This blog is a response to the Chilcot inquiry but it isn’t directly about politics. It is about the power of successful, established institutions to over-reach themselves and sow seeds of their own destruction. It is also about our collective responsibility to investigate what is happening in our teams and institutions, to find a way to engage our own curiosity and challenge. It is too easy in hindsight, post a failure, to persecute the single, high profile leader and not look closely enough at what we all did to allow situations to occur.
Establishment organizations are often exposed to decay when their culture becomes more adept at amplifying the status quo rather than disrupting outdated norms and routines. In many cases they are threatened competitively when a Challenger has been more adept than the Establishment organization at thriving on the uncertainty that arises from differences of opinion and the associated cultural anxiety.
A key part of avoiding this decay is for organisations to do the work of witnessing themselves. I talk more about what we mean by this below. It is written for a business context and at the same time I couldn’t help but reflect on the implications for the political context post the Iraq inquiry.
The work of 'Witnessing The Establishment' begins with first recognising where you are unhelpfully accepting or reinforcing the status quo. In our experiences we have noticed some subtle ways in which Establishment leaders and leadership teams stop themselves fully exploring their territory. We have called these four blindfolds the four As: Arrogance, Avoidance, Agreement and Antagonism.
The success that has built many Establishment organizations often brings with it a degree of arrogance. Having a belief that you are the best, untouchable, not to be questioned, leaves you vulnerable to threats from your competition. Not least because avoidance of meaningful conversations about your vulnerability removes a healthy paranoia that successful organizations have had at their heart.
Arrogance is sometimes expressed through the brute strength that comes with size overtaking the competitive brilliance that will have helped a company to grow in the first place. Some- times the first stage of a death spiral is an organization throwing its weight around to crush competitors as opposed to out smart- ing them in the eyes of the consumer. They lose their thought leadership position to the Challenger and start fulfilling some of the more negative stereotypes that come with their size and success.
Another aspect of size is the increased structure, hierarchy, fragmentation and silo mentality that comes with it.
Success and size also limits the chances of new breakthroughs bubbling up from your workforce as the hierarchy ends up suffocating challenging new ideas and ways of working. A concern for Establishment organizations is the effect their culture may be having on the creative Challengers in their own workforce.
Taking off the Arrogance blindfold leaves you able to witness where your past success has become in some way self limiting. It allows you to see again with new eyes your competitive landscape and to begin asking uncomfortable questions of yourself and others.
An easy way to play safe and look good is just to steer clear of any of the Challenger conversations that you know are going to get messy.
A typical form of avoidance commonly practiced is to refer difficult conversations and choices up to the top team, expecting them to sort them out for you. Then when the decision comes down from on high you can implement it safe in the knowledge that someone else has sanctioned it. This form of avoidance has particularly far reaching consequences for the culture of an organization. It learns that empowerment is limited, that conflict is resolved at the top of the organization, that it is better to be safe than courageous.
You can also use the complexity of an organization to hide behind. Let’s face it, things are so fragmented, siloed and fast moving at present that most organizations can have internally conflicting positions taken on strategy or implementation and it not be noticed for a long time.
The most subtle form of avoidance is to collude with the current organizational culture or preference for the way things are done, despite knowing that leadership of a Challenger organization often requires one to step outside and challenge the old habits in place.
When you take this blindfold off you are able to see the damage that avoidance causes and be more honest with yourself and others about where courage has been missing.
In the context of Establishment organizations easy agreement is another way to reduce anxiety and play safe. Agreement in these terms can mean finding a way to progress by agreeing at a level of detail rather than of principle, content rather than context. For example, it is possible to agree that a new positioning is needed for a brand without really working through the implications for whether the organization is sales led or brand led. It is possible to keep agreeing that an organization transforms without paying attention to how individuals will need to trans- form. It is possible to agree big revenue generating strategies for the future without paying attention to the sacrifices they will require in the current financial year. It is possible to agree that creating a Challenger culture is a key strategic theme in the or- ganization without really working through the implications of what this means for the Executive Team.
Agreement feels like progress but often the agreement has been reached through reducing complex dilemmas to simple problems that can have a right/wrong solution. When such an agreement is put in place, leaders tend to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking that is another tick against the list, only for the agreement to unravel when it is tested against the complexi- ties of daily organizational life. The unravelling often happens at some distance with the leaders’ teams struggling first and foremost. Easy agreement becomes a form of abdicating lead- ership responsibility.
The response to agreements unravelling is usually the exertion of increased levels of control. Leadership focus ends up on applying your authority, rather than facilitating a more useful conversation in the organization. So we create a culture dependent on high levels of agreement and low levels of uncertainty.
When this blindfold is removed leaders are better able to engage with and make meaning from the complex connections and interdependencies in their organizations. They are more open to and adept at dealing with diversity of opinion and uncertainty of action.
Another subtle way of reducing anxiety and looking good is to take an antagonistic position in response to the proposals put forward for leading a Challenger organization.
As leaders growing up in the organizations of the past 20 years, we have learned to admire those that can form a strong view and then attach themselves to it in an unyielding way. This ‘strong leader’ model is often mythologized through stories of how this determination, stubbornness and consistency generated a breakthrough.
Inevitably if one position is taken up strongly by a leader, then someone else will soon support the other pole and the antagonism is in play. If you respond with more antagonism then this has far reaching effects for trust, transparency and fragmentation of effort. In most organizations we have worked with, this way of operating leads to a lot of leadership energy being wasted on competitive and defensive positions being taken up. Before you know it, whole organizational structures have been built in response to something that was motivated by the politics of power rather than doing the right thing.
Taking off these four blindfolds is a way to witness the Establishment is a critical precursor to any act of being a Challenger. To bear witness requires some determination, some letting go and plenty of inner work. It is a skill underpinned by a courageous attitude. It is an attempt to truly see what is being ignored, avoided, causing antagonism or too easily agreed to. Witnessing the Establishment is to experience the full effect of your organization on everyone that touches it, including yourself. In doing so you experience what it does to your intellect, your heart, your motivation, your energy, your will to change things and your hope and ambition for the world beyond your own.
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