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Events, dear boy, events

Tim Johns | 29th August 2017

When the then UK Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, was asked what could blow his government off its course he famously replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.” Things rarely go in a straight line, shit happens (as the phrase goes), and few strategies stand the test of time. This conflict of strategy meeting reality was probably most eloquently summed up by Mike Tyson who said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Our collective addiction to news gives us a constant stream of events, large and small, human and natural. Making sense of them and learning to live with ambiguity is something that many people struggle with. This is because events represent a change from what came before and we all find change unsettling.

Organisations are highly complex and interwoven and they operate in highly complex interwoven, environments. Events, large and small, happen all the time. But it may be that the traditional approach to leadership is negatively impacting the corporate ability to evolve and react to change and opportunities. Many leaders still picture themselves as being in charge; standing at the helm and steering their ship towards its ultimate destination. Their corporate narrative describes a journey, a transformation to a glorious future of prosperity and success. There is a marvellous naivety in the idea that one person has the ability to influence and others merely follow. Such is the need for decision-making and productive activity that top-down, hierarchical structures are no longer appropriate.

Leadership, in all its various definitions, needs to be a core competency of every individual. Yet the reality is that too many have delegated and outsourced their personal responsibility to people “above” them. Many organisations have fostered a dependency model. However, to survive and thrive organisations need a cultural revolution where everyone sees themselves as a leader, and where the power of the swarm can self-organise to create solutions. This means that any culture change programme needs to start with the idea of encouraging individuals to take responsibility. In other words, to become leaders. And that also means that those who currently see themselves as leaders need to let go. The more they let go of control, the more they allow others to succeed.

And on the macro scale, of course, some events are demonstrably beyond control. Once in 500-year storms over flood plains that have been covered in concrete will test any water management systems. Communities can only survive such cataclysmic events through individual instances of leadership. One person, be it a Mayor or President, can’t solve such problems. Leadership can’t prevent natural events, as King Canute will attest, but it can try to limit and mitigate by empowering others to make decisions and act. True leadership is about creating the environment in which decisions can be taken.

And then there are events such as solar eclipses which are so beyond human intervention that one can only stand back and remember just how insignificant humanity is. This impotence is best summed up by one of my favourite quotes, first read over 35 years ago: Bertrand Russell demolishing Karl Marx: “He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to Man. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific.”

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