Wake up to Reality: Lessons from the News Corp Debacle

One of the reasons so many organisational change projects fail – a jaw-dropping 70%  – is because we have an over-simplistic, caricatured view of the human condition. 

As leaders, if we want to effect change of any kind, whether local or at scale, we need better maps of how to navigate effectively in a complex  world. Our change and improvement maps, are woefully inaccurate and incomplete in terms of accurately mapping the human condition.

The painting by William Blake hints at the complexity of our character as human beings.

We would be more effective, and more compassionate to ourselves and others, if we could acknowledge the wonderful and painful complexity and contradiction that we are as human beings. 

Learning from the Phone Hacking Scandal

There’s much to learn from this debacle that illustrates the complexity of the human character and has much wider application than News Corp and the UK Government:

Power is not just related to position. There is a strong narrative of powerlessness in our society, even surprisingly among those in very senior positions, that real power to effect change lies elsewhere. This is a fiction which conveniently lets us off the hook. The determining factors of system power are the belief one can make a difference, deep knowledge of the system’s dynamics and insight into when and how to intervene skilfully, and the courage to act.

The hacking scandal has thrown up many people who have exercised this kind of leadership; amidst them is British MP, Tom Watson, not a high ranking individual, one of the foot soldiers in the UK Parliament, someone who has a passion and a determination for unearthing any wrongdoing in this situation. He showed himself as a force to be reckoned with as he politely but firmly held Rupert Murdoch to account in the Select Committee hearings last week. He has clearly learnt how to mobilise people and to use the formal system and its resources to powerful effect.  Sean Hoare, a News of the World reporter at the Bottom of the power ladder, is another who found his voice, blowing the whistle on phone hacking and in doing so brought the issue firmly into the public domain, although he seems to have paid a very high price for it with his untimely death.

Tops should hold themselves accountable for the cultures they create.  A picture is emerging of the intimidatory culture that prevailed at News International and the threats that were made to politicians who dared to jeopardise their interests. There seems little or no ownership of this by the Tops who shaped and oversaw the perpetuation of that culture: Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebecca Brooks, Andy Coulson.

In every organisation, Tops need to think hard about how easy it is in this organisation to speak up, to offer feedback, to contribute ideas. What seems to be consistent between the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments is the isolation of the Tops cocooned in a small coterie of advisers and an inner circle isolated from the wider system and public. There are many organisations where Top Directors suffer the same isolation from their Middle Managers, Workers and Customers with negative consequences for the performance of their organisations, their reputation and their ability to realise their purpose.     

We are all players, there are no neutral observers. An Australian broadcaster, Richard Glover commented at the weekend that: “Nothing I’ve seen in the British Press comes close to admitting the obvious: at least part of the blame lies with the British public. They’re the ones who’ve been buying this paper and other likes it for years. With every purchase, they have endorsed and encouraged this kind of journalism.”  Lest, we be tempted to feel holier than thou – comforting ourselves with the thought that I don’t buy those papers – read Glover’s comment with a wider canvas in mind.

How often are we an unaware co-creator to the very problem or situation we are complaining about?  Often we don’t care to look at our contribution. It’s often so much more attractive to engage in BMW behaviour – Bitching, Moaning, Whining about “THEM”.    

And finally, coming back to Blake’s image it reminds me that we need to design human systems taking into account the wonderfully brilliant and fallible people that we are. The wake-up call from recent events is that we are all needed to play our part.

What issues do we care about in the organisations and communities of which we are members? Where could we take a Stand? Where do we find others who share this concern or passion and with whom we could partner to make a difference?

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