Sunday, 15 January 2017

Putting on the postman's uniform - a return to local leadership

In David Brin's book, The Postman, he describes how a man in a post-disaster USA dons the uniform and, as if by magic, is transformed into that same reliable and trustworthy working-class public servant. In exploring the importance of connections between places, Brin (in common with many other writers exploring a post-disaster world) touches on different forms of organisation. We wander from self-reliant little homes with tough but loving families through suspicious and fearful villages or towns to the most dystopic world of the Big Man and the warlord.

In all the book's places we see what many would see as a crisis of leadership. In some places there is no leadership beyond the family, an entirely independent pseudo-pioneer world - a sort of Farnham's Freehold without the casual racism. In others we see safety and security achieved at the cost of compliance with oppression - Zamyatin's We with tatty leather jackets. Elsewhere we glimpse the entirely lawless where, in a world of scarcity, the utility function drives human decisions to their logical conclusion. Here's Deirdre McCloskey in "The Bourgeois Virtues":
"The economist and historian Alexander Field has based a similar argument on biology. He notes that on meeting a stranger in the desert with bread and water that you want, you do not simply kill him. Why not? Sheer self-interest implies you would, and if you would, he would, too, in anticipation, and the game's afoot. Once you and he have chatted for a while and built up trust, naturally, you will refrain."
Or perhaps not if the utilitarians are right? In their world the task of the leader, or so it seems, is to decide - by whatever means - what is the greatest good for the greatest number and implement that good. Such, for all the deal-making, fancy words, thought leadership and opinionating, is the core purpose of those gatherings of great and good - Davos, Bilderburg, summits, conferences and think tanks. Such things are the manifestation, the logical conclusion of a philosophical tradition running from Plato through Mill and Bentham to A C Grayling: leadership from the wise.

The problem today isn't that we are entering some sort of dystopia but rather that the most essential part of leadership - that someone has to follow - has been lost in our desire to perfect the manner in which leaders lead and the things that they lead on. Here from the Millennium Project:

I haven't got the Davos agenda but, while the words may vary, this 'conscious leaders' agenda' pretty much covers what they'll talk about (other than how to get themselves more power and money of course - that's not on the official leaders' agenda). What we have here is the agenda but the problems for those leaders in Davos is that, especially for the political ones - plus those pompously titled thought leaders - it's the lack of followers that is the agitation. This is the 'populism' that is troubling so many of the great and good - for them it is, indeed, better characterised as 'unpopularism'.

The problem here is that these leaders, for all that they seem secure in their power, are uncertain how long this will remain the case. We were all pretty certain that Donald Trump wouldn't win the US presidential election - and we were wrong. We were less certain but assured by our leaders that the UK wouldn't vote to leave the Euorpean Union - and we were wrong. Elsewhere we've seen the President of France become so unpopular that he withdrew from any prospect of seeking re-election. In Spain and Greece social democratic parties are being replaced by radical parties of the left and the big losers to left and right in Holland, Sweden and Germany aren't conservatives but rather Europe's once dominant centre-left.

And the image above of the world and its problems? That is an image constructed by the centre-left - a reflection of big state, big government models for the future. It's not that the content is wrong but rather that the model assumes that the wise - Philosopher Kings - will provide the leadership and this leadership will be global. These are the people who Harm de Blij says live in a flat world, flitting effortlessly from place to place across the world and inhabiting a community where they genuinely feel like Tom Paine's citizens of the world. The problem is that 99% of the worlds population aren't in this flat world - they're, in de Blij's words, either locals living in the global periphery or mobals trying to get from that periphery to the core where they can have a better life.
"From the vantage point of a high-floor room in the Shanghai Hyatt, the Mumbai Oberoi, or the Dubai Hilton, or from the business-class window seat on Singapore Airlines, the world seems flat indeed. Millions of world-flatteners move every day from hotel lobby to airport limo to first-class lounge, laptop in hand, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring as they travel, adjusting the air conditioning as they go"
Such 'flat earth dwellers' understand the locals and mobals. After all they've listened to a thought leader speak, they've read a precis of the current academic research and they reviewed documents from a UN agency or two plus, for balance, Oxfam or some other NGO. The right noises about poverty, economic development, humanitarianism and growth drop from their lips. But they do not know these locals and mobals. Those people, the ones they see from the limo window, serving them tea in the hotel and marching angrily about how their livelihoods are threatened - they've stopped following these Philosopher Kings. Our 'flat earth dwellers' are no longer leaders but rather a bunch of folk who can see a lot of locals and mobals pushing against the glass of their bubble. And they are scared.

None of this is to say that enlightenment liberalism is wrong or a problem. After all, despite the best efforts of some to suggest otherwise, capitalism has made us richer and is doing the same for those locals and mobals de Blij worries about. Rather it's to suggest that we need to rethink the model of leadership that is revealed at Davos and to recognise that this approach - consultative, knowledge-focused but still globally focused and top down - no longer fits what's needed.

At a board away day recently (from where I pinched that image of the world's agenda) a couple of almost throwaway comments struck me as important. The first of these was that we're moving to a self-service world, quite literally through the power of the smartphone in our pocket. Want to know where something is? Phone. Need a picture? Phone. Want to buy some car insurance? Phone. I forget where I read it but if your business idea doesn't work on a phone, don't bother.

Many of the presumptions about public services, transport, retailing and decision-making no longer apply. It's not that we don't still need leadership but that that leadership needs to be more dispersed, connected and local than what we see today. The economics writer, Tim Worstall taked about Bjorn's Beer Effect:
Instead they have what I call the Bjorn's Beer Effect. You're in a society of 10,000 people. You know the guy who raises the local tax money and allocates that local tax money. You also know where he has a beer on a Friday night. More importantly Bjorn knows that everyone knows he collects and spends the money: and also where he has a beer on a Friday. That money is going to be rather better spent than if it travels off possibly 3,000 miles into some faceless bureaucracy.
In a self-service world we need to look more at local considerations than at the systems needed to deliver services - the phone in your pocket can deliver those services and you can work it out for yourself. But you still want advice, help - dare I say it, leadership - but this should be at your scale: local, responsive and focused. Most of the world's problems - pretty much all of them with the exception of that huge asteroid - don't require a global response but require us, at most, to change our personal behaviour. This needs dispersed local leadership rather than grand gatherings in nice cities.

The second throwaway from my meeting was about how people work - specifically Generation Y and Z but I suspect this applies much more broadly - in a world where access to knowledge (and fake knowledge) approaches being universal. We heard a description of a noisy, confused room of young people discussing the task at hand, phones being consulted, everybody talking, groups forming and unforming - there's leadership here but not in the traditional, dominant, top-down manner that our Philosopher Kings would want. And the leader on one task is different from the leader on another task - all a bit like The Apprentice!

This again reflects the manner in which connectivity - something that mobile technology is bringing to de Blij's locals - now forms the core function in leadership. The leader is no longer in that high castle and, tomorrow, may step aside because a different person has stepped up to lead. All this suggests that the established power structures of representative democracy and bureaucracy serve less of a purpose - if we self-serve we don't need that big bureaucracy and, therefore, its great leader. And if we're connected, involved and engaged we have less need to choose someone else to do the connection, involvement and engaging.

We'll still need the public servant but that person won't be a president, chief executive or civil service mandarin. Rather that servant will be Bjorn having a drink on a Friday with his friends and neighbours or Claire playing Lego with the kids in the local pre-school. Someone who, to return to where we started, has put on the postman's uniform.


1 comment:

J Johnson said...

Those Davos folks are a bit off.
The world economic forum people are also more than a bit strange to put it mildly.
For some reason after reading this I thought of this blog because I somehow knew you'd find it interesting(I hope links are allowed)

I suppose we should expect this sort of thinking from people who have much.
They don't seem to inhabit the same world the rest of us do.