I wanted to post an article at the beginning of the year – some reflections on the past 12 months, hopes for the future and observations of the leadership and advisory skills I feel we need to get us back on the right track. But I got derailed by the wonderment of January 2023; even by the standards of the global sh**show of recent years, if it was a school report, ‘Could do better…..’ wouldn’t even get close.
Unless you’re Jacob Rees Mogg (who thinks things are going ‘rather well’), most of us would probably now agree that the United Kingdom is in a bit of mess. Our society is polarised and public trust of leaders and other experts is at an all-time low. And that puts us in intensive care. As Matthew Syed put it in a recent Sunday Times article “Public trust isn’t some optional extra; it is the social forcefield that facilitates collective action and innovation.” Without trust in our leaders, our whole makes a mess of the sum of its parts and our society stagnates. By a process of creeping normalisation we now seem to accept that we cannot trust our leaders and indeed, to erroneously paraphrase Michael Gove’s June 2016 assertions that “we’ve had enough of experts”.
So, to be contrary, I’m going to be a continuing advocate for experts. We do still need them and here’s why. My starter for ten is that the framework of our discontent is secured by three main pillars:
- The malign quid pro quo culture. Example: Boris takes a sizeable loan from a distant cousin based abroad who he assures everyone has no connection to U.K. public life. As if by magic, said cousin quickly pops up on the shortlist for CEO of the British Council (a public body).
- If we don’t ask, we won’t know and we don’t have to be accountable. Example: three successive British Prime Ministers over a six month period (yes, you weren’t dreaming) thought it best not to ask Nadhim Zahawi about the details of his formal investigation by HMRC before placing him into Cabinet positions;
- Woeful lack of self-awareness and attention to detail. Example: Trussonomics. As Liz herself bemoaned, we’d be on the sunny uplands by now and she would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and the ‘left-wing economic establishment’ (i.e. her own party; the Treasury; the stock market; the electorate whose mortgages quickly became unaffordable; and all the other political parties) conspiring to disrupt her plans for world domination.
It’s not all the U.K. – a number of dishonourable mentions worldwide (including the USA where Biden and Trump compete for the ‘now where did I leave those State Secrets?’ allcomers title) and India (where an honesty and integrity check on The Adani Group seems to have placed an entire economy and government at risk). You get the point. Britain used to be a place where the phrase ‘trust me, I’m a doctor’ (banker/lawyer/accountant/politician) was de rigeur. It was almost reassuring for many to be disdained at by an ‘expert’, in their intellectualised ivory tower. If we didn’t understand it, it must be because it was too clever for us and that, in itself, was sufficient to form a relationship of trust.
This comforting yet illogical philosophy was ripe for the manipulation and abuse that then took place. Against that backdrop, it’s of little surprise that more recently the global electorate has craved simplicity and decisiveness, electing and retaining leadership and other expertise who champion a mantra of ‘simple solutions to complex problems’. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are just two of those who have dined out on the era of the three word soundbite (“Make America Great Again”; “Take Back Control”; “Get Brexit Done”). But round we go again with sociological, economic and political turmoil globally with public trust at an all-time low.
There’s a common theme to both types of leadership. Whether merely disingenuous or brazenly dishonest, they share a lot in common. In one case opacity is added to distort simple facts (Royal Mail faced with the conflict of paying the CEO a bonus after a £300 million loss in its first three quarters, scrambled to make the criteria more subjective – (out went ‘revenues and profits’ and in came ‘shareholder value’). In the other case, required complexity is distorted with over simplification (Brexit’s rallying cry of £350 million a week to the NHS hasn’t aged well) share a lot in common. In both cases, the dark arts of deceit and manipulation are at play.
So, let’s go back to Michael Gove’s 2016 assertions and throw in some Einstein too. What Gove really said was that we had had enough of experts “from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. Meanwhile, in one of his lectures, Einstein observed that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. In truth, to illustrate his point, he explained himself in a little more detail. If something seems too simple, it probably is.
The solution is therefore on a continuum – we do need #experts, but we need those who know what they’re actually doing and who neither over complicate nor oversimplify. Most importantly, we need them to be proper fiduciaries. Politicians; leaders of industry; and leaders of professional services firms have all used their positions to easily deploy deceit and manipulation with a firm eye on personal gain, as public trust buckles under the weight. And leaders need to listen. Kevin Haag, 67, a retired landscaper from North Carolina was a bystander to the horrific scenes at Washington’s Capitol Building in early 2021. He opposed what took place but observed “It felt so good to say ‘We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!’
So as a law firm leader, the mantra is to be societally and open minded. We must be curious to constantly learn – both new developments in law and also in our clients’ businesses. We must be collaborative, aware of how understanding our clients and being interested in what they have to say will make us better at what we do. We must problem solve and offer solutions that are as straightforward as possible but never over simplified; and we must embrace #technology and any other development that can make service delivery more time efficient and cost effective for our clients.
In summary, I’ll leave you with Jacinda Ardern’s thoughts to which I think we should all aspire: “As a leader, you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused.” She then added that you also need to “know when it’s time to go.” And with that, I wish you all a wonderful (rest of) 2023.