Leading in times of fake news, activism and rebellion by Stefan Stern

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Alexandra Borchardt, journalist and professor of journalism at Berlin and Oxford

Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue, Hult Ashridge Executive Education

Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour, Insead

Mathis Bitton, student of philosophy and political theory, Yale University

Rahaf Harfoush, digital anthropologist

It may not be true that the 19th century French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, once uttered the words: “Eh! Je suis leur chef, il faut que je les suive!” [“I am their leader, I must follow them!”] But the line is quoted often to this day. It evokes a chaotic world in which leaders have lost much of their authority, and feel intimidated by the uncontrollable power of the crowd.

Drucker Forum 2020

Ledru-Rollin was active more than 150 years ago. But perhaps he would recognise a similar sense of powerlessness felt – privately – by many leaders today. The theme of this plenary session at the 12th Global Drucker Forum was precisely this: how to lead when activists and rebels are knocking, and battering, at the door.

The context for the discussion was set out clearly by moderator Alexandra Borchardt, journalist and academic. In an era of activism citizens want to participate and voice grievances, she said. They have raised expectations about what is possible, and a certain impatience for change. New technology gives everyone a platform from which to speak and spread ideas. And the commercial logic of algorithm-driven platforms favours extreme sentiment over moderate and nuanced ones.

This is the new world of expectation and amplification which confronts leaders, she added.

The first speaker, Megan Reitz of Hult Ashridge, observed that activism can be in the eye of the beholder. What may feel like rebellion to a leadership team might simply be the forceful expression of a point of view from employees. Power relationships, of course, sit at the heart of this tension.

Reitz talked of “conversational habits” – what we do and don’t discuss within organisations, perhaps owing to the differences in status and authority held by colleagues. Leaders may inhabit an “optimism bubble”, she cautioned, and have a certain blindness to the advantages they enjoy.

Leadership teams could respond to employee activism in a number of ways, she noted, ranging from outright denial (silence and suppression) to “facadism” (the pretence of engagement), defensive engagement, dialogic engagement, and active encouragement.

Lastly, she asked whether leaders could begin to see themselves as activists. How would an activist leader behave? This could stimulate interesting (if challenging) conversations about power. Perhaps activism could breed future leaders, Ms Borchardt added.

The second speaker, Insead’s Gianpiero Petriglieri, a Drucker Forum veteran, declared that managers had been outed as the politicians that they were all along – it was just that many people couldn’t see it.

Business activity is central to sustaining the fabric of society, Petriglieri said. So when a chief executive engages on a social issue it can be powerful. And people’s expectations for what business can do changes also.

Where previously future leaders went into the church or the military, Petriglieri said, now they go to business schools. Education remains central to the development of leaders. And at its best business school education can further both economic advance and the pursuit of humanistic goals. Some managers might claim that they are simply interested in business and that they leave politics to others, but that is self-deception; in fact, it is a kind of political statement in itself.

Activists give voice to the disenfranchised, so any leadership which considers itself “activist” needs to take account of this, Prof Petriglieri said. And managers need both to hold a point of view on how the business should operate, while also hosting disagreement and debate internally. Managers are the hosts of that tension and that dialogue.

Mathis Bitton, a composed post-graduate student of philosophy and political theory, pointed out that activism was nothing new. His parents’ generation, the “soixante-huitards” or class of May 1968, were no strangers to protest.

Ordinarily, corporate structures are not appropriate or suitable for truly democratic conversations, Bitton said. Businesses have not by and large been agents of social change. Business leaders are going to have to engage with liberal arts, the humanities, if they are to adopt a leadership role in society (something Peter Drucker well understood). They have to pursue a collective project, and engage with culture in a meaningful way. Tech firms have a particular responsibility, he said, as they affect how we see the world. They are not merely passive aggregators of information.

The last speaker, Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, observed that a big promise has been made to millennial employees in particular: that their jobs could become delivery mechanisms to achieve lofty goals. But this can backfire. Employees at Google and Facebook, for example, may be shocked at what their organisation might do in practice. The idealistic, hyperbolical claims of WeWork in its marketing material crumbled to nothing.

“Hashtag activism” may feel meaningful, Harfoush said, but it doesn’t mean that you are really achieving anything. “It feels like participation, but it isn’t,” she said.

And as consumers we are complicit if we don’t change our own behaviour, for example by uninstalling apps. If we don’t insist on seeing specific data and evidence from companies that they are changing then protest will be ineffective, she said. Will recruitment, retention and promotion data shift in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign?

In conclusion, leadership and leaders will continue to be scrutinised closely. “We learn at work, and managers are educators,” Petriglieri offered. “Managers should ask themselves: what is the curriculum I am teaching when I show up at work?”

And “mindfulness”, or mental equilibrium, might not be the right goal for leaders, he added. “Let’s normalise friction,” he said. “For artists, friction is creative, they live with the torment of friction. The powerful should be tormented,” he added, “otherwise they become tormentors.”

About the Author:

Stefan Stern is the author (with Prof Cary Cooper) of “Myths of Management: what people get wrong about being the boss” , and also of “How To Be A Better Leader”. He is Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, City, University of London, and a former Financial Times columnist

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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