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.

Does a fish stink from the head?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are lessons here for us all.

4 Principles For Adaptive Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Leading Through Reflection

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

  1. Developing Clear Organizational Purpose

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

  1. Cultivating an Unbiased Mindset

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

  1. Leading With Empathy

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

Thinking The Unthinkable

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

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

But first, let me return briefly to the pandemic. 

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

And in normal circumstances, most of us would agree.

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

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

What does all this mean for leadership?

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

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

But what if persuasion is not enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty Twenty Vision

Has it really been twenty years since we were celebrating a new Millennium? Depending on your perspective, that milestone might seem like yesterday or an age away — given the pace of change, it can feel like both. Across societies worldwide there’s a cultural tradition of acknowledging significant anniversaries and using these as a time to reflect on the past and set new goals. And so, as we enter the third decade of the century, it’s perhaps an appropriate moment to consider the road we’ve travelled and the forces and challenges that are likely to lie ahead.

From a leadership perspective, looking back on the last twenty years, the landscape is in many respects still recognizable — the basics of balanced analytical judgement, good people skills, team building and empowerment are little different, if probably more nuanced. But the changes wrought by technology, increasing globalization, public sentiment and the sheer improvements to our understanding of how we best work together — have inexorably transformed the way organizations navigate their routes to success.

My chief interest lies in the impact these developments — and many others — will have on the demands of senior leadership in the decade ahead. Of course, cultural trends don’t fit neatly into ten-year cycles, but for the sake of convenience — and with a heavy caveat that ‘futurology’ is out of date the moment it’s voiced- here are my thoughts on some the issues that may most significantly impact the leadership agenda over the next ten years.

Purpose

The idea of organizational purpose has been gaining ground for some time. It’s understood that businesses must make a profit to survive, but beyond this there lies an increasingly powerful sentiment that organizations need to play a clearer and more positive role, not only for their direct stakeholders but also in wider society. The growing B Corp movement , which accredits businesses on social and environmental factors, has to date been seen as somewhat ‘alternative’ — but its core message, which envisions business as a force for good while campaigning for a more balanced assessment of positive impacts than profit alone, is increasingly influencing mainstream thinking. Evidence shows that organizations founded on strong social values have more engaged colleagues, attract talent at less cost and enjoy stronger customer relations and brand reputations. Leadership in the next decade will require greater attention to these issues, not as a requisite of political correctness, but as a means to drive performance.

Sustainability

No organization of size can ignore sustainability in the coming decade. From an environmental perspective, the pressures are literally rapidly warming up — and with them a need for greater vision and bolder solutions. Pressure groups demanding targets that would appear, by conventional standards, to be unachievable and unrealistic, are nonetheless impacting public sentiment and with that shaping the policy and legislative agendas. The challenge for many leaders will be that adopting a ‘road to Damascus’ eco-conversion will be as impractical as continuing to ignore the underlying realities. My expectation is that a combination of technological solutions and ever more stringent legislation (particularly to ensure level playing fields) will help — but, regardless of the detail, it is clear that we will require leaders to step up with urgency and place these issues at the center of our planning.

Transparency

The last two decades have seen an unprecedented increase in the scope of corporate reporting. Financial performance, though remaining pre-eminent, is now only one among many of the measures that organizations must account for: gender diversity, pay ratios, executive incentives, environmental emissions, health & safety… This wider assessment of organizational competence will only increase, as will the transparency of data comparison between organizations.

To some extent, what we have seen is a shift to ‘compliance reporting’, by which organizations have sought to meet the formal requirements but then limited further comment. I sense is that we will see the pendulum swing the other way, with a greater demand for leaders to provide more detailed narratives that are answerable to (and tested by) the ever-increasing transparency of the data. Accountability and transparency go hand in hand, so we should expect leaders to be more answerable to their stakeholders than ever before.

Collectivity

One thing that isn’t going to happen is life becoming simpler. Complexity will necessarily increase as a consequence of the challenges above, and it’s as true as ever that ‘ what got us to here, will not take us to where we need to go’. In this environment, leadership that’s focused on a single individual, however charismatic or talented, will not be sufficient — and even a united senior team is unlikely to deliver the transformational change that some organizations will require. The most successful companies already devolve decision making, but simply segmenting responsibility (by, for example, allocating Values to HR or Efficiencies to Operations) will also not be enough. As complexity increases the role of leadership must shift even further from a focus on decision making and control, to that of engendering a collective ownership of direction and priorities. In short, leadership will increasingly be about demonstrably living the organization’s collective values and goals as much as setting them.

Courage

The average lifespan of a business is shortening — it’s currently somewhere around 10 years — and most of those long-standing companies that continue to thrive do so by continual adaptation if not entire reinvention. We all know that the last decade has hit the retail sector particularly hard but arguably greater and more fundamental challenges lie ahead for others — consider the challenges facing the leaders in say, heavy engineering, hi-tech manufacturing, distribution, combustible engine manufacturing…

For many businesses — be they start-ups or global giants — the next decade is likely to involve some truly critical calls. Leaders will need to listen, to delegate, to set goals — all that we have considered so far — but they must also have courage, since many of the key decisions will require acting on beliefs in the absence of certainty. The word courage has its origins in the old French and Latin words for ‘heart’ or ‘seat of our feelings’ — and in that sense, it is subtly different to bravery or resolve. These qualities will be helpful too, for boldness and determination are how we must put our beliefs into practice, and acting together, they will be as fundamental to success as any analysis or epiphany.

Zest

I was tempted to title this last section ‘fun’, for enjoyment in the task is surely essential in any leader, whatever their era. But in zest I am hinting at something more. For if we bring energy and enthusiasm to the mix — ideally in a manner that’s infectious to others — then what’s daunting becomes exciting; what seems an obstacle becomes an opportunity — and thereby all the more achievable.

Leaders must not fear the challenges of the next ten years — rather, they should see them as a golden chance: unique, inspiring and seminal to our futures. Leadership in this context is a privilege and remembering as much, every time we turn up for our colleagues or ourselves, is a challenge we should all look forward too.

Happy new year — and here’s to a Roaring Twenties!