The Achilles Heel of Strong Leadership

Strong leadership is generally seen as a good thing, presented with the unspoken assumption that the alternative is weak. But this assumption contains a devastating flaw.  The Achilles heel of ‘strong leadership’, is that it’s very easy to cross the fine line from intelligence to belligerence.

The top brass of the First World War were undoubtedly ‘strong’ – sending millions Over The Top to pointlessly certain death. They may seem like dinosaurs from another era, derided for their myopia, but their attitude was the same as ‘The Lady’s not for turning’ mantra that inspires so many Thatcher fans in business and in politics today.

Unflinchingly ‘strong’ leadership though, requires the courage to acknowledge when things are going wrong. Unless our strong leaders have a ‘U turn policy’, their fear of being seen to be weak can overpower their intelligence.

My U turn policy would look like this: ‘If new evidence comes to light, which suggests my earlier decisions were poor – I will accept that I did my best given what I knew at the time, and change my course’.

A policy like this clearly stated and repeated when necessary, would be a strong defence against accusations of weakness. Better yet, it could also undermine aggressive challenges to leadership by detractors because it invites progressive learning over defensive evasion.  Here’s real strength, courage and power.

Let’s imagine there were a contentious, tricky leadership issue afoot – something like, Brexit, say.   With a U turn policy in place, it would be acceptable to challenge ‘the decision’ of our referendum on leaving or remaining in the EU with the charge of insufficient intelligence.

Nobody in their right mind would consider a risky course of surgical treatment if they discovered the doctor who persuaded them had failed to weigh up the medical evidence. Certainly not if the majority of doctors they subsequently met were able to point out damaging side-effects and less risky, less invasive alternatives.  And yet, this is exactly what our political establishment (on both sides of The House) seems to be doing with Brexit.

There’s a great deal of fear and political cowardice in hiding behind a belligerent statement that ‘Britain is leaving the EU because the people have spoken’. As evidence flows in thick and fast suggesting the snap decision to Leave may have been ill-considered, we need some truly strong leaders with the courage to hold up their U turn policy and say “We might have got this wrong”.  It is their responsibility as the nation’s elected representatives and leaders, to give us safe passage through life.  As it is, we seem to be steaming full steam ahead in hazardous waters with poor visibility.  Sure, we all want to be heard, but we wouldn’t expect the crew of a ship to ask the passengers what to do when danger looms…

Medics who ignore valid evidence are rightly pilloried for putting lives at risk.  Scientists who do the same, are pilloried for failing in their duty to advance understanding.  In the same way, politicians who refuse to acknowledge valid evidence should also be pilloried for failing in their duty to advance society.

Let’s hope politicians on both sides of the Channel adopt a U turn policy with the power to break the deathly embrace of increasing belligerence. That’s the kind of strong leadership I’d like to see.

Irresistibly Inspiring politics? It’s within our reach…

Palace of WestminsterPolitics will always involve Power, but good politics isn’t about Power.  That’s what we believe at Happy City.  It’s the same argument we make about the economy, which must of course involve money, but isn’t about money.

The more emphasis politicians place on Power, the less engaging they become.  Between 1992 and 2001, voter numbers dwindled as politics got nastier, with a more and more personal, vindictive and derisive tone. In a nutshell, what the politicians have been saying to the electorate for decades, is ‘you can’t trust them’, whilst pointing at each other.  They’ve done well – achieving the own goal of reducing trust in all politicians significantly as IPSOS Mori clearly shows.  It’s a disastrous result for democracy.

That’s why we find reason for delight in last week’s election.  Voter numbers were at their highest level in 25 years, and it was especially good to see younger voters taking up their democratic rights as reported by NME and the NUS.  The lesson in the results for the two main parties looks pretty clear.  The party which emphasised Power crashed, and the party which emphasised Policies gained.

When you focus on the issues, you have to debate how to solve them – so a policies based approach lends itself to constructive learning and problem solving. If you focus on the power and who’s in control, your main interest is in beating the other side.  The massive problem with beating the ‘other side’, is that your focus is all on skewering the opposition, not on the practical, helpful constructive stuff which actually improves lives for the electorate. Oh, and if you do happen to win, you’re still in the same boat as a bunch of bruised, irritable people who don’t want to help you succeed. It’s a crippling price to pay for a hollow victory – deeply disrespectful to the political profession, the electorate and democracy.

According to Richard Aldous,  this ‘normal’ of attack based politics in Britain’s House of Commons was set by the bitter rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli in the mid 1850’s – it wasn’t always so, and doesn’t need to be now.  Would you seek out a service from people operating in cliques, heavily critical of each other’s plans, full of complaints and not above a bit of lying and cheating for personal gain? Surely that’s an absurd idea?  So politicians take heed. The way to win hearts and minds, and to actually get on with solving problems is not to attack each other.

We can do much better than that.

If the Brexit referendum had been a learning debate rooted in Appreciative Inquiry instead of a battle, how different things would be now.  Whichever way the votes eventually fell, there would have been lots of clarity. We’d have understood much more about what the decision meant, and everybody would have been far better prepared to deal with the outcome.  There almost certainly wouldn’t have been a mid-term election.  This, for me would be irresistibly inspiring politics – the kind that solves more problems than it creates.

Westminster doesn’t own the power, politicians merely have the right to use it our behalf on the condition they’re serving the whole country – or the power supply falters and may even switch off.  The licence to exercise power comes with much more than a mere duty to listen – there’s a clear obligation to work together for the benefit of all.  But it’s not all down to them – as voters, we have an obligation too – we need to explore the kind of prosperity we really want to share, so we can decide what the economy should grow for us all.

So whilst it’s good to celebrate more political engagement, to be happier we’re ‘being heard’, we need to be much more demanding of each other for a healthy democracy.

To get the leadership we deserve, we need to see big political investments in constructive cross-party learning based in practical initiatives for the greater good.  This collaborative approach needs to be upheld in the front line of politics for media and all to see as an example and inspiration to us all.

If the Queen’s speech focussed almost exclusively on making investments like that, we could be much more confident about solving the nations problems, whatever they were.  Not only that, I guarantee we’d see consistently higher democratic engagement and increasing national happiness returns. How’s that for a manifesto promise?!

Finding our (shared) identity


I’m part of an utterly inspiring community called the E-Campaigning Forum (ECF).  It’s described as ‘a loose vibrant network of practitioners using digital media for campaigning (advocacy)’ and, naturally, there’s been a string of debate about the EU referendum.

What I love about this whole thing is the way it stirs people into conversation – and I’ve now heard several people I hugely respect tend to the ‘leave’ camp on the grounds that the system is so dysfunctional it needs a disruptive crisis in order to change. This challenge to my intuitive and reasoned ‘Remain’ position together with the ECF driven debate made me think again.

I picked out posts by Ed Dowding  of Represent saying the fundamental issue is lack of purpose and sense of autonomy, and Dr Andy Williamson‘s 10 points to consider about Brexit and the EU Referendum which is fascinating.   Andy’s ten points convinced me that to remain is sensible, as to leave is clearly ‘somewhere between bat-shit crazy and economic suicide‘, which I rather liked.  But Ed’s was the point which really got me on my feet shouting ‘YES’!!

After many years of self reflection, I’ve concluded (at least for now!) that the biggest contribution I can personally make, is to facilitate better networking of networks.  I’ve set up several collaborative platforms, all orbiting the critical issue of human purpose, which for me is expressed through Happy City. Our sense of belonging, our need for health and a healthy environment, and our search for meaning and purpose are the universal fundamentals of human existence – so they’re the bits of happiness we can all recognise as our own. Many claim ownership, but none can possess the rights.

So I believe the shift required to alter the patterns of our entire economic system are actually pretty simple (aim for ‘what matters’)- it’s just the changes that result are phenomenal in their breadth, depth and complexity (as you’d expect if you change the fundamental system principle), which makes people doubt it’s possible.  It’s mainly because people aren’t generally familiar with systems and how they work, that they doubt big systems can change. It’s the same reason people tend to see themselves as outside rather than ‘in’ the problem.

I’ve asked the ECF network if they identify with the story of the economic system as we tell it here or not.  I wrote:

If you do identify with it, how do you think we can express it in a way that would help people see themselves as IN the story (something they’re already working with) rather than outsiders offering me/us help because they like it or think we’ve got the rights?  

Personally, I think a system with the primary purpose of promoting human flourishing (rather than money/consumption) would make the In/Out EU referendum kind of debate hard to even conceive.

My hope/expectation of Happy City’s contribution is that it helps people articulate the shared purpose/path/pattern in ways that people can see it. If we use happiness to tell our stories in this way, I think people will begin to recognise the widespread reality of ready-made practical solutions and ways of being as an alternative economic system which functions today.  If they understand this is the case, it will no longer be a terrifying prospect to let go of the economic ideas which currently dominate ‘big system’ thinking. The belief will make it true.

What do YOU think?   Please comment here so your own wisdom is shared….

The democracy we deserve

Elections ought to bring out the best in people. People are passionate about positive change, whether they’re standing for appointment or not.  So why is it politics seems permanently shrouded in a toxic haze of negative aggression?

There are two actors in our democratic process – the would-be leaders and the voters*.  We judge the candidates endlessly, but perhaps it’s time we took ourselves more into account.

There is an expectation that leaders should be ‘strong’ and somehow omniscient. We want them to have all the answers, and be right all the time.  This last, in spite of the certain fact that everybody knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party** saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.  There has never been, nor ever will be, a government that got it all right.

Democracy presents leaders with the great challenge of balancing the apparently conflicting requirements of inclusion and decisiveness.  That’s probably one of the reasons Churchill so famously said ‘democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others’.

So is it fair to criticise as sharply as we do, or to protest about things with such vehemence, without taking into account the complexities of life?

We are all very quick to claim our ‘rights’ – the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, and all of the other freedoms which the ideals of democracy bring.  People know they can fight for their rights – and this familiar territory is the arena in which we choose to hold our democratic debate.

This is where it seems to me our problem with democracy lies. As long as we assume our leaders carry all of the responsibility, and that we are merely spectators, we will continue to get the hefty servings of disappointment and failure that are our just desserts.

So whilst it’s important to point out the problems, and protest about the things which don’t work, it’s equally important we ourselves are not unreasonable in making our points.

Reason is at the heart of the ‘scientific method’ and we constantly turn to science for the comfort of facts which reassure us we’re heading in the right direction. When scientific researchers select only the evidence that conveniently fits their theory, they are quite rightly condemned for bad science.  And yet, this is exactly how most of our political debate is conducted – both by the politicians AND the electorate.

For leadership to function well in a democracy, the first task is to accept that democracy, reflects our experience of life – it’s a continuous process of learning, adaptation and change.  If we want our leaders to succeed, ALL of us need to take responsibility for being constructive in our dealings with differences, and for checking our own assumptions as closely and objectively as we can.

If we’re able to do this – resolutely focused on the development of our collaborative skills – then democracy has the potential to serve a very different dish from the one we currently find so distasteful.   If we build on the best of what works, we can be magnificent.  Or we can fight amongst ourselves around the dustbins of failure.

So draw a breath next time you’re about to weigh in to a political debate. Consider your purpose, the thing you’d most like to achieve. Ask yourself if the question or opinion you’re about to offer will help us move forward together. And be prepared to learn something new.

Challenge by all means, but before you criticise this or that political figure, remember that only the very brave or the foolhardy are prepared to step into the today’s deeply hostile gladiatorial arena.  They are forced by the baying of the crowd (that’s us) to adopt aggressive tactics in a battle for survival in which everybody will get maimed. Think how much you’d like to stand before the crowd before you raise your voice.

We can change the game.

If we claim our share of responsibility for the way our democracy conducts itself, and look to be constructive, we can effectively move the contest to a festival ground.  We can mix without fear of mortal attack, and explore the richness of difference the world has to offer.  In our collaborative mood of acceptance and accommodation of each other, we can reasonably expect to find improvement, and at times delight.

If we escape the the toxic haze of that claustrophobic arena, we’ll make leadership a much more attractive proposition.  A place where inclusion and decisiveness can sit more easily together.

We have to watch ourselves as closely as we watch those who would lead.  Then, and only then, will we truly be ‘all in this together’.

That’s the democracy we deserve.