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How could this have happened?

Posted by Professor Simon Robinson

Simon RobinsonAs I write this question is ricocheting around Hollywood, post-Weinstein, and even the Houses of Parliament, leading in the first instance to Michael Fallon’s resignation. It is of course déjà vu. In the last decade the same cries went up after all the major governance crises - from the BBC and Jimmy Savile to the Catholic Church; from Parliament to the Mid Staffs Hospital Trust.

I want to suggest that the question is naïve. These things happened precisely because we, and by that I mean leadership and ordinary members of the organization, were not looking. And when you do not look or listen, when you don’t know what is going on in your organization, then you should not be surprised by what turns up.

Do you know (and the question is for all leaders) what the culture of your organization is? It is not sufficient at this point to refer to visions, or to mission or value statements. For the most part these are fictions, by which I mean convenient statements which sum up what the leadership think they ought to be saying, what stakeholders might want, and so on. (Of course, these are also thought to be a means of bringing together the workforce.) But just remember that pretty much all the institutions seeing these crises of governance over the last decade had all of these fictions in place - but still they did not see what was actually happening in their own organization or beyond; or if they did, they chose to turn a blind eye.        

Do you know what the values held by your organization mean? Many organizations have the term integrity up there in lights for instance. But what does it actually look like in practice? This is not an intellectual test; it is a practical test. How does integrity pan out in your organization? Does the word make a difference as to how the organization operates? It is not something that can be answered by reference to a book. It can only be answered by looking at ourselves and our organization. This means owning the words we speak and how they are reflected in our practice (see also my book The Practice of Integrity in Business).

This means that those involved in leadership need to be paying attention to, and reflecting on, the culture and practice of the organization on a regular basis. Yes, there need to be procedures in place to respond to alleged indiscretions and crimes, and codes of practice about what is expected. However, just to put those in place is not enough. Too often these are put in place and it is assumed that the culture will follow from that, so we don’t need to do anything else. But a culture is a living, breathing phenomenon. Codes can be misused and, all too often, when the complaint has come in it is too late. It is too late because a sub-culture has been formed which ignores the values and codes. Often this is a subculture which feeds off fear of leadership, or greed. But in all the governance crises, leadership has used the dynamic of fear or greed without looking at itself and seeing what is actually happening. This is the leadership which wants others to believe it is caring but actually does not reward care. This is the leadership which focuses on key exclusive indicators which set up the spectre of failure and with that, a culture of fear.                 

This is blind leadership: sometimes wilfully so, sometimes because there are so many deadlines - "I just did not have time to see what actually was going on", "I just did not have time to ask colleagues below middle management what they ‘thought of it so far", "I just did not have time to see the injustices, the abuses of power that people carried out in my name".

Make no mistake, all of these things in the news will happen again until governance addresses our responsibility to know what is going on and to talk about it. And that has to begin with a culture of dialogue and challenge.    

Simon Robinson is Professor of Applied and Professional Ethics at Leeds Business School.


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