but the sport as a whole, and most importantly, the values it stands for. 

That is something for us all to celebrate.

Reflections On a Lesser Known Wimbledon, by Jozef Opdeweegh

The London district of Wimbledon is synonymous with its namesake tournament and those two weeks in July when the world’s media and tennis fans turn their attention to this otherwise quiet suburb for the Wimbledon Open. Beyond the courts, the town is awash with boutiques and coffee bars; its young professionals, are no doubt attracted by its heritage as the home of my favorite

But wander just a mile or so from its high street, you’ll find a new and very different stadium that has an equally fascinating — and important —story to tell. It’s the home of AFC Wimbledon, a not-so-famous football team, that in a mere twenty years has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a firestorm of dispute that destroyed a club and disenfranchised its followers.

The story of the original Wimbledon FC is the stuff of a comic book legend. After decades in the minor divisions, the team rose in consecutive seasons to the top tier, winning the FA Cup in 1998. Around the turn of the millennium, their fortunes declined, and lacking a permanent ground the owners summarily uprooted the club, moving it 60 miles north to Milton Keynes, a town with no previous connection. A new identity of Milton Keynes Dons was created, and today, they are solidly placed in League One of the English pyramid.

From my perspective, the interesting part of this story is not so much the fortunes of the football teams. Rather, it’s the decision of the owners to relocate a club with a hundred-year heritage to a town that wasn’t even built when it was first founded. At the time of the proposal, the Football Association approved the move, arguing that the owners could do as they wished — after all, it was their asset to manage or market as they saw fit.

The fans, however, saw things differently.

There’s a famous quote about soccer by Bill Shankly, a former manager of Liverpool FC. ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’ The point he was making is one that the owners of Wimbledon were tone-deaf to: that football is about more than a balance sheet; that the fans are as vital as the players; and that the values and heritage of a club can’t simply be traded like a commodity on the stock exchange.

In the case of Wimbledon FC, the fans turned their rage into a more constructive rebuilding,
founding a new club and eventually, crowdfunding a remarkable stadium. It’s a monument to passion and a belief in the interests of those who care most – the new club is controlled by a supporter’s trust, is embedded in its community, and its team has risen through the ranks to compete (ironically, alongside Milton Keynes) in leagues one and two of the English professional system.

The story though has wider relevance. It raises questions about the interests of stakeholders and the potential conflicts with owners and custodians. Consider the controversy over Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the uproar from some quarters at his changes to policy and approach to free speech. The exodus of many users to the open-source alternative Mastodon has perhaps echoes of the response of those disenfranchised Wimbledon fans.

I’m not going to comment on the pros and cons of Musk’s takeover, not least because it’s
entangled with left and ring-wing politics, making any assessment too sensitive and subjective. But what’s clear, is that the millions of Twitter users can’t simply be ignored. Nor, as one of the leading social media platforms, should the wider implications of the company’s policy on freedom of expression, accountability under the law, or the ability to protest.

Listening to stakeholders in business doesn’t mean that change will always be watered down. It’s true that in many large organizations there can be institutional resistance to reform. But conversely, there are times when those employees closest to the coalface know that organizational transformation is necessary for long-term value. Nor does it mean that unpopular measures should be shirked — it’s worth acknowledging that in relation to my opening story, the town of Milton Keynes now has a thriving and well-supported football team.

What I’m really getting at here is being attentive to the importance of purpose and mission in those companies and organizations that play a significant role in our lives. We all know that businesses must make a profit, but that can’t today be the sole meaning of their existence. Equally, non-profit and public service ventures — in the arts, sport, and education — must balance their social objectives with a reality check on affordability and remember that the bigger goal is not so much their particular passion, as a healthy, diverse, and flourishing society.

I’m convinced that the key to navigating this maze is having a compass that’s sensitive to values that are commonly held by all involved — be those owners, employees, and customers, or governments, peoples, and their allies. For it is our shared beliefs, applied with some pragmatic flexibility, that bind us together in difficult times. Values can also — quite legitimately — be a way of establishing lines that others may choose not to cross. And that’s fine, so long as we are not mismatched in our understanding.

In seeking such constructive and cooperative outcomes, I believe it’s vital that no one version of the truth be allowed to ‘out-shout’ or cancel another. It’s an irony that those most vocal in calling for freedom of expression, or safe spaces for their views, are often deeply intolerant to alternative perspectives. More than that, it’s inefficiency and a fast track to failure, for in the long term there are no more static companies or countries than those who brook no dissent.

Every leader, no matter how sure of their strategy, should remember Lyndon Johnson’s epithet, ‘if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.’ And in doing so, train their ears to hear the notes that matter, filtering out the background noise to better recognize when their plans are out of key with others who care too. Thirty years into my career I’m more attentive than ever to those metaphorical sounds. Experience is a privilege and a powerful asset, but it’s nothing if applied without due regard for the values and purposes which underpin the more tangible measures of success.

This year, AFC Wimbledon met Milton Keynes Dons in the early rounds of the FA Cup. Despite some stirring of rivalry by the press, the match went off without rancor. In the twenty years since the upheaval, the Football Association has changed its rules and an owner can’t just uproot a club today; meanwhile, the respective fans have found a new focus and moved on from the past.

Wimbledon’s new stadium is called Plough Lane, the same name as the original club’s ground. It’s a fitting blend of the old and new, of learning from mistakes and looking to the future. And perhaps most of all, of holding true to the values that show how clubs, businesses, and communities of any sort, are more than the sum of their parts.

The Ethical Value Behind Numbers

As a general rule, I steer clear of politics in anything I write. Not only is it potentially divisive, but sadly, we’ve reached the point in our public discourse where the veracity of almost all political statements is open to question. But today, I’m going to make an exception, or at least take my queue from a comment made by the UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Speaking a few days before his Autumn Budget he said, — and I paraphrase here — that balancing the books isn’t just about numbers, it’s also about the values we aspire to.

And in this regard, he’s absolutely right.

Whatever you may think of politicians and governments, it’s undeniable that the budgetary decisions they take, reflect not only their view on economics but also the priorities and policies they wish to promote. In choosing between tax and spending or investment and services, they are — as every administration must – making decisions about the kind of society they wish to see in the future. Furthermore, in the choices they make, even the most fiscally focused are drawing on beliefs and assumptions that reflect values such as compassion, responsibility, fairness, and even courage or learning.   

It’s the same in business. 

Almost all companies will undertake a formal budgeting process, typically annually with reviews and revisions as the year progresses. And while the principle aim of this exercise will be to forecast ‘the numbers’, the reality is that the conclusions reached will reflect on an organization’s values as much as its financial goals. Indeed, I’d argue that transparency of a company’s budgeting process (if such a thing were possible) would be the best way to judge whether their pronouncements on mission and purpose were merely vacuous statements or true commitments to something more than the pursuit of profit.

None of this is to suggest that there are not times when some fiscal detachment is necessary. Nor is every decision values-driven: paying our taxes is a legal requirement; so too is abiding by labor laws and safety regulations. At the other extreme, some choices may be more a question of preference than of virtue: the charities we chose to support, the choice of IT platforms; the color of the office walls…

But in between what we might call the two rocks of compliance and preference, lies the whirlpool of value judgments, where effective decision-making is shaped by our perceptions of quality and beliefs on the best way forward. Value judgments are not random choices, but neither are they fixed in the way of scientific formulae. Think of the way we would judge, say, a history essay; there’s a need for some objective criteria in terms of content, grammar and structure —but there’s also room for more subjective factors such as choice of examples, quality of insight, and even sheer rhetorical style. 

When you think about it in these terms, moral value judgments are all around us. Every day at work or home we make choices that balance the objective and subjective, driven as much by our desires as by any determination of absolute truth. Value judgments are actually how we navigate through the nihilistic notion of relativism, which in its purest form argues that there are no true foundations to any values and beliefs, only relative standpoints. Russia’s Putin would appear to take this view in his pursuit of aggression, but few of us are prepared to apply the same logic to the way we live our lives – or the companies we work for.

I’m conscious here of getting mired in technicalities — or worse, dragged again into politics — when the key point I want to make is simply that values are all around us. When we talk of ethical-based decision-making in the workplace, that’s not some behavioral mode that we need to switch into; rather, it’s simply allowing ourselves to be guided by the beliefs we hold, our care for others and our innate desire to flourish – ideally, in a way that allows others to do the same. At root, it’s about trusting our better instincts and not surrendering to a putative objectivity that claims decisions on ‘the numbers’ should come before other concerns.  

They cannot… as any politician will tell you.

This brings me back to the UK Chancellor, albeit briefly. Jeremy Hunt has now delivered his budget, combining tax rises with spending cuts, providing reassurance to some and sending tougher messages to others… Its detail is not what concerns me, nor are the rows and repercussions that will follow thereafter. What’s relevant, is that in setting out his stall he has amply demonstrated how, even in times of budgeting crisis – indeed, now I come to think of it, ESPECIALLY in times of budgeting crisis — values and numbers are as entangled and indivisible as the quantum particles that make up our universe.  

And whatever our politics, I for one, think that’s a lesson we should all remember.

The power of proximity

A couple of weeks ago, I had coffee in a charming café in the old town center of Vilnius. It’s a medieval wonder and often overlooked as one of Europe’s most picturesque capital cities. I’d never been there before, which is perhaps not so strange, for what percentage of those who read this piece will have traveled to Lithuania? How many even knew before they read that last sentence, exactly where Vilnius was?  I can’t say, I’d have placed it on a map?

But you really should go, and not just for the sights or the coffee.

The truly striking thing about Vilnius is not something you can see, although I’d argue you can taste it in the air. You can hear too, in the hum of the chatter that’s the base note of its cafés and bars. And though it can’t be touched, it will undoubtedly press on your mind. Because, in the flying of its flag, the posturing of the young, and the lined faces of the worldly-wise… is the ever-present thought, that the Belarusian border, is a mere 20 miles (32.19 km) to the east. 

The leadership of Belarus —if you can call it that—is a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin and supporter of his atrocious attack on Ukraine. More to the point, its border is a potential launch point for any Russian encroachment on the Baltic. For Lithuanians, like those I met in the cafés, this is an everyday existential threat.  

I’ve spent most of the last two decades in the US, Canada and the UK. They are fabulous countries, and it’s not my intent to disrespect their contribution to the world’s progress and prosperity. But as someone who grew up in mainland Europe and served in the military during the Cold War era, I believe it to be true that their physical geography (by which I mean, the separation that distance and oceans confer) creates a barrier to a full understanding of the situations of others. It’s why we must travel if we can. Only by getting up close and personal can we acquire the intimate if intangible sense of what it’s like to live every day under the threat of losing the liberties we take for granted.

That is the power of proximity.

And it applies not just to geopolitics. In living our lives, or indeed pursuing our careers, there’s no substitute for spending time with others in a different situation, of a different faith, from a different social outlook… The point and purpose of this proximity— and I say this as a trained statistician — is that data and its models and abstract theories can only tell us so much. Objectivity may nourish our reasoning, but taken without accompaniment it is cold and unfulfilling fare. It’s also somewhat of a myth. The deeper truth is that virtually all our beliefs — and certainly those which speak to our values — are founded on a blend of facts and feelings. 

It astounds me to think that it’s only a little over thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down. Oh, to have been there that day! As a young man at the time, I remember vividly the sense of hope that followed, and the West’s collective exhaling of breath as the chill of the cold war momentarily thawed. How sad, a friend from home, said to me recently, that events have turned out as they have. 

Although actually, that too is a narrow, and place-bound, perspective. 

Russia may well have returned to being a wretched State and the situation in Ukraine is beyond mere sorrow. We should not forget too, the horrors of the conflict in former Yugoslavia (a short train ride from Austria), the quasi-democracies of many Soviet republics, the annexation of Crimea or the grotesque puppetry of so-called Transnistria (look it up!). To read all this one might think there is no hope.

But I’d remind you that former East Germany is now part of a united whole; Berlin is its capital once again. Travel also to Croatia or even Bosnia and Serbia and you’d see progress (albeit slow) underway. Then there’s Poland, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia and Slovenia …and I’ve not even mentioned the Baltic States. It is one of the joys of my life that these places are freely available for us to visit and for their people to meet us too. We have much to share and even more to learn from each other. 

And that’s because there’s a multiplier effect when we come closer together. Physics may tell us that gravity is a constant, but in the world of understanding, I can tell you that proximity is a powerful force! Ask any surgeon from a war zone or carer who sat with a loved one as they died… Usually, in writing these reflections, I make a segue back to business and organizational values, but in this case, I won’t. More to the point I ought not to need to. Because the parallels will be obvious and if you don’t get them then we’re not on the same planet never mind page.

Instead, I simply say go, if you can, to Vilnius or for that matter Budapest or Bratislava. And if travel is not your thing, then take a trip maybe closer to home, but further from your comfort zone. You’ll be surprised by what you find —and feel — and how it changes your sense of the truth. The café I sat in a couple of weeks ago was as persuasive as they are poignant. I’ll be back for sure, but in the meantime, as I sit in my office, almost half a world away, I can still smell the coffee.

Why we shouldn’t fear failure

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better”Samuel Beckett

Last week, defending champion Emma Raducanu, bowed out of the US Open after a first-round defeat to an opponent ranked 40th in the world. Making more than 30 unforced errors her performance was a far cry from last year’s “Fairy Tale in New York” that had seen her rise from qualifier to grand slam winner in one magical fortnight. 

Somewhat predictably, the pundits have had a field day, offering little perspective and even less practical advice to a player not yet 20 years old. She has been distracted by fame they say, had too many coaches, been poorly managed and trained the wrong way… all of which may well have some truth.  

But I was struck by Raducanu’s more sanguine assessment of her situation. The defeat was an opportunity to reset, she claimed — a chance to climb back up the rankings, but without the weight of expectations on her back. Implied in her response was the maturity to recognize that it wasn’t realistic to maintain the trajectory of last year’s success.  

I sensed also that, despite her (and our) obvious disappointments, she’d come to understand that failure has much to teach us. Ask any creative artist, and they’ll tell you that they learn more from their mistakes than they do their exhibition pieces. The same principle applies to politicians, economists, entrepreneurs… and for us all in our roles as parents, friends, volunteers —or, in my case, attempts to be the best club tennis player I can be!

This reminds me that in our careers as well as our everyday lives, success, and its counterpart failure, is usually more relative than the flawless expectations we project on our sporting heroes. There’s a world of difference between missing a challenging target and destroying millions of dollars of shareholder value; just as there is between falling short of straight A grades and flunking all your exams. The first response to perceived failure should be to put it into perspective and consider what’s been achieved along the way.

This is why we should remember that despite her recent dip in form, Raducanu remains one of only four teenagers in the World’s top 100, in addition to having beaten tennis hero Serena Williams only weeks before her US Open exit. Her story has inspired thousands of young girls to pick up a racket and unlike many sporting prodigies, she has remained mentally strong under pressures that would buckle most of us. How many of us would give our eye teeth for one-tenth of her talent and prospects?   

It’s folly to chase straight-line success in any field of endeavor.  And it’s equally unwise to remove the possibility of setbacks. If, as an investor, you want maximum certainty then buy government bonds, but in doing so, understand that your returns will be smaller and the projections somewhat unexciting. Alternatively, you could spread your capital across a balanced portfolio, accepting that there’ll be peaks and troughs in the pursuit of growth over time. So too with our careers (and particularly those aspiring to be leaders) where the smart money is not on following a risk-free path. 

In choosing this route, we can also be more of ourselves, making the most of our skills while building our experience. And in line with Raducanu’s comments, we should try to do so without the weight of unrealistic expectations on our backs. Working and living with passion and commitment demands that we face some jeopardy. How diminished our careers would be if they were shaped by timidity, and how sad a life that’s constantly looking over its shoulders. Much better to make decisions we believe in, having faith in our abilities while recognizing that not every choice will work out as we wish.

The helpful reality is that leadership errors seldom expose our flaws as publically as a show court at Flushing Meadows. This doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t care about their consequences. Indeed, it’s the concern to get it right next time that drives us to come back stronger —meaning that failure is far from fatal to our future. In responding, there’s also no shortage of advice on how to build back from our blunders, of working the problem, analyzing our tactics, or the strengths of our team. Frankly, there are whole industries of professionals to help us make better choices.

But I’d suggest all this is peripheral and comes only after the fact. The number one lesson we should take from failure is far from being something to fear, it’s part of a healthy and fulfilling life. And in so being, is essential to our becoming better people, better leaders, or indeed better tennis players.

Truth, trust and freedom of thought

In the space of a week, three unrelated conversations have given me pause for thought. Actually, that’s an understatement, for the triangulation of the points they raise has troubled me deeply, speaking as it does to the crisis of truth, trust, and freedom of expression that I fear is coming to define our age.  Let me tell you a little of what I mean.

The first was an email from a friend in England in which she lambasted the current contest for the Conservative Party leadership and future Prime Minister of the UK. Her particular anger was the vacuity of the candidates’ promises and their blatant targeting of a mere fraction of the population. It was she said, a “race to the bottom” and not democracy as we know it or, deep down, believe it should be.

The second —and almost mirror image of these concerns —was a long overdue personal call with a former colleague. After catching up on family and putting the world to rights he told me, with a heavy heart, that his company is starting its annual reporting cycle. The next month he said, would be like a slowly deflating balloon, the process gradually sucking the energy of his team as they seek ever more contrived ways to evade the use of everyday language that might come back to bite.  I know how he feels, for I have been there often.

As for the third conversation, I’ll come to that in a moment, for it was with myself and occurred only after I’d been pondering these first two. Meanwhile, the points my friends raised should concern us all, for they go to the heart of what it is to speak truthfully and with sufficient integrity to give us confidence in what’s being said.  

On the one hand, under the veil of a democratic process, we have a political class (and this is not confined to the UK and US) that takes its responsibility for any sort of measurement and accountability with a pinch of salt. Theoretically, their disingenuity can come to roost at the ballot box, but in day-to-day terms, aided by spin doctors, a dysfunctional media, and the short memory of our collective consciousness, they carry on regardless. If they take us for fools, we are to some extent complicit.

At the other extreme, our largest corporations are now answerable to an ever-growing profusion of reporting requirements that are designed to ensure full transparency, but which in practice result in obfuscation and conditionality. Over the course of my career, the tone and content of stakeholder reporting have shifted from an open communication exercise to a cautious compliance process —and in so doing, it has lost its meaning to all but a few accountants and analysts. Read almost any listed company’s statements, and you’ll see what I mean — talk about hiding the wood with the trees!  

But of course, to say as much, in either context is a sort of heresy. 

This brings me to my third conversation, sparked by the horrific attack on the author Salmon Rushdie last week.  If I don’t go into detail here, it’s not only because the assault has been widely reported and rightly condemned, but also that I won’t risk giving any oxygen to those who might seek to nuance our outrage.  

Rather I’ll cut to the central thread, which is that limits to our freedom of speech don’t just impact those with the courage to speak up — in lessening what we hear and consider, they diminish us all. This is why I believe when committing to whatever values we believe in, chief among those should be an acknowledgment of the right of others to challenge — and importantly, to explore — without fear of being labeled an outcast. 

We all know why President Putin tolerates no dissent to his descriptor of Russia’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine — but are we, I wonder, attentive enough to the verbal straightjacket we increasingly wear at home?  How easily do we make it for colleagues to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy — and how many are reluctant to share concerns for fear of offending political correctness?

The proliferation of so-called ‘safe spaces’ in workplaces and academia is a case in point. Of course, all of us would like to live and work in environments where we can be ourselves and have our opinions respected.  But this mustn’t be at the cost of removing the same right of others. The uncomfortable truth is that opinions, faiths, and values differ —and often in ways that are not entirely reconcilable. When it comes to values and ideas, the only truly safe space is the one in which all can be heard —no matter how nonconformist they may be —  and then adopted, rejected, or even ridiculed on our assessment of their merits. 

To return to my opening remarks, I have thought long and hard if it’s possible to learn from this triangle of concerns. Might we, for example, rebuild trust in our politics by insisting on more stringent measures and accountabilities? In the regulatory sphere, could we find some leeway for plain speaking and best intentions rather than nailing every syllable to the mast? And as for the workplace —and our communities —can we reach common cause in the proposition that being inclusive and sensitive, means also allowing for difference and dissent?

Ever the optimist, I believe that we can; ever the realist; I’m not confident we will. 

This conclusion saddens me, not least because I want always to look forward with hope. But I’m buoyed by the thought that individual actions make a difference and reminded that my friends in speaking and emailing felt much the same. If wider society does not balance these forces then at least I can try, and by setting the best example we can — to my colleagues, families, and those others I connect with — make a small contribution to rebuilding the trust, truth, and freedom of expression that are hallmarks of the values I hold most dear.

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.