Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for them. They don’t have to pretend that they are as well, so they can exercise their ‘practical power’ with more freedom. That enlightened department is covered in the system, and the corporate showcase guaranteed.

The distance between the top and the next layer down may not be great in organizational chart terms, yet the top may not have a clue that there is a behavioural fabric mismatch just a few centimeters down in the organization chat.

I used to think years ago, when I was older, that a front page top notch leader stressing human values provided a safe shelter against inhuman values for his/her organization below. I am not so sure today. In fact, my alarm bell system goes mad when I see too much charismatic, purpose driven, top leadership talk. I simply smell lots of alibis below. And I often find them. After all, there is usually no much room for many Good Cops

Yet, I very much welcome the headline grabbing by powerful business people who stress human values, and purpose, and a quest for a decent world. The alternative would be sad. I don’t want them to stop that. But let’s not fool ourselves about how much of that truly represents their organizations. In many cases it represents them.

I guess it all goes back, again, to the grossly overrated Role Model Power attributed to the leadership of organizations, a relic of traditional thinking, well linked to the Big Man Theory of history. Years of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, never attributing the CEO more than 30% of the trust stock in the organization, have not convinced people that the ‘looking up’ is just a small part of the story. What happens in organizations has a far more powerful ‘looking sideways’ traction: manager to manager, employee to employee. Lots of ritualistic dis-empowering management practices can site very nicely under the umbrella of a high empowerment narrative at the top, and nobody would care much. The top floor music and the music coming from the floor below, and below, are parallel universes.

Traditional management and MBA thinking has told us that if this is the case, the dysfunctionality of the system will force it to break down. My view is the opposite. The system survives nicely under those contradictions. In fact it needs them.

 

I found this reflection, especially the final three paragraphs, particularly striking. Health care organisations are getting better and better at talking the talk at the highest levels about empowerment and respect and [insert Good Thing here] – but how much that really has an impact on the daily management practices that are the day to day reality of working within that organisation?

I also like the scepticism about Role Model Power of the Big Man (or Woman) on top. Dr Herrero, described on his Twitter as an “organisational architect”, clearly has a healthy view of the reality that underlies much rhetoric. I look forward to the HSE’s Values in Action project which is very much following the lines of his work.

The individual, “characters” and social roles

Recently I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” On my other blog I have posted a range of quotes from that I found stimulating and provocative. One chapter, “Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context”, draws heavily on the work of Erving Goffman and also Philip Rieff’s work on therapeutic culture. In this chapter, which I found possibly the least convincing of the book (though perhaps for my own reason), MacIntyre discusses the notion of moral “characters” – the Therapist, the Rich Aesthete, the Manager. Most of his argument is around the Manager as character, in what is an assault on the idea of managerial culture and expertise.  Characters are not the same as social roles:

Characters specified thus must not be confused with social roles in general. For they are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which many other social roles do not. I choose the word ‘character’ for them precisely because of the way it links dramatic and moral associations. Many modern occupational roles – that of a dentist or a garbage collector, for example – are not characters in the way that a modern bureaucratic manager is.

aftervirtue

For MacIntyre, the Therapist is one of those characters with dramatic and moral associations, although with a caveat you don’t always find in this kind of discourse:

It is of course important that in our culture the concept of the therapeutic has been given application far beyond the sphere of psychological medicine in which it obviously has its legitimate place… Philip Rieff has documented with devastating effect a number of the ways in which truth has been displaced as a value and replaced by psychological effectiveness.

This specific point is not one I am going to discuss at length now. The passage from MacIntyre I have found most helpful in this chapter – and one which perhaps offers a resolution of the somewhat uncomfortable air of “being a Character” is the following:

Contrast the quite different way in which a certain type of social role may embody beliefs so that the ideas, theories and doctrines expressed in and presupposed by the role may at least on some occasions be quite other than the ideas, theories and doctrines believed by the individual who inhabits the role. A Catholic priest in virtue of his role officiates at the mass, performs other rites and ceremonies and takes part in a variety of activities which embody or presuppose, implicitly or explictly, the beliefs of Catholic Christianity. Yet a particular ordained individual who does all these things may have lost his faith and his own beliefs may be quite other than and at variance with those expressed in the actions presented by his role. The same type of distinction between role and individual can be drawn in many other cases. [MacIntyre describes a trade union official who in his role acts in a way that “generally and characteristically presupposes that trade union goals … are legitimate goals” but who “may believe that trade unions are merely instruments for domesticating and corrupting the working class by diverting them from any interest in revolution.

As a psychiatrist, one is very often confronted with a certain response; in practice, in daily life, even in literature and the media. recently I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence.

timetokeepsilenceIn it he suddenly imagines a discourse between “a psychiatrist” and the monks, in which the psychiatrist seems keen to dismiss their lives as an expression of various neuroses etc. I can’t imagine, as a psychiatrist, ever doing such a thing; partly Leigh Fermor is reflecting the norms of his time (the 1950s). I have found it helpful, since reading MacIntyre’s passage, to reflect on the distinction between myself as the individual people encounter, and the social role and character they expect to encounter.