The Moral Maze of Decision-Making

Originally Published in Fair Value

As I sit down to write this article in the solitude of my study, there are people gathering in churches across the United States, encouraged by their preachers to come together for worship. In a secular equivalent, the politically faithful are being urged to attend party rallies over the coming weeks. And all of this in the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic where the clear scientific advice is that public assemblies will lead to the seeding of infection and a significantly greater loss of life.

It’s not my purpose to criticize the actions of those who choose to attend their churches or gatherings. These people are not foolish, nor can we assume they are indifferent to the suffering of others. My tendency to put caution over civil liberties is a personal view, and the public mood is seldom characterized by universal agreement, even if a sober consideration of the facts were possible. When the issues have become politicized, as is certainly true in this case, it’s inevitable that we’ll see passion on either side.

Ethical Trade-Offs Happen

But despite these caveats, I’m still left pondering and troubled by the stark conflict between the near-universal advice of independent experts on the one hand and the actions of those influencers who have an interest in a different outcome, on the other. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in the notion that this friction is not unique to politics or pandemics. In some form or other, ethical trade-offs are inherent to most businesses of some scale, and the value judgments we make in resolving them are a signature of our leadership.

Tobacco Industry as a Negative example

The behavior of the tobacco industry is a case study of the moral pressures within corporations. Over many decades, the leading firms marketed their products as safe and socially desirable despite clear evidence that smoking was both highly addictive and a direct contributor to premature deaths. A culture of denial fostered resistance to health warnings, restrictions on advertising, or any other measures that might discourage sales. In what has become an archetypal example of ethics vs. economics, the historic practices of the tobacco industry have been rightly condemned.

Packaging with an Eye for the Environment

While this is one of the clearest of cases, there are countless others where the ethical considerations are less obvious and prominent in the public consciousness. In the sphere of logistics, for example, how do we best balance obligations to shareholders with a responsibility for the environment? Should vehicle manufacturers have a duty to lead on low emissions, or is it reasonable for them to wait for legislation that creates a level playing field? And what of biodegradable packaging, fair-trade sourcing, or raising wages above a strictly competitive threshold? When first movers bear the burden of risk, is it ethical to hold back from the morally principled but commercially disadvantageous course?

Long-term View Doesn’t Always Add Clarity

There are some who would seek to deny the existence of the conflict, arguing that an appraisal of long-term costs and benefits will show the right path forward, leading to the appropriate balance in the medium- or long term. Perhaps so, but it’s significant that few of those taking this stance are at the sharp end of business. It’s easy to promote an ethical utopia when all is academic and removed. You’re the third-placed player in a market, pressured on all sides by competition and expectations; try convincing your employees that you should be at the bleeding edge of ethical change.

Doing the Right Thing

Even a lesser goal of playing our part or doing the right thing assumes that the moral course is relatively clear and divisible. In practice, we live in an interconnected world, where our actions-no matter how well meaning-can have a butterfly effect that is beyond prediction. We should be skeptical of supposed solutions that take insufficient account of their own uncertainty. For all of the urgency of those passionate about change (the activist environmental movement is a good example here), history has shown that the messy process of evolution is usually a surer and safer route to success than five-year plans or Arcadian visions of great leap forward.

Competing Virtues and the Moral Minefield

And what about the multiple instances in which we are faced with a choice between competing virtues? My opening example is ultimately a tension between the civil liberties we have come to expect and a desire to protect the health of the wider population. Article 11 of the Human Rights Act of 1998 seeks to guarantee freedom of assembly and association but caveats this with proportionate restrictions that protect the health and freedoms of other people. The critical word in that clause is ‘proportionate,’ but unfortunately there is no strict definition we can turn to. 

So how, as organizational leaders, do we navigate this moral minefield?

5 Principled Pragmatic Maxims to Guide Descion Making

I’d propose that for most of us, the way through is not to become philosophers but to pursue a course of what I call principled pragmatism. As that label suggests, we should focus more on the optimum than the perfect. It’s close to what Aristotle would call the Golden Mean path between deficiency and excess, underpinned by good intentions and care for others.

And more tangibly, I’d offer five maxims that we could all adopt regardless of circumstance. 

Be agnostic

Be agnostic. When considering the thorniest of issues, I find it helpful to ask, ‘what course would I choose if I didn’t yet know how it impacted me?’ Would I, for example, introduce universal healthcare care if my immediate or future requirement for healthcare was not revealed until after I’d made the choice? How would I structure the executive bonus if I didn’t know what position I had in the firm or if I were an employee or a customer? When ignorant of our personal best interest, the most rational course is to choose the fairest for all.

Focus on direction, not destination

Focus on direction, not destination. Most progress is a journey, not an event. Indeed, my belief that markets and their morals evolve means there’s never an end point we can reach. It’s therefore vital that we consider the course and the speed at which we’re traveling rather than being obsessed with our arrival. Don’t be dogmatic. Many ethical judgments and the evidence supporting them, are not as clear-cut as leaders would wish. As with parenting, playing soccer, or, for that matter, mastering an instrument—all of us make mistakes. The important thing is that we correct them, responding to feedback and facts rather than digging in our heels.

Beware of moral myopia

Beware of moral myopia. Publicly prominent concerns can often feel compelling, and at times, it’s vital that we react to these with speed and clarity. The recent Black Lives Matter campaign is a good example of how long-overdue progress can follow from a sea change in sentiment. But we should be wary of being too short-sighted. It’s better to set a course and truly steer it than to react to every twist and turn of public opinion. 

Communicate the trade-offs

Communicate the trade-offs. If you need to make compromises, then be clear on what they are and why you’re making them. Explain the mitigation for any negative consequences and how these might lessen over time. This helps everyone understand that doing the right thing is seldom a binary choice.

Have Confidence In Leadership

Returning to those gatherings that are happening as I write, I must be one of the few people who has spent time throughout this crisis in the US, the UK, and mainland Europe. The divergences I’ve experienced in the public’s attitude and mood are striking. In part they reflect cultural characteristics, but I’d suggest that trust in our politicians and advisors is the critical difference. And it seems to me that to win that confidence, leaders of all types must first and foremost show that while the world and the choices we face are invariably imperfect, at least our intentions are good.

Navigating the Middle Ground

For the last few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with advice on how to make the best use of this period of lockdown. The internet is awash with potted wisdom on how to be more organized, distracted, or upgraded, while my inbox has personalized suggestions ranging from cleaning up the sock drawer to learning a new language or getting that old guitar down from the attic. Meanwhile, events unfold beyond our control in a way that adds to a sense of disempowerment and ennui.

Business Preparation Strategies 

Much the same is true for businesses. Countless articles offer pointers on planning for a post-Covid future or the best online training tools… In the equivalent of the suggestions to tidy our wardrobes, enterprises are urged to catch up on admin or, at the other extreme, prepare strategies to win market share at the expense of their less diligent competitors. For all that the counsel may be well-meaning, it generally misses the mark.

Businesses Always Have Long To-Do Lists

The reason for this will be obvious to anyone who juggles the daily demands of business or, for that matter, family life. While nobody suggests it’s not a virtue to clear our emails or catch up on personal development, the reality is that most organizations get by perfectly well with a long to-do list. And as for developing radical new strategies, it’s a brave, arguably foolhardy enterprise that places any serious bets on a future that’s beyond its knowing.As human beings, we experience the world and perform at our best when navigating the middle ground. You may like me captivated by those popular science documentaries on astronomy or quantum physics, but for all of us, the extremes of time and space are still impossible to fully comprehend. What’s more, even if we could, the knowledge would make little difference to our everyday lives that we are hurtling through space at a million miles an hour won’t save you from a speeding fine, and if you jump that red light, good luck in arguing that color is only a matter of perception!

Daily Navigating Business Decisions

Something similar is equally true of commerce. The day-to-day reality is that success comes less from having perfectly granular policies or all-embracing strategies than it does from the thousands of judgments that are the warp and weft of our trading relationships. It’s this daily grind and the grit in the oyster that comes with it that we understand best; it’s actually what motivates us, what enables us to feel empowered, and what most allows us to shine.

Practical Reasoning

Our need, then, in exiting this crisis, will overwhelmingly be for pragmatism rather than principle, and certainly not dogma. This doesn’t mean we should abandon all structures or strategic vision, but it does suggest we should focus our minds on the underlying purpose of the choices we will need to make. In this sense, the return to a new normal will require a commercial equivalent of the “practical reasoning” that’s advocated by thinkers such as Peter Singer or the late Mary Midgely. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcasts on the pliability of Jesuit thinking and its resolution of issues in the context of the world as we actually live it are instructive guides, too.

Keep Partnerships Strong

In re-establishing our trading partnerships, the call to exercise discretion will be greater than ever; cash flow, refunds, sales targets, or staff bonuses, pragmatic solutions, and reciprocal understanding will be the currency of success. Black Swan events term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for major, unforeseen situations we are unprepared for inevitably leave us with a world that’s changed beyond previous experience. But this pandemic is not an extinction event, and it is only by working through the aftershock-instance by instance, customer by customer-that we will find and shape the opportunities that determine our future.

The reason the current lockdown is so difficult for many of us and for our organizations to bear is that despite all the well-meaning advice, no matter how tidy our socks or how ambitious our vision is, only when this quarantine is lifted can we be truly productive again. The people and the enterprises that succeed will not be those with empty inboxes or even the best-laid plans–they will be those who make the smartest calls in the mucky middle ground of decision-making that is the stuff of business as we know it.

Exploring the Tenets of Servant Leadership Interview

jozef opdeweegh in sitting in a black suit pumping his first

Overview: During a conversation with Jos Opdeweegh, a distinguished CEO based in Miami, the concept of Servant Leadership came to the forefront as a paradigm-shifting approach to organizational management. Opdeweegh provided illuminating insights into the limitations inherent in the conventional top-down leadership model, where decision-making authority is confined to a select cadre of executives, often resulting in the marginalization of talented individuals and their perspectives.

Shortcomings of the Conventional Leadership Paradigm

The deficiencies of the traditional leadership framework were glaringly evident, as it accentuated autocratic leadership tendencies and stifled the culture of creativity and open exchange of ideas within the organizational structure. Opdeweegh emphasized that instead of fostering a conducive environment for nurturing high-potential individuals, the traditional approach frequently perpetuated a culture of mediocrity, bolstered by inflexible performance assessment frameworks that inadvertently alienated exceptional talents.

Deconstructing Inefficient Decision-Making within Traditional Management

The contrast between the customary model and the ethos of Servant Leadership gained heightened clarity when examining decision-making processes. While the former relied on a limited echelon of leaders to shape pivotal determinations, Servant Leadership champions a more dynamic, customer-centric decision-making philosophy. Opdeweegh underscored the significance of entrusting decision-making authority to those in proximity to challenges and opportunities, given their comprehensive understanding of the intricacies and their expertise in the subject matter.

Unveiling the Core Tenets of Servant Leadership

In the course of our dialogue, Opdeweegh unveiled the foundational principles that underpin Servant Leadership: an unwavering commitment to fostering the growth and success of individuals within the organization, with a paramount focus on customers, followed closely by colleagues. This approach nurtures a sense of collective responsibility, wherein each member of the organization is viewed as an ambassador, collectively contributing to the shared objective of achieving success.

Embracing Fallibility and Cultivating Empowerment

One of the salient points of discussion revolved around the importance of acknowledging mistakes and their intrinsic connection to empowerment. Opdeweegh stressed that while making errors is inevitable, they hold value when acknowledged and leveraged as learning opportunities. The Servant Leadership framework advocates for a culture of continuous improvement and accountability, empowering individuals to take ownership of their actions and choices.

Concluding Reflections: Embracing the Philosophy of Servant Leadership

The discourse with Jos Opdeweegh yielded profound insights into the merits of adopting Servant Leadership as an all-encompassing, customer-centric, and adaptable approach to steering organizational trajectories. By challenging the established norms of leadership, enterprises have the potential to cultivate an environment that not only retains exceptional talents but also empowers individuals to flourish and make substantial contributions. Servant Leadership, characterized by its emphasis on collaboration, inclusivity, and the transformative power of learning from mistakes, stands poised to shape a more promising future for businesses and their workforce alike.

Fear and the Price Tag of Trust

Originally Published in Fair Value

As a young boy growing up in Peer, it was natural I’d want to learn to ride a bike. For though Belgium is not awash with heroes, we had all heard of Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the world’s greatest cyclist.

The problem, at least at first, was that I wasn’t very good. No sooner would I start pedaling than I’d panic and crash to the ground? After yet another painful tumble, my father once exclaimed, “The problem is, you’re so afraid of falling that you forget to push through.”

Fear and Stress are Human

Fear, of course, can be both physical and mental. In acutely stressful situations, we trigger hormones that have their evolutionary root in our ancestral environment. When faced with danger, our bodies tell us to either fight, flee, or freeze. The symptoms include heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and the need to pee! Psychologically, our attention is drawn to the immediate, our focus narrows, and we act according to our instincts rather than any deeper reasoning.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a political equivalent. In the US, as I write, the nation is in the midst of the Trump-Biden presidential campaigns. The anxiety is palpable and, in many ways, more so than any policy differences. Rustbelt America dreads the return of an out-of-touch elite; the graduates of Boston abhor what they read on Twitter; our banks are concerned about a move to the Left; our destitute remain fearful of the Right. It comes to something when even the postal system has been politicized for fear of fraud in what’s regarded as the home of freedom. 

Something similar is happening in the UK. The issue of Brexit has paralyzed British politics for the last five years and arguably longer. Business is disrupted, investment is delayed, and uncertainty and mistrust are endemic. Despite a referendum and a general election, there is no sign of a consensus that might unite the nation in a common endeavor. The schism between those who would fight and those who would flee is as divisive and draining as ever.

Balancing Interests is Fundamental for Business

Imagine if we were to run a business this way-if, there were no requirements to balance the interests of stakeholders but rather to meet only the needs of those who held the most sway. Such a model would tear our companies apart, destroying value for all through the pursuit of a blinkered agenda. If I have learned anything as an organizational leader, it’s that sustainable progress requires a broader and longer-range perspective than the hollow promises of trouble-shooters and partisans. 

This is not to say that decisive action is never required— procrastination can be as deadly as impetuousness. But it is that good business must do more and better than decide by the majority or follow homogenous agendas. That’s why diversity is so important. We thrive, and make better decisions, by considering a variety of perspectives; by ensuring we have not only social, ethnic, and gender balance in our teams but something of the same in our modes of thinking—we need creatives and disruptors just as much as we need hard-nosed operators and cautious finance directors.

The historian Niall Ferguson has spoken of the lack of empathy in contemporary political debate, as if putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is to concede the unthinkable, to legitimize the other who threatens our sense of safety. Ferguson is an erudite academic, a Stanford fellow who must cringe at the gaucheness or superficiality of any other populist political agenda. And yet, perhaps more than a commentator, he has sought to understand and communicate its appeal, acknowledging that while populist leaders have a loose relationship to facts, they also call out truths that are deeply felt by many. His theme is not that these are noble politicians but that unless we allow ourselves to look beyond their rhetoric and acknowledge the concerns that underlie their appeal, we will not make progress together. We need to listen and try to understand the views and concerns of others than ourselves, even if we are convinced that they are “wrong.”

It’s Important to expect the Best of Our Leaders

To be this generous is difficult. My response to the political decisions I perceive as foolish or unjust ranges from anger to despair –and especially so when there is a disingenuity to those delivering the message. In a sense, it’s a cognitive equivalent of the fight or flight phenomenon. My values tell me there are lines we must not cross, and on these, I am firm. But I also know that politics is not an ethical exercise-that that weighs more heavily than what ought and that the pursuit of power has its own self-rationalizing dynamic. To expect better of our leaders is better held as a hope than an expectation. 

Hope, nonetheless, is a powerful counterforce to the problems of the present. It’s why all leaders trade on vision and why those in business must do likewise-though ideally, with more veracity and sincerity than their political counterparts. Vision-in the sense of laying out a positive future for our companies-is in many ways what modern leadership is most about. To succeed, we must bring others with us, keep our word, and win the trust of more than a slim majority.

The Price Tag of Trust is Fundamental

The cost of fear-or, put differently, the price tag of trust is intangibly vast. In football management, the term “lose the dressing room” means to have lost the confidence of your players. It invariably ends in tears. After the financial crash, our banks spent millions of dollars revisiting their values – a decade later they’re still trying to convince us. The police and other public bodies are under similar pressure- Black Lives Matter is but one example of injustices that are deeply felt by those who’ve lost faith. 

When our fears are most immediate-and most beyond our control-we, seek salvation in simplicity. That’s why in a crash, the demand for gilts and gold will rise-a “Rush to quality” is what it’s known as. We look to authority, too, whether that be through prayers or deference to hierarchies that compensate for our f of impotence. Salvation means, literally, to be saved from ruin-it strikes me the appeal of populist politics is something similar. 

In certain situations, this approach may be appropriate. When faced with a hurricane, most of us know it’s best to follow the advice of the experts. But to resolve more complex problems and overcome discord that is deeply rooted, we must look beyond simplistic panaceas. We must pool our knowledge and ideas and have the courage, as leaders, to give way to the wisdom of others. To overcome fear, we must find what unites us before addressing what divides us.

In his magnificent book, “Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari chronicles the progress of humanity. Eschewing the usual chronology of princes and kings, he examines how, as a species, we have made such remarkable progress-reflecting on what it is about our abilities and psychology that has taken us from a few hundred thousand to eight billion individuals. And at root, his answer lies in our ability to work flexibly together, using language and reasoning to keep faith with ideas that bind us in common causes-be those money, nation-states, laws-and, more recently, in historical terms, companies, and international institutions.

I take strength from his long-term perspective. Not only in the stoic maxim of “this too will pass” but in the knowledge that regressive periods, such as the one in which I believe we’re currently mired, are blips on the curve. There are more millennials in China than the entire population of the United States-no amount of retrenchment will resist that commercial imperative and the opportunities it brings. We are, on the whole, freer today than we have ever been; we are less likely to die from conflict, have longer life expectancy, and have better education. Many of our deepest fears are trivial compared to those our forefathers took in their stride. 

There are exceptions to this optimism-the climate crisis is perhaps the most obvious, and we shouldn’t live on the basis that “all will be well in the Twenty-second Century.” But as I learned as a boy, the surest way to fall from a bike is to focus only on the wheel in front of you. To make collective progress-be that in business, politics, or as people-we must have faith in our future, care for each other, and a trust that extends beyond tomorrow. 

My father was wrong when he said I wasn’t pushing through; the problem was that I wasn’t looking far enough ahead. 

Match of The Day and the Whistle of Free Speech

opdeweegh pool party

This weekend, the BBC’s flagship soccer or football program, Match of the Day, aired without any of its celebrity presenters. For almost sixty years, MOTD has been the most popular football show in the UK and, indeed, worldwide. Its long-time host, Gary Lineker is a national hero and former winner of the Golden Boot, the equivalent of the Most Valuable Player in the League – he’s also a vocal user of social media, with a following that matches his public profile. And it is this that has brought him into conflict with his employer. 

What happened with Match of the Day and Lineker

Last week, Lineker posted a personal tweet expressing heartfelt outrage at the UK Government’s proposals to deport thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda or their country of origin. He believes the policy to be ‘immeasurably cruel’ and said as much; the BBC, in its turn, suspended him from the air, and his co-host refused to act as stand-in.

The Match of the Day Fall-Out 

In events reminiscent of a satirical farce, the situation has been so mismanaged that other presenters and journalist withdrew their services, resulting in the cancellation of several more flagship programs. The BBC hierarchy has been widely criticized for heavy-handed tactics, selective application of its policies, and a blind spot to the optics of its own inconsistencies —not the least of which is its Chairman’s role in arranging an £800,000 loan to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

All these issues have been extensively reported in the UK press, and as I write the situation may yet take a different turn. What’s more, I recognize that any summary of this sort risks omitting or emphasizing certain subtleties, for which I would ask your understanding. I’m merely trying to précis the background so that we can proceed to more material discussion.

And what is certainly agreed by all sides is that concern over immigration and how best to manage the number of arrivals is one of the most contentious in UK politics, cutting through party lines and dividing opinion across the entire social spectrum.  It’s therefore not surprising that Lineker, as with millions of others, has a strongly held opinion on the Government’s proposals.  

The difficulty, according to the BBC, is not his right to have a view but its statutory duty to be politically impartial. The Corporation claims that because of Lineker’s unique public profile, he must remain silent on politically sensitive issues, even when speaking as a private individual, on channels that have no connection to the public service and regardless that he is a freelance contractor and a sporting personality, not a directly employed current affairs commentator. 

Lineker is Right

For the record, I agree with the thrust of Lineker’s comments. The Government’s policy strikes me as ill-considered and lacking in the compassion I’d expect from one of the world’s richest nations. I make this declaration for reasons that I will come back to later but it should be clear that arguing for one side or the other on this policy divide is not the purpose or central thread of this article. If in the meantime, you get hung up on my particular view, you will be missing the point!

The Big Issue with the Lineker Debacle

For the heart of the matter that concerns me – and the bigger issue that I believe the Lineker debacle raises —is whether it’s a good or bad thing that our public figures (including those with profiles on the BBC) feel able to speak freely on political matters.  This is a separate issue to whether Lineker is right or wrong in their assessment of the Government’s policies. 

Rather, it is a question of whether, by limiting the freedom of its contracted presenters to express opinions offline and off the air, the BBC is undermining our wider responsibility to promote the robust and respectful debate that is critical to the proper functioning of a democracy.

In Defense of Free Speech

The late Christopher Hitchens was a Neo-Marxists whose views on many matters I disagree with strongly. But he was spot on in his passionate and very public defense of freedom of expression. Opinions that offend or appear plainly ridiculous ought never to be shut down, he said. Rather they should, in a sense, be encouraged and then countered with the robust argument that shows them to be false, illogical, prejudiced… or, in rarer cases, to acknowledge they may have some grain of truth from which we might learn. 

Hitchens, who died in 2011, was fully aware of the potentially divisive and, at times, the disproportionate impact of platforms like Twitter, and yet he never once averred from his view that free speech was worth whatever discomfort and difficulties it caused – even to the BBC!

Social Media Trolls Stifle Debate 

We live today in a world that has more channels and platforms for opinion and debate than ever before.  And yet, many of our most knowledgeable individuals, who could add so much to intelligent debate —and especially those with a public or corporate profile—are deeply reluctant to engage, fearing the backlash of social media trolls, cancel culture, and the Lord of the Flies mentality that’s typical of pressure groups that show no respect for the underlying freedoms that allows them to pursue their own particular agendas.  The hounding of those who dare to express polarizing opinions is well known, but it’s clear the reluctance to speak out now goes much wider than just these issues.

Everyone Should be Concerned about the Public Discourse  

This should concern us all far more than the BBC’s supposed pursuit of impartiality.

To put it plainly, we are now so impoverished in our public debate of sensitive issues that we need to encourage and not dissuade our public figures and influencers from speaking out. To do so, we need institutions like the BBC to be leaders in showing that it’s possible for public figures to express an opinion without vilification, threats of losing their job, or suggestions that they ‘get back in their box’. Indeed, unless there are overwhelming public interest considerations, I’d suggest that promoting free speech and supporting (even celebrating) those with the courage to speak their mind should trump supposed impartiality every time.

I support Lineker’s Comments 

Which is why I declared my hand earlier in support of Lineker’s comments. Not because my views matter in the scheme of things, but because we have to start somewhere – and if I’m writing this piece, then I need to live by that value too. Indeed, let me go further: I believe the immigration policies of the UK to be deplorable, the influence of politics on the BBC unacceptable, and Gary Lineker is absolutely correct in what he states. His 1930s comparisons may be hyperbolic, but he is absolutely on the right side of this argument, which is shameful in a constitutional democracy. 

That is strongly put and deliberately so.  The central point I’m making is that if you disagree with me, let’s not cancel the discussion—let’s exchange views, enrich the debate, agree to disagree…  That’s what healthy and respectful democracy is about, and we are all of us better off for its flourishing, which is why I say more power to Lineker and his like.  Living with a little tension in the corridors of the BBC is a small price to pay for a public discourse that isn’t cowed by cancel culture or sanitized by the powers that be. 

In fact, to my mind, that’s what true public service broadcasting is meant to achieve. 

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.

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.

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.

Leadership Defined

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.

What is leadership?

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. 

Leadership Tenets and Intuitive are Key

The two aspects tenets and intuitive 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.

Leadership Should be Symbiotic and Sustainable

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. 

The Power of Clapping

As the nation steels itself for the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 crisis, millions are taking a moment to express their gratitude and assert the message that we are “in this together”. When I join my neighbors in the UK in standing at our doorsteps and balconies to applaud the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service, the collective goodwill is tangible.

The gesture is not unique to the UK. Indeed, there have been similar events in the Netherlands and my home country of Belgium. But it is perhaps significant that the health service should be the primary focus here, where the NHS has a unifying force that I’d venture exceeds even other iconic British symbols, such as its much-loved monarchy. The goodwill shown towards the NHS as an institution is stronger than any commercial brand, any political party; at times, any objective reasoning.

In the present moment, to comment on the unfolding crisis risks the possibility of gross imprecision, of events unfolding in ways that we cannot foresee. Over a matter of days the policies of governments across the globe have turned on a dime; at times, a sort of ‘hysteria in small increments’, only to arrive at where we should first have started. Thankfully, there is now consensus in Europe, if not the US, that containment of the virus is best achieved by a temporary lockdown of personal movement – and that this is the only acceptable way forward.

But as we face into the lengthy privations this involves, it will take more than legislation to see us through. Liberal democracies do not draw their strength from the strict imposition or literal interpretation of emergency laws, however necessary or democratically legitimate they may be. Rather, they thrive on the communal values and unity of purpose that was so effectively demonstrated last Thursday night.

The power of collective sentiment is well known – you need only to look only at the stock market to see the impact it can have. Politicians nurture it, brands thrive on it; the ‘goodwill’ on company balance sheets is effectively much the same thing. Over recent years, the use of ‘nudge theory’ has sought to identify small prompts that stimulate positive behavior in areas where legislation would be complex or difficult to police. The charging of a nominal sum for single use shopping bags has become a case study in how to influence good choices – as, on a lighter note, is the painting of a fly on public urinals to improve the aim!

For now, it seems we are at least agreed – and have found a collective goodwill – on the need for containment. The question, therefore, which most interests me most, is whether we can also stand together in support of the ‘exit strategy’ that, in time, we will surely need? At present, this may appear of secondary importance, but its relevance to our future should not be underestimated.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times, the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari noted the decisions we take will shape the world for years to come. At a policy level we will need changes to healthcare, to travel, to emergency procedures; we may all of us – though I hope with real caution – need to be more accepting of restrictions to our liberty.

But what of the public sentiment which will underlie and legitimize these choices? Will we retreat to the false security of a more closed world, or have faith in a future that’s based on greater cooperation and knowledge sharing? Can we muster the altruism and trust to coordinate an economic recovery – or will we emerge from the wreckage in a way that resembles the panic-buying and squabbles we’ve seen in our supermarkets?

These decisions will be determined not so much by our governments and institutions, as by each and every one of us. For, as the recent policy pirouettes have shown, it is our collective actions and attitudes that will most influence those who act in our name. Across the world, economic rescue packages are being put in place, that would have been unthinkable were it not for the public mood that we must stand in unison and shoulder the short-term costs.

As we emerge from the crisis, I wonder if we, as individuals will exhibit the same generosity? Among those thousands who’ve had flights cancelled, how many of us will accept a credit voucher rather than demanding a refund? When commerce returns and our customers need more time to pay, how swiftly will we, as business leaders, move to foreclose? And as shareholders, can we refrain from punishing those companies that are far-sighted enough to support their partners over the restoration of dividends?

The economic and social exit we achieve will be the accumulation of the answers we give to these – and countless more – specific questions. I hope we can sustain our goodwill – for as with most aspects of life, we will reap what we sow. Our governments can nudge us, our banks can support us (no doubt with gritted teeth) but ultimately, to come through this crisis stronger, we must sustain the collective sentiment that required no words, but was so clearly heard, in our standing and clapping together.

This article was originally published in – The Power of Clapping (2020)