The curse of the virus
“May you live in interesting times,” states the Chinese curse. Courtesy of a global pandemic that arose in Wuhan in the Chinese province of Hubei, we certainly are. (Conspiracy theorists may counter that America introduced the virus covertly into China, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/conspiracy-theory-that-coronavirus-originated-in-us-gaining-traction-in-china.) The world is in lockdown. Even President Trump has had to backtrack from saying it was a non-event and all would be sorted by Easter to saying things are going to get far worse. The picture of the huge US navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, entering New York harbour is deeply dispiriting.
Doing right or wrong
Whether we are doing the right thing in containing people in homes and social distancing is subject to a growing debate across the media.
- This polemic by Peter Hitchens for the Daily Mail is one example, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8163587/amp/PETER-HITCHENS-Great-Panic-foolish-freedom-broken-economy-crippled.html?__twitter_impression=true.
- Max Hastings posed a more eloquent variant of the question, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/young-not-old-will-suffer-most-from-the-virus-hlntw58qn.
- Lord Sumpton, a former member of the UK’s Supreme Court expressed this view, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-lockdown-we-are-so-afraid-of-death-no-one-even-asks-whether-this-cure-is-actually-worse-3t97k66vj
- Matthew Parris quotes Virgil in his column, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/quarantine-confusion-will-lead-to-a-mutiny-swr6t0ttb
These are deep philosophical, moral and ethical issues that shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet for being distasteful. Indeed, they affect me considerably as my 96-year old mother resides hostage-like in her care home, unvisitable and worryingly weaker in health, yet thankfully reachable by phone.
News bulletins at the weekend announce care homes in some parts of the UK have been informed by their local NHS hospitals they won’t admit residents who succumb to the virus. Allegedly, they are being advised to obtain Do Not Resuscitate forms from families.
Downing Street has been busy denying Boris Johnson’s Svengali advisor, Dominic Cummings, said, “…if that means some pensioners die, too bad”, when arguing against containment measures, see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/22/no-10-denies-claim-dominic-cummings-argued-to-let-old-people-die. Both these individuals are now infected to varying degrees of seriousness. A case of be careful what you wish for?
Has Capitalism caught a virus?
Surrounding these questions are others about whether the current capitalist socio-economic model has run its course of time; someone posted on social media that the virus was the world’s vaccine to the virus of humanity. What has been done in throwing incomprehensible sums of money at the situation appears far closer to socialist state intervention than Milton Friedman’s free and open markets. A friend, Sean O’Callaghan, pointed out to me earlier this month that Friedman twice advocated a basic income in the form of a negative income tax (“Capitalism and Freedom” , and again in “Free to Choose” ).
What should be the post-coronavirus purpose of business? Is it still to maximise profits for shareholders or to take a more balanced stakeholder perspective? And if one stakeholder is national government through its various forms of bail-out, who gets first pickings from that profit distribution? Some way, somehow, a debt mountain taller than Everest needs to be repaid – how will this be achieved? Surely the existing fiscal trajectory to lower taxation cannot continue. Is a wealth tax or land tax needed? Should Capital Gains Tax be overhauled so that gains from speculation are taxed far more heavily than those from long-term investment? Should the incidence of tax shift from income to climate change containment? Will we see the return of undated Government bonds, see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/oct/31/uk-first-world-war-bonds-redeemed?
As ever, Mark Goyder, founder of “think and do” tank, Tomorrow’s Company offers wisdom on this issue, see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/drugs-planes-houses-how-public-companies-short-change-mark-goyder/?trackingId=BlBXzcqyT663B6yCRg3cmg%3D%3D
Heroes and villains
A list of heroes and villains is being compiled of business leaders who have acted well and poorly, some atrociously. Here is one from Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2020-03-29/business/the-good-the-bad-and-the-outright-rude-how-bosses-behave-when-the-chips-are-down-m8p3xhk6w.
My wife has supported Liverpool FC since she was 10. The club furloughing its non-playing staff is attracting considerable opprobrium, undermining some of the personal endeavours of captain Jordan Henderson to corral his peers into contributing to a fund to benefit NHS and other key workers. Bill Shankly, Liverpool’s iconic manager through the 1960s and 70s, defined his form of socialism as, “I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.” Wayne Rooney made a point about other sports stars living in tax havens such as Monaco were not being pilloried as were footballers.
While we all rightly stand and applaud the heroes of the NHS, social care, education, retailing, how much more invidious is their position due to poor leadership above them – in the case of the NHS especially, is it a case of lions being led by donkeys? Some leaders are driving a coach and horses through the psychological safety they are accountable for cultivating in the organisational climate of their hospitals. They threaten to punish staff who speak to the mainstream media or post their experiences on social media. This dwarfs the extensively reported situation concerning whistleblowing at the hospital in Bury St Edmunds, which ironically lies in Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s (who has acquired the moniker of “Matt Handjob”) constituency. As George Orwell is often cited to have said, “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Thank goodness these brave souls are fomenting revolution to release truth from its shackles.
Why is “whistle-blowing” frowned upon by organisational leaders, e.g. Jes Staley at Barclays? Consider too last week’s case of the US Navy dismissing Captain Crozier from the USS Theodore Roosevelt for talking about the outbreak of coronavirus on his ship. This clip suggests his crew was behind him, https://twitter.com/girlsreallyrule/status/1246067852370751488.
Meanwhile, one US hedge fund makes $2.5bn from shorting the collapsing market, see https://www.archyde.com/bill-ackman-makes-2-5-billion-recovery-bet-in-the-midst-of-the-coronavirus-fall/. How many nurses, doctors, sets of PPE, ventilators (even at Dyson prices!) would that buy?
Closer to home, Somerset Capital Management, the investment firm founded by Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “super normal returns”, see https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/jacob-rees-moggs-investment-firm-21814351
My friend, Martina Buchal, posed a great question in a recent Facebook post about the difference between making a profit “from” a crisis and doing so by doing right during one.
The need to learn
At the end of all this, we need to stop and reflect in order to learn whether we took the right approach or not. Matthew Syed made this point in his column on March 29th, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2020-03-29/comment/coronavirus-an-unimaginable-challenge-for-our-leaders-but-what-great-lessons-they-will-be-learning-mkhgdvrq3.
A key accountability of leadership is risk management, i.e. identity, assess, mitigate, review (in other words, learn!). At Board meetings in large and small companies, does much more time and attention need to be paid to considering what may happen and its impact? Why has risk assessment concerning the potential of a global pathogen been so poor?
It is not as if a pandemic has been unexpected – it is not a “black swan” event. Prior to his death, famed physicist Steven Hawking predicted various “extinction events” that necessitated mankind finding somewhere else to live. One of these was a pandemic, albeit one arising from genetic modification rather than a natural one that can leap the boundary between species. Returning to conspiracy theories, there are many about the virus escaping from a laboratory in China. This now extends to some people calling for China to repay countries around the world for the financial damage caused by the virus.
Low probability / high impact events can no longer be so summarily dismissed. They must be more diligently evaluated. For example, do the algorithms that drive just-in-time supply chains – Apple is reputed to hold only six days of inventory – need to be relaxed? This seems crucially important for both the complex medical kit, e.g. ventilators, and the routine yet life protecting items of personal protection equipment that health and social care professionals need to do their jobs safely. What are the safe stock levels that should be held – for once, Apple appears to be an entirely inappropriate benchmark! The same question demands asking concerning supplies of food and other essentials. In an interview to coincide with the publication of his new novel, The Second Sleep, Robert Harris said, “London, you are constantly reading, is only six meals away from starvation”, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/robert-harris-first-the-internet-dies-then-civilisation-crumbles-3pwvdr36f.
How much has procurement “best practice” been driven by knowing the cost of everything and value of nothing, i.e. “let’s claw the savings into this financial year”? With this viral tornado having torn the roof off the economy, now is not the time to cry over the spilt milk of being inadequately insured.
Is the single biggest learn, therefore, to adopt the old Scouting motto of “Be prepared”?
Values – disappearing like Scottish mist
I have written previously about the “More, more, more!”, “Faster, faster, faster!”, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” anti-values that appear to impel so much managerial and leadership behaviour. The arrival of COVID-19 suggests all the posters adhered to walls or the log-on pages of intranet portals exhorting corporate values be practised are little more than hot air and bluster. We’ve been duped into believing they direct how organisations conduct their business.
How much communication and PR training has succeeded in sugar coating a bitter rhetoric that contains no substantive content? We’re back to Orwellian truth! An RAF officer told me during my Psychology Masters course, they rated orders on the “WWB scale”. WWB stands for “winky, wanky bollocks”. We’ve been sold WWB by the shed load. Definitely not in the WWB category is Roger Steare’s free on-line publication, “How to do What’s Right, available at https://thecorporatephilosopher.org/book/. It’s not the entire answer but provides a significant contribution to the debate about the imperative to change.
What will happen when we captive animals are released back into the wild? Will we all go berserk and rush off to get our fix of retail therapy or whizz off somewhere on a plane? That is probably unlikely because so many people won’t have the proverbial pot to pee in. Will the banks push bucket-loads of credit out their doors on their egregious terms rather than the government’s? Or will this experience have caused a jolt (not a nudge) of cognitive dissonance that results in people changing past behaviour. Consequently, as these new behaviours become a new norm so our attitude towards instant consumer gratification and freedom to travel where we want when we want may also change.
This, of course, reflects the good fortune of many to live in “the horn of plenty”. However, if you are emerging from this crisis in a far less affluent circumstance, perhaps you’re living in a refugee camp or a war zone, you’ve gone from bad to worse. Probably, there is not any immediate way out. An already dire situation is now far bleaker.
Changing the The Praetorian Guard of leadership
Will leaders change their behaviours? The relevance and validity of Kurt Lewin’s environment formula of “behaviour being a function of personality and situation” has probably never been greater. The situation is vastly different to what it was. What will ultimately emerge is likely to be different again. Playing the same “behavioural clubs” won’t produce the expected outcome.
There is a huge development curve for leaders to ascend so their behaviours are relevant to these VUCA times. Yet, how many of these leaders know themselves and in the absence of that self-awareness how can they identify their development needs? The behaviours required to cohere a team through furlough, then “re-form, storm, norm and perform” are very different. Crucial behaviours are those relating to thinking ahead about potential risks and acquisition and application of data and information, both quantitative and qualitative.
A rugby playing friend, Bruce Isdale, said the sport cannot simply re-start. Players will need two to three weeks intensive training to refresh key skills, e.g. tackling. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne has warned that players could suffer serious injury if they are not given four weeks to train together before the resumption of the season. The same applies to many roles in most organisations. Various “mental muscles” will be weaker. Deft skills and emotionally intelligent behaviours need to be re-honed. For instance, when will it be safe to fly again (assuming there are any airlines still in business)? Would you get on a plane on day 1 after lockdown concludes that had stood dormant on a taxiway for weeks and trust a pilot who hadn’t flown for that period? I think I would rather avoid air travel for some time.
The dominant model of the extravert, bravura alpha-male has wreaked havoc these past four decades (Max Hastings says as much in his earlier quoted article). It is time for a manifest change. Never has the work of Simone Roche’s Northern Power Women movement been so crucial (see www.northernpowerwomen.com); yet, is it being radical enough in its campaigning activities? Is there a risk of falling into the trap of painting rotten wood with fresh paint?
Should the C-suite recognise that the impact of their decisions can only be assessed after five or ten years, maybe more? Therefore, any reward should only be paid at that point not before. And a contract that contains, say, a dozen objectives is only “exceeded” when all those goals have been beaten, not just of half of them. “We were ahead 2 nil at half-time,” does not win you the trophy.
Years ago, Alfie Kohn wrote “Punished by Rewards”, see https://hbr.org/1993/09/why-incentive-plans-cannot-work as well as an update, see https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/rewards-25-years-later/ – how prescient he was!
The impact on those whose future is still to come
What will be the result of the disruption to education during these weeks of lockdown? Will children’s removal from our didactic education system prove harmful or beneficial? Will their exposure to a vast array of creative experiences they can find across the web be positive for them? Again, that portrays a certain comfortable mode of life. For those youngsters living in abusive situations, the risk of further incidence is surely hard to bear.
Rachel Sylvester’s column in The Times on March 30th, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/police-fear-drug-gangs-coronavirus-crimewave-fkxpwhgvc, paints a grotesque picture of the tactics of organised crime to keep their county lines drugs trade running. As police are deployed to discourage people going for a walk, is this the best use of this expensive and scarce resource, made scarcer by the number of officers in self-isolation – up to one-fifth in some constabularies?
Justifiably, concern is growing about youngsters’ mental health and well-being. These teenagers and young adults who have never lived through such turmoil. They have been continuously nurtured to regard their educational performance as the only hook on which they can hang their future lives. That exams and university application processes have all been stood on their heads must impose immense pressures on them, their parents or guardians, siblings, family and friends. The app developed by my friends at Quintillion, www.quintillion.io, is currently available free from their website. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Where I live in rural Suffolk, some of the older members of the village community recall their youth and finishing school early to spend the evenings working in the field harvesting crops. Indeed, the school year remains structured around an agrarian schedule. Should this old practice be revived? Is this the only practical way the UK’s crops can be sewn and harvested this year?
Here comes the bastard child of COVID-19
The situation is being compared to the second world war; much of the language being used reflects that, e.g. “the front line”, “combatting the virus”. If this comparison is fair to make, does it need to reflect the fact that the war which started in September 1939 was the second global conflagration of the 20th century? If so, what the hell do we do when COVID-19 v2 escapes from its stable? What left is there in the economic arsenal to fight it with? If we thought austerity following the financial crash of 2008 was harsh, what will v2 look like?
We all know what happened after WW1 that ignited the second global conflict. Do we confront travelling down the same road again as nationalism rises in a futile attempt to protect individual countries from a pathogen that needs no passport to cross borders it does not recognise. Hence the growing murmurings that we may face the catastrophe of military action; that would be rancid icing on the viral cake.
And what else looms over the horizon; this cartoon paints a clear suggestion, one that will cause polarised views?
As a natural optimist, I believe hope prevails, so rather than conclude this essay with these bleak thoughts, here is some joy courtesy of David Hockney “painting” on his iPad. As you marvel at Hockney’s brilliance, listen to Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World, “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they’re only saying I love you.”