Leadership: Doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching

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I have worked with a number of great leaders and managers over the years, some of them are famous for this but others are quiet achievers. Watching ABC’s Four Corners program about St Ann’s Secret on television tonight made me think about what makes a great leader.

The story of abuse of disabled children by paedophiles in Adelaide was heart-rending, and the failures of leaders in various roles and in various situations often seemed to compound the damage.

It takes leadership to stand up and do what is right. As an one of my managers used to say it’s about “doing the right thing even if nobody is watching”. And he often noted that it is also about being seen to do the right thing at the right time.

Over the years I have also worked with leaders who flirted on the edge of illegality (some of them even went to gaol a few years after we parted company). The organisations that were led by those people all foundered over the years. The story in each case was similar: procedural irregularities, illegality, bankruptcy, civil and criminal charges, many ordinary  workers and investors betrayed.

The common thread was that these leaders encouraged their staff to skirt probity and fiduciary duty. The road to hell is not just paved with good intentions, it is also a long slow and slippery slope. Attention to small things and attitudes to them are paving stones on the road to hell.

And the consequences of those little things do not just fall on a business, or on its investors. The consequences also fall on society at large, upon families, and upon young people.

We see the consequences of this bad behaviour of organisations in the scandals that rock our churches so regularly, in the business failures that damage lives and our economy, and in the world our young people will inherit.

How organisations function comes down to all of the individuals, but it is the leaders who set the tone. And it is the leaders who bear the responsibility for the kinds of behaviour that are seen as acceptable and appropriate.

Leaders need to think about what messages they send about which behaviours and practices are appropriate. It is not merely the explicit messages that signal to people how they should behave. In many cases it is also the behaviour, comportment, and gestures of the leaders that set the tone.

Organisations are organic and their culture is viral. And the strongest form of the virus comes from the leaders. If you’re a leader it’s time to think about the example you set.

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Are we living in the age of rage?

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There are so many angry people these days. It’s something I don’t really remember from my youth and childhood. Only in recent years does it seem that everyone is angry.

I’ve been trying to understand why there should be more anger now than in the past. It might be something to do with our standards now. Standards for everything are so much higher now than in the past. We expect everything to be ‘awesome’ and ‘amazing’ all the time.

Are we putting too much pressure on ourselves and the people around us with our attitudes?

The daisy chain of pressure in our lives is remarkable. If we want an awesome house/car/boat then we need an awesome job to go with it. Those jobs often mean that both parents work. Which, in turn, means that there is constant time pressure on the family. Then there is the pressure of being accountable to your boss and the company as well as to your family and friends.

And on top of all of this we commute. Our commutes are often long and add to the pressure we feel. To get from home to work, or from work to childcare when the traffic is heavy or the train is late just adds more pressure.

For many of us there are very fine margins of time between activities. And this lack of gaps and lack of downtime adds pressure too.

I’m becoming aware of how much pressure we put ourselves under. Racing the clock. Trying to achieve all the things we want. And how, we can get angry when the pressure builds. How a little thing like a missed train or a traffic jam can cause rage to build.

So here we are: overworked, tense, and tired, while some suffer from lack of money and struggle financially – the tension builds up with nothing to dissipate it.

Very few things in our lives work to dissipate this tension, there appears to be few outlets. Instead it builds and bursts out when kinks hit our extremely tight schedules. And when it does burst out it does so in reaction to delays and interference in our plans or tight schedules.

But what can we do to change this? A few things I’m trying include saying ‘no’ to adding more things or activities to my life and doing yoga classes a few times each week.

It does make me ponder the notion of existential estrangement.

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Labour, forced labour, and capital – is the ground shifting?

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Free people offering their labour in exchange for monetary reward has been fundamental concept for western society. Since the mid-nineteenth century we have not really used forced labour for production.  But two examples in recent times make me wonder if that assumption still holds true:

  1. Prisoners painted room for former UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith
  2. Wisconsin Union Workers Replaced With Prison Labor Under Scott Walker’s Collective Bargaining Law [HT: @umairh and @johnrobb for this link]

We’ve blithely assumed that we will always be able to sell our labour on the free market and that there will be some (more or less depending upon the economic situation) buyers of our labour – hence much xenophobia on the part of many.

We’ve also assumed that our only competitors for selling our labour on the free market are other free people – either native to our lands or foreigners.

Forced labour used to be an important component of the labour market in Australia, after all we were founded as a penal colony for the UK. However, for the most part, in the west we have not had indentured labour since the nineteenth century.

There also appears to be a growing idea that we should also apply ‘user pays’ principles to people who receive support from society. This means that there is a growing notion that prisoners (and the unemployed) owe society something in return for the support that they receive from society.

I wonder how long until western industry works out how they can use the nexus of this ‘user pays’ ideology, the the need to reduce costs, and the adoption of forced labour? It’s interesting to consider this idea given the continued drive to reduce costs and while the prison population is not in a good position to protest their treatment.

UPDATE: And now I see that the redoubtable Douglas Rushkoff is asking Are jobs obsolete? it seems that I’m not the only one with questions about the shifting relationship between labour and capital. Also it appears that in the US the Unemployed face tough competition: underemployed.

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What kind of zombies have we created?

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I was reading Bill Bonner’s recent post Zombies Born of Government Spending where he posits the notion of zombies in our economy. As Bill defines it:

“In economic terms, a zombie is a parasite. He contributes less to the economy than he takes from it. He lives at the expense of others.”

His argument is that social welfare programs as practised by most of the developed world only work during good times. As he argues:

“It’s relatively easy to turn people into zombies. And it’s fairly easy to support them when an economy is healthy and expanding. But when an economy goes into a contraction, you can no longer afford to give the zombies their meat. Then what?”

This is an interesting question. Western societies have created a group of people with few skills and no means by which they might generate value to exchange.  Nor do many in this group appear to have bonds to the society within which they exist and they exhibit few loyalties to ideas or ideals outside of mere existence and consumption.

But the real issue is how we create a new economy, one that is founded on creation of real value and its exchange, and not ephemeral things (like hybrid securities and CDOs). One that sustains and nurtures community rather than destroying it through extreme competition and crazy ideas like the priority of shareholder value above all other things.

This raises some important questions:

  • If the government can no longer sustain them (or us) then what happens?
  • How do we create ways of connecting people with skills to share with those who want to learn?
  • By what mechanism can we develop shared values that support the creation of valuable skills?
  • How do we create communities of people that choose to contribute and collaborate for the common good?

We don’t have to let what’s happening in other places happen here. We have the choice. We can create communities where real value is exchanged between real people. Not what passes for value in the some places – faux celebrity, immediate gratification, and continuous consumption – but sustainable and sustaining value.

There used to exist such things as commons in the past – commonly held land and other resources. But we have few of these remaining to us nowadays.  It might be times to create some new common resources to share in a fair and equitable manner?  We have already seen the rise of new forms of sharing and common ownership through Creative Commons on the internet. It makes me wonder what other things for which this approach will work. I suspect that Mark Pesce’s work on his Plexus innovation is a beginning in this quest.

It is worth considering how we can each begin to nurture collaborative behaviour and thinking in our local spheres to work against the zombie world view.

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Business, boring jobs and social good

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Over the past 150 years businesses have dealt with the challenges of increased scale by optimizing processes, resource allocation and expenditure. However, there is a limit to how much one can optimize a business and not damage the society within which that business exists.

I have spent a goodly part of my career working on optimizing large scale businesses and increasing productivity.

The main way to achieve that is by automating routine and repetitive tasks or outsourcing them to lower cost regions, thus making low paid jobs redundant. That process generally takes bottom line cost out of the business and increases productivity as a by-product. Where it does create new jobs they are rarely suitable for the workforce that has been displaced through this process.

Many older workers have been pushed out of the workforce due to the disappearance of these types of jobs. For them it seems too late to re-train, and many face ageism from employers who are unwilling to give them a chance at different roles.

Thus we are wasting the talents, energy and skills of many older workers who now languish unhappily on welfare payments.

But it is also interesting to consider this: if the many young unemployed people across the western world had been born twenty years earlier they would be doing those repetitive jobs and earning an income. Those jobs have disappeared. And they have disappeared either due to optimization and productivity improvements.

So what do we do with all of the people who used to do those old jobs? In most western countries (except the USA) we pay them some kind of social welfare benefit. That allows them to subsist. But what do they do with their time while subsisting? Are they included somehow in the community? Do they have a role, apart from being passive recipients of welfare, that make them feel part of society?

A boring repetitive job is boring for many young people. But it does provide some benefits: they earn an income; they learn real-world work skills; it gets them out of the house; it gives them some kind of purpose outside of themselves; and it is really a good way to get them thinking about what else they can do with their life.

My first job was utterly dull and boring. It gave me the impetus to get back into study and work out ways to never have a job that dull again. It also gave me a perspective on how business works, and it is a perspective that I could not have achieved from outside.

But now most of those entry level (boring) jobs have gone. And many young people do not want to take them even if available. That is a bit sad.

We seem to have mostly banished boredom in our society, and that might not be an entirely good thing. The social benefit provided by those lost jobs has not been replaced.

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Riots, desire, consumerism, community and values.

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Want is a funny word. It can mean different things, such as:

“absence or deficiency of something desirable or requisite” or
“to be lacking or absent, as a part or thing necessary to completeness”, or
“to feel a need or a desire for; wish for”, or
“to wish, need, crave, demand, or desire”
(Source Dictionary.com)

The scenes in the UK of rioters and looting were awful on many levels. But one scene that was repeated that was especially revelatory was the looters trying on goods in the stores before they stole them.

That behaviour spoke to me of want.

In the past, usually riots were because people lacked some necessity – food, freedom, the right to vote. That is, the rioters acted in response to want in the sense of absence or lack of something. This is the kind of rioting we have seen in the middle east in recent times, places like Egypt and Syria.

But in the UK we saw rioters, unfocused on anything except inflicting damage on property and helping themselves to goods for which they had a desire. That is, acting in response to want in the sense of desire for something. And that something wanted was material goods rather than aspiration to freedom or truth.

This is different. It is about people who have learned to desire those things for the acquisition of which they do not have sufficient economic resources. And yet, they do have the means – through a collective act of will – to achieve access to the goods they desire.

The looters have achieved their want, they now have the material goods that they sought. However, in achieving those goods they have destroyed the community facilities upon which they and many others rely. They have reinforced their other-ness. They have achieved a short term goal while simultaneously creating the platform for increased levels of dissatisfaction.

I suspect that material goods will not really fulfil the wants of the rioters and looters in the UK. Their anomie will remain. And they will recall the power of their collective action. They will also recall the powerlessness of the authorities in the face of that collective action.

It might be as Winston Churchill once said (in slightly different circumstances):

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Source: Sir Winston Churchill, speech at Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House, London, November 10, 1942

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Dissent and Securing Freedom – Aung San Suu Kyi shares her ideas

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Over the weekend I listened to this moving  talk from the Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she examines what drives people to dissent.

Reflecting on the history of her own party, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, examines the meaning of opposition and dissident. She also explains her reasons for following the path of non-violence.

If you’re interested in freedom and dissent then Aung San Suu Kyi’s talk at the 2011 Reith Lecture is worth spending 45 minutes on (there’s a few news items before the talk commences).

A transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi’s talk is also available for download (PDF).

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Generational theory cannot explain how people behave

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Quite often there’s an article that bundles us all up into handy age-based cohorts (a.k.a. ‘generations’). Behavioural phenomena are neatly explained by the characteristics of the particular age cohort or generation. Based on the theories of Strauss and Howe generations have been adopted as a popular explanatory model for people’s behaviour, and demographers like Bernard Salt and Mark McCrindle have done very well in explaining this model to business and marketing folk.

While large scale external factors can impact on a particular generation and influence them in a particular ways, individuals of that generation shape their lives by other means too. A generation that suffers a war, like the First or Second World War, or a Great Depression like during the 1930s, is shaped in important ways by that shared experience.

Yet I am not convinced that the individuals within each generation are like a mob of sheep who respond as a mob to stimuli.

Instead, based on my experiences in implementing technology and process change in the workplace, I am more influenced by the technology adoption lifecycle (as popularised by Rogers).

I think that this model can be generalised to explain other parts of human behaviour in addition to technology adoption.

Clearly significant life experiences influence an individual’s responses to events throughout their life. And shared experience, such as wars and major disasters, can influence how cohorts behave in future. But we respond to stimuli as individuals who live within societal, kinship and friendship structures that influence our behaviour. And that behaviour is also enacted within our internal physical, psychological and spiritual context. Thus our age cohort compatriots may be part of the mix, but they are not the entire story.

Which leads to one of my pet peeves about generational theory. Articles like this, (from 2007) A-Z of Generation Y:

“THEY’RE hip, smart-talking, brash and sometimes seem to suffer from an overdose of self esteem.”

It is this kind of glib summary that irritates. It fails completely to reflect the diversity, magnificence and sheer idiocy encompassed by humanity.

We see the best and the worst of humanity every day. And just when you feel like giving up hope for us as a race someone somewhere does something amazing, moving and awe-inspiring.

For example, I do a lot of work with those Gen-Y kids who are so often the target of this shallow analysis in the media, and every day their enthusiasm and passion to make the world a better place inspires me.

I also work with a number of Baby Boomers (the so-called “Baby boomers: powerful and selfish“) who work every day to improve their corner of the world and the global community.

Perhaps it’s time we stop making assumptions about what people are like and judging them by stereotypes? I suspect people are more complex than the simple stereotypes so beloved of tabloid journals.

Here’s a few inspiring examples mentioned on Twitter today in response to one of my questions about inspirational things people had heard about recently:

@casandjonesy trek 2 southpole 2400km on foot” via @ljLoch

Well, @Nyx2701 did some pro bono legal work to (ultimately) help let the family of a missing person know they’re still alive.” via @mjberryman

My good friend having a bone-marrow transplant.” via @zbender

I read in the Enquirer that a blind couple adopted two blind children previously thought unadoptable. It’s an amazing story.” via @AskMonte

what planet are you on? How about @CadelOfficial Cadel Evans 1st aussie to win TourdeFrance?? #tdf #yellforcadel” via @lisafeg

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Why do bad leaders happen to good people? #notw #hackergate

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There have been astonishing revelations in London about leaders in the News International group of companies and in the UK Parliament. Perhaps even more shocking is the disclosure of the deep and complex relationships between the two groups?

It is a classic case study of power and the old-fashioned dispensation of favour. News International controlled the media, and thus they controlled politician’s access to the power of the media. It was good old fashioned Machiavellian politics of fear and favour.

For years, without the general public realizing it, the leaders of the nation were kow-towing to the powerful masters of the mass media. Democracy as we believed it to be did not exist. Instead electoral success rode on the back of favorable mass media coverage.

It now seems that even the (once respected) leaders of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard were not immune to seduction by power and money from corrupt media players.

Now all this is being laid bare, with systemic criminal, unethical, and idiotic behaviour revealed. The people are seeing the tawdry mess in the light of day. None of the leaders in question come out of this well. Their venality, their cupidity, and their stupidity are on public display.

But the real question is were good people betrayed by bad leaders in business, government and the police? Is society to blame? Do we get the leaders we deserve?

These are important questions for us here in Australia – after all we are an outpost for News International as well. It’s time we started looking into the murkiness of relationships between those players here too. And it’s time we ask ourselves what kind of government and business institutions we want. It’s time to think about how our democracy works. And to consider how mass media can make a mockery of universal suffrage by manipulating messages.

Andrew Crook on Crikey has done an interesting analysis of the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the current government’s carbon tax versus the Howard goverment’s GST.

Julie Posetti raises some interesting questions for local media organisations to address in her recent post Some #Hackgate Questions for News Ltd and Other Media.

Another recent development in Australia times is industry lobby groups – such as mining companies and cigarette companies – harnessing the power of mass media to promote their own agendas. And through their campaigns they seek to stop governments enacting policies such as the mining tax or plain packaging for cigarettes. Thus the lobbying that once happened behind closed doors has moved out into the public realm.

The media landscape is shifting. The democratization of access to mass media means that others who seek to drive political agendas now have access to the means of production. Power relationships around media are also shifting. As a result these are dangerous times for democracy and for the implementation of long term public policies.

It’s time to stop sleepwalking and blindly accepting the ideas that the proprietors of the mass media want us to swallow. It’s time to ask questions like:

  • What kind of leaders do we deserve?
  • What kind of leaders do we create through our actions and demands as a society?

Also worth a read in this context is an article by Massimo Pigliucci on Al-Jazeera titled Ignorance today: Our world is awash in information – but can we make sense of it?

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Staying human

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I’ve had a very lucky life in many ways. But along with that I’ve lost a lot of people in my immediate family over the years – parents, aunts, cousins, grandparents – to untimely death. No great traumas. Traditional family illnesses mainly rather than accidents.

The thing I’ve learned through all of this is that we need to honour those we love and those who loved us by experiencing the pain and sadness.

We live in a time where one need not even suffer the full effects of the common cold. Take a few simple tablets and we can omit many of the nasty symptoms. The same goes for our emotions.

Instead of enduring, of going through the feelings of denial, anger, sadness and pain we can simply pop a pill or two. We can avoid the pain. We can reject the feelings that are natural and human.

But I think that by doing that we reject the love we knew before the loss. By accepting the pain we acknowledge the loss of the one we love. We acknowledge the fundamental nature of being human. We acknowledge that we are each here for a relatively short time. We acknowledge that our loved one existed and that their loss means something.

I take no shame in shedding a tear for those I love who are gone from me. I remember why they were special to me and I to them.

I celebrate their time here and the love we shared. That is all that matters in the end. It is part of staying human.

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