The metaphor of a political earthquake is over used, but already 2016 is a political year where it can be properly said. We have seen the shaking institutions, from the EU and Brexit to Theresa May’s new government to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
But to understand the shaking institutions we need to talk about the growing pressures deep below, growing over years until something has to give. Pressures such as – increasing inequality, wage stagnation and decline, ultra long working hours and commutes, unaffordable housing costs, student debt, climate change, species extinctions, food banks, social care cuts and the NHS in a permanent winter. A mess.
It seems to me that the general style of leadership practiced in recent years has been failing to deal with the mess. Let’s call it capture leadership.
This capture leadership has been the prevailing model for the last 30 to 40 years, for examples:
– capture a public organisation and privatise it to sell off assets
– capture a company management team and self-award big pay rises
– capture a media outlet to promote an agenda
– capture a party machine to further that agenda.
This capturing model is not just about now – the extraordinary political summer of 2016. It has been happening repeatedly such as with David Cameron in 2005, with New Labour in the 1990s, with the Social Democrats merging with the Liberals in the 1980s. Each successor took courage from the previous example, and for many years the capture model of leadership went from strength to strength.
It wasn’t all bad, but below the surface the pressures of its contradictions continued to grow and in the end these deep forces have severely shaken the surface institutions, leaving only hollow structures in their place. The model of capture leadership was always short-term, was always subtractive, whether it was asset stripping, pay stripping, or vote stripping.
The alternative leadership model I would suggest is reconstructive.
This is additive leadership, it aims to leave an organisation better than it found it. It is optimistic, visionary, inclusive. It understands the damage that has happened and has a new culture and strategy to make good change happen. It is hard work and needs careful thinking. Being reconstructive, it does mean dealing with toxic legacies and mistakes, and importantly it means incorporating these lessons learnt within the reconstruction and not just leaving them in a pile in the corner.
Reconstructive leadership is not about offering a replacement of what has gone – more of the old – because that just delays and denies change and increases the pressures.
Nor is it a displacement – it’s our turn now, we are in charge and your turn willcome later – because that just shares the captured organisation with a complicit opponent.
The risk today is that reconstructive leadership is just too difficult. Capture leadership is always easier to do – I’m in charge now, so give me the keys and the company credit card. Reconstructive leadership is harder – we are in charge now, so come in and let’s get round the table to sort this mess.