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Populating the tent

Forgive us for hanging a broader point off a recent political headline (especially as we’ve apologised for this already this month), but the reshuffles of both the government ministers and their Shadow counterparts – and the media commentary on them – does beg a larger question or two.

The headlines (see, for example, The Daily Express, Daily Mail, New Statesman, Sky and BBC News) tell us as much about the commentators as they do about the content, although The Spectator deserves an honourable mention for a deadpan headline that may more accurately reflect general public interest: Small Reshuffle in Britain; Not Many Dead.

What’s interesting about the interpretations and responses is the factionalism – looking for signs as to what the changes mean in terms of which interests, tendencies and allegiances are being advantaged. Accepting – naturally – that organisations are not political parties, there are important points here about diversity and strength, sustainability and vanity (and possibly also the difference between product and branding).

The ‘Diversity and Strength’ question has a number of angles to it. The first is that, for any organisation, there is an attraction to the idea of strength in numbers. It plays well with concepts such as collaboration, engagement and commitment and building competitive advantage. But it has its potential downsides too: a large number of customers in a single niche or demographic may be impressive. It may well be profitable, but its narrowness is a potential disadvantage: one key change in that demographic, and that impressive number can shrink very rapidly indeed.

Nor is this the only issue: building a team around shared attributes can lead to a different kind of narrowness – an over-emphasis on a particular set of skills or values, perhaps, or a dependency on ‘Yes-men’. A troublesome or constant critic is always an irritant, and will always beg the ‘inside or outside the tent’ question. But where there are complex issues of strategy to debate and evolve, or a range of opinions that need to be considered to properly test the validity or viability of a proposition, including those who don’t entirely agree with us can be a positive advantage. This may feel to those being disagreed with that others are pouring … erm, cold water on their ideas, but equipping the metaphorical tent with processing facilities might be a more sustainable analogy than simply banishing the dissenters. Those of you who take inspiration from metaphors might appreciate a Daily Telegraph article, Urinate on the compost heap to save the planet says the National Trust; even if you don’t, presumably a bumper crop of tomatoes next year is an appealing argument?

But monocultures (see an earlier blog) aren’t just about vegetable crops, or even market demographics. They are also about lines or ways of thinking, relationships and interactions, and about personality types. These are also issues that we’ve explored before but deserve repetition. Given the news event we’ve chosen to hang this blog’s hat on, let’s start with a politician, albeit one writing in the context of his other (medical) profession. The following words – which we originally quoted four years ago – come from David Owen:

Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence – these qualities are often associated with successful leadership. Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale.”

It’s the potential of ‘a refusal to listen to or take advice’ that really stands out in the context of this post: not so much distancing yourself from advice, but distancing the possibility of advice from yourself. And there’s the additional sense of ‘not worshipping false idols’: in choosing not to assemble a diverse team around yourself, aren’t you effectively making yourself your own personal false idol? Promoting other people in your own image not only says something about your preferences, it says something – and not something particularly healthy – about your own self-image. Leadership depends not just on developing self-awareness, but on maintaining it – staying aware of your impact, of the impression you create, and your relationship to the changing world around you. (If you want a truly ghastly analogy here, consider the scene in Behind the Candelabra where Liberace produces a photograph of himself as guidance for the plastic surgeon hired to ‘re-model’ his partner. If you want to be adored, try being adorable. It’s cheaper and it leaves fewer scars – on everyone – although it does mean finding out what other people find attractive.)

The other troubling aspect of ‘promoting in your image’ takes us back to monocultures, or at least to the thing they leave most vulnerable: future sustainable health. It’s easy to see the attraction of the idea of ‘values that will stand the test of time’. Many of us are powerfully drawn to the idea of leaving a lasting legacy – although we should be equally concerned that it isn’t an attempt to ensure that our vanity will continue to make its mark long after we’ve shuffled off. A legacy is something that you leave for those that follow, for them to use in the future: otherwise, it’s a potential millstone. As we said on another occasion (when it seems we also used politicians’ foibles to illustrate the point):

If your legacy is to be more than short-lived, the skills and values you pass on must include the ability and awareness of the need to adapt – and the ability to help and inspire others to do so. And succession planning should not attract the emotional attachment of family respect: the future may be yours to influence, but it will not be yours to either live or deliver.”

Our own values and strategies are, in a way, Plan A. In preparing others to take over our lead – and what else can we realistically do? – we also need to ensure that we don’t prevent them from having the sense to adopt Plan B when the need arises.

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