The Corbyn Model of Leadership
By Roy Madron
Of all the people currently in leadership positions in a major political party anywhere in the world, Jeremy Corbyn is the only one who shows the potential of being a leader who could begin to manage successfully the complex problems that all of our societies have to face in the coming decades.
Hillary Benn, and many of those urging Jeremy Corbyn to resign for the greater good of the Labour Party and the country, tell us that Jeremy is a decent, honourable, sincere man, but lacking in the leadership qualities that are needed to win elections.
When I see or hear those comments I am astonished that no-one ever asks Corbyn’s critics what they think those election-winning qualities would be and who, in recent times, and/or in the current PLP (Parliamentary Labour (Lynch?) Party) has displayed them.
Surely Angela Eagle and Owen Smith or anyone else standing for the leadership of the Labour Party, have now to specify the leadership qualities that they possess that would make them the sure-fire election winner that they say Jeremy can never be.
Would they compare their qualities with those of notable election-winners of recent time in the UK and beyond? Thatcher? Blair? Wilson? Macmillan? Attlee? Churchill? Or Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, G.W. Bush, Obama in the USA? Or John Howard in Australia? What about Stephen Harper in Canada? Or, looking to, say, Latin America, we see the serial election successes of Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, and Morales in Bolivia? How about Adenaur, Schmidt, Kohl. Merkel in Germany?
Which particular qualities would they say those winners have that Jeremy has not displayed in the ten months since he beat the PLP’s favoured candidates for the Labour Leadership?
Looking at the list above, it may seem hard to come up with a ready answer, but there is something that all of them had and Corbyn lacks: bottomless ambition and a sense of their own entitlement.
They all wanted to be ‘the leader’ (i.e. Prime Minister, President, Chancellor, whatever) because they deserved it. They had been born for it. They had struggled for it. Taken elocution lessons for it. Licked Rupert Murdoch’s backside for it. Trampled on their friends for it. Betrayed their followers for it.
For their fans, however, they could be seen as providing “strong, proven leadership, ” (Theresa May) “zap, drive and determination” (Angela Leadson according to Boris Johnson): “tough in the best possible sense of the word”(Angela Eagle according to the Guardian), or someone, anyone who is ‘’powerful, charismatic and unifying” according to a recent letter in the Guardian)
That seems to be the kind of leader that most of the PLP and the MSM (Main Stream Media) understand and want. They seemingly cannot tolerate a world in which Corbyn, who clearly has done none of those things, has had leadership thrust upon him by 60% of the members of the Labour Party. Sanity has to be restored by getting rid of him and reverting to business usual.
In the rest of this piece, I will try to show that the people who voted for Corbyn are right and most of the PLP and the MSM are wrong and that Corbyn is showing the potential for developing a model of leadership that all of our societies urgently need in the 21st Century.
What do we mean by ‘Leadership’?
Sometime in the late 1980s, I was chatting with colleagues from the Manchester Business School about the newly created schools of ‘leadership’ at major UK universities. The Director of one of the new leadership schools was a popular former colleague of ours: let’s call him Hamish.
Hamish had gone to his new job after being an adviser to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for several years. “Did you hear what happened when Hamish went back to Number 10 to attend a party given by Mrs. Thatcher” asked one of our little group. We hadn’t heard so he told us that Hamish was standing around on his own when Margaret appeared before him, and the conversation went something like this.
Mrs. Thatcher: “How nice to see you, Hamish. We haven’t seen you in ages. What are you doing now?”
Hamish: “I’m the Director of the XXX Leadership Programme at the University of YYYY”.
Mrs. Thatcher: (Looking puzzled and disappointed) “Really? Director of a Leadership Programme?”
Hamish: (Bracing himself ) “Yes, Prime Minister.”
Mrs. Thatcher: “Mmmm. You know, Hamish, I never understand why people think leadership is so complicated. For me, its perfectly simple. I decide what has to be done, I tell people to do it, and then they do it. And if they don’t or can’t, I find someone who can. What’s so difficult about that?”
And, as Hamish’s mouth opened and closed and his eyelids fluttered , the Prime Minister smiled serenely and moved on.
The Thatcher model of leadership still holds sway in the top echelons of British politics and government. Thus, when Corbyn says he wants to engage all sorts of people in dialogue on making decisions on major political issues, he is demonstrating that he lacks what passes for ‘leadership qualities’ in the Westminster village.
But, the Westminster village is wrong.
Whether by luck or good judgement, Corbyn is offering at least an outline of the model of leadership that our societies need in the 21st Century if we are to deal with the hugely complex economic, ecological, social and technological crises we are facing.
Russell Brand put it this way in his notorious interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight in 2014.
“(We) shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, and shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.”
He blamed the people’s increasing reluctance to vote on
“(the) absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached a fever pitch, where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system”.
He envisaged a ‘socialist egalitarian system’
.. based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies that are exploiting the environment.
It seems reasonable to assume that Russell Brand and Jeremy Corbyn and many of the 10 million people who viewed the Newsnight interview on Youtube have many values, visions and aspirations in common. But, such a profound transformation as Russell Brand and Jeremy Corbyn envisage cannot be achieved through the application of some progressive/green version of the Thatcherite model of leadership.
Why? Because all the visions that Brand — and Corbyn — articulate depend on successfully tackling issues that are very large, very complex and very interconnected , leading to even greater complexity.
This is an aspect of the progressive/green visions of the future that is scarcely ever discussed by those who believe that ‘we shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, and shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.” Which is of course everybody but a tiny minority of neoliberal and neoconserative zealots and their paymasters.
Indeed ‘complexity’ and ‘complexity theory’ are not in the vocabulary of leading progressive thinkers and activists. Yet unless leaders like Corbyn have an understanding of these concepts and are familiar with the participatory methodologies they need to ‘manage complexity’, they are bound to fail when in government.
So what do we mean by ‘complexity’ and how can Corbyn and his team learn how to manage it?
The science of complexity originated in computerised attempts to make long-term predictions of the behaviours of natural systems such as the weather. When even the most sophisticated and powerful computers produced weird results, it became clear that when systems are complex and in some ways self-organising rather than under a form of central control, accurate forecasting of future events and behaviours is impossible. From the study of the weather as a complex self-organising system, the science rapidly identified some basic principles and spread its scope to include all kinds of complex, self-organising systems: not just in the natural world (ants nests, river systems, bat colonies, ecological systems) but in every kind of complex, self-organising human systems, from the family to the firm, from communities to cities to economic systems, to states, wars, public services, aid programmes and much much more besides.
What has been proven hundreds of times is that the complex problems that arise in human systems cannot be solved with attempts to impose central control by the lavish application of political power, human resources and technological ingenuity.
These approaches will work with ‘simple’ problems such as building a bridge and even very ‘complicated’ problems such as putting a man on the moon. However, when the problems are complex, different rules apply.
David Snowden1 and Mary E. Boon describe complex problems as follows.
They involve large numbers of interacting elements
The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
The system is dynamic: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances.
Snowden and Boon further counsel leaders that, to manage complexity:
A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style, is needed.
Treating complex problems as if they were simple or complicated ones leads to the emergence of dangerously ‘chaotic’ environments.
In ‘chaotic’ environments there will be high turbulence with no clear-cut cause-and-effect, many unknowables, and many decisions to make with possibly no time to think.
Failing to manage complexity
In Price-Waterhouse Cooper’s 2005 survey of 1400 CEOs:
70% of CEOs, said managing the increasing complexity of their organisations was a high priority,
91% believed that this required special skills, tools and approaches, but
only 5% believed they had the skills needed.
If most of the people in the most senior positions in corporate management have little or no knowledge of the ‘special skills, tools and approaches’ that they need to respond effectively to the complexity of the challenges they face, the same will be true of the mainly Thatcher-type leaders who occupy the highest levels of politics, government and the public services. They will be very likely to share the gross ignorance displayed by Lord Andrew Adonis, a key member of the UK’s governing elite when he says that essential reforms are simple,(!!) but
”If simple reforms are controversial and difficult to implement because they radically challenge the status quo then politicians tend to default or waffle, with their half-measures or complex tweaks of the status quo, achieving little. The inaction or avoiding action, can last decades.
In his book ‘System Failure’, Professor Jake Chapman reports the consequences of designing interventions suitable for ‘simple’ problems to the complex dilemmas involved in improving the delivery of our public services: health, education, policing, welfare, transport, etc. etc.
Chapman says that such interventions have unintended consequences because the command-and-control assumptions on which they are based are simply not valid in the management of complexity. Consequently, in the vast majority of major elite-centred interventions:
Delivery targets are trumpeted but not met.
Key people responsible for the delivery of the system’s outputs (doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks, middle-managers) experience increasing interference and stress.
Top managers are increasingly impatient, punitive and frustrated.
The system loses flexibility and is increasingly unable to adapt to external changes.
Acrimony and blame erode trust, motivation and initiative
The good news for Corbyn, his team and his followers is that it is not hard to tell the difference between simple, complicated and complex problems. Moreover, once the complex problems we face are correctly defined we can avoid the disasters that are inevitable when a Thatcher-ist leadership model is deployed.
The even better news is that successful processes for managing complexity have to be highly participatory if they are to produce sustainable, ethical, effective, efficient outcomes.
Corbyn and the management of complexity
We need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us
This is not about personal stories of inspiration. It’s about the hard, difficult work of demystification and reconceptualisation: more Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.
Benjamin Bratton: Anti-TED Talk, TED Talk
Of all the people currently in leadership positions in a major political party, only Jeremy Corbyn shows the potential of being a leader who could begin to manage successfully the complex problems that all of our societies have to face over the coming decades. This is not because he’s an expert on complexity theory but because he constantly says that
I want to change the way we do our politics. I want to be far more participatory, bringing in people who have ideas, people who may of may not have gone to a university, but have good ideas… letting people’s ideas flow, with imagination.
We cannot go on destroying the planet at the rate we are. We can’t go on polluting the air, polluting the sea. We have to live in a different more sustainable way. It doesn’t have to be a threat to everything we do and the way we live. It has to be a determination to use the technologies that are available for us, and develop more sustainable forms of economic development.
SOAS June 29 2016
Our priority must now be to mobilise this astonishing new force in politics, and ensure people in Britain have a real political alternative. Politics has changed for good. After years of disastrous wars, ballooning inequality and a failing political elite, there can be no more business as usual.
Guardian article 8 July 2016
Clearly, in Corbyn’s mind, the need to put the environment in all its complexities near the top of his agenda is closely linked to his determination to pursue a more participatory way of doing politics.
In making such statements, Corbyn is not just challenging the continuation of Thatcherite and Blairite neoliberalism. His project is much more profound and radical than that. In those statements he is, in effect, challenging the elite-centred models of democracy that have become the unquestioning norm in the industrialised world over the past two centuries.
Elite-centred models of democracy absolutely reject any involvement of ‘the masses’ in major decisions because only members of the elected or unelected elites have the superior qualities that make them capable of exercising such responsibilities.
Unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, Corbyn has never taken a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. If he had he would have been aware that, according to all the major political theorists from Plato and Aristotle 2500 years ago, to Locke, Madison, Burke, Ortega y Gasset, Pareto, Mosca, Sartori, Dahl, and especially Josef Schumpeter and Walter Lippmann, the less involvement ‘the people’ have with the political processes and decision-making between elections, the more effective government would be.
Instead of ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people’, we have had ‘Government of the people, by elites and for elites’ for over 200 years, and this, we have been told, is the only practical form that ‘multi-party liberal democracies’ could take.
To some extent, Corbyn seems to be echoing the views of more recent political theorists in arguing that ‘participation in deliberative judgements should be as equal and widespread as possible’.
As Corbyn always says, in order to turn these abstract ideas into a day-to-day reality, we have to find a whole new way of doing politics and government. And, as has been made very clear, as far as the majority of the PLP and the inhabitants of the Westminster village are concerned, the prospect of this ever happening is zero.
Moreover, so far, Corbyn himself seems not to have offered any specific ideas on how to turn participative theory into political practice. His critics and opponents can thus counter Corbyn’s challenge by asking how he proposes to implement his vision of a more participatory politics. This is a perfectly legitimate — indeed, essential — question and there is no ‘simple’ answer to it. That is because both the question and the possible answers are embedded in the complexities of our societies’ relationships with their populations, with each other and with the natural world.
It is, however, precisely because of these complexities that Corbyn’s challenge to the dominant paradigm of elite-centred decision-making is so necessary.
To put his vision of a more participatory politics into effect he can draw upon a host of well-tried participatory processes that have proved to be effective in managing complexity at every level from the family to firm, the street to the state over the past 50 years or so. To say nothing of the highly successful and very complex system of participatory democracy that was founded over 2500 years ago in the Ancient Greek city state of Athens (and loathed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle BTW).Only if Corbyn is able to put his ideas into practice, will we have the chance of consigning the stagnant mythology of elite-centred pseudo-democracies to the dustbin of history.
Corbyn’s ideas are given further credibility because we can now say with certainty that a group of averagely intelligent people who think differently from each other will be smarter than a group of highly intelligent people who think the same. Diversity trumps ability. So, leaving all the major decisions to people of similar backgrounds, education and world view is the wrong way to manage the complexities that our societies are facing in the 21st Century and beyond.
The boldest statements of the superiority of citizen-based problem-solving in comparison with the performance of elite problem-solvers comes in books and articles by Helene Landemore and Scott Page.
Page says, that ‘Open minds combine better than ideologues and closed minds’, because
problem -solving success is not about intelligence but MENTAL TOOLS (and that’s because) Cognitive Diversity is the key variable in explaining levels of performance in complex tasks
Thus, and gratifyingly,
Diversity trumps like-mindedness and often times ability.
The Diverse groups always outperform the Alpha (elite, super-smart) groups by a large margin.
The harder the problem the better diverse groups do.
The more ‘Diverse’ the Crowd or Group, the lower the level of error. The less ‘Diverse’ the group or crowd the higher the level of error.
Hélène Landeman has drawn out the political implications of Page’s work in an article for The Journal of Public Deliberation.
We make horrible decisions as individuals and surprisingly good ones in groups (that are) free of systemic bias.
I define democratic reason as a certain kind of emergent phenomenon by which a people turns out to be smarter or wiser than individuals within it
Democracy works … because what happens at the group level overcomes the shortcomings of individuals.
This is, after all, why we (more or less universally) work in groups and teams in the first place .
On my view, the reason why the many can be expected to be smarter than the few is because of a plausible correlation between inclusive decision-making and the presence of an ingredient recently shown to be key to the emergence of collective intelligence, namely “cognitive diversity”
To the extent that including more people specifically increases this type of diversity, all things equal … more is bound to be smarter.
Thus Corbyn’s demand for a more participatory politics is likely to result in a smarter model of democracy. By ‘smarter’ I mean one that would learn how to be increasingly capable of rising to the complex challenges that we and future generations have to deal with.
Co-Creating Smarter Democracies
Dr. Landeman, Professor Page and other theorists of participatory decision-making, are challenging the fear and distrust of “the masses” that has formed the ideological bedrock of orthodox political science from Plato and Aristotle down to the present day.
Looking back 2500 years, Josiah Ober suggests that it was the superiority of its diverse- group processes that enabled ancient Athens to consistently out-perform rival city-states such as Sparta on so many fronts: from warfare to the arts to the sciences and philosophy.
However, effective participation is not just a matter of throwing ten or a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand people together and leaving them to get on with it as best they can. From my own work and research, it is clear that the better the design, resourcing and facilitation of diverse- group decision-making processes, the better their results will be.
In studying successful participative systems-change projects in a number of large British companies in the 1970s and 1980s, Professor Enid Mumford and I found that the senior executive teams had all come to the conclusion that :
We — the senior executives — cannot devise systems that tell our staff how to handle the constantly shifting complexity of our business.
We have to start by thoroughly understanding how the existing systems work.
We all — executives, systems designers and front-line staff — have to sit down together and analyse the system for the first time.
We are going to discuss and debate with staff all the way through.
We are not going to say, ‘This is what we want, and you put it in.’
Note that they speak of ‘we’, ‘we all’, and emphasise how as a team, they threw themselves whole-heartedly into making the participation process a success. Within a year or two the results were remarkable. Take those at a major mail order company as an example.
Efficiency and profitability increased ‘out of sight’.
The competence, job satisfaction and self- esteem of staff, their managers and the IT specialists were much higher.
Operating costs fell dramatically.
Staff turnover, sickness and absenteeism fell substantially
Complaints from customers dropped by 70%.
A disastrous main-frame computer system was replaced by smaller and cheaper computers with bespoke software specified and prototyped through the participative meetings.
However, in addition to the extraordinary pay-offs from involving their employees in taking decisions that transformed their companies, the senior managers identified a much more fundamental rationale for the strategy they had adopted. One of the Managing Directors summed up the unexpected benefits that came from the project in one sentence.
If we hadn’t found a way for our people to handle those complexities effectively we would never have time to manage the business as a whole.
Not ‘Power-sharing but ‘power-liberating’.
For most politicians, academics and managers, participation means some form of power sharing, ‘a system of governance in which all major segments of society are provided a permanent share of power’. (Collins Dictionary)
Conventional power-elites operate on the assumption that ‘power’ is a finite quantity, something to be acquired and hoarded. Corbyn seems to see that the power to manage the complex challenges we are facing can be infinitely expanded by tapping into the diverse points of view and experiences of the people he is leading. Thus, the kind of participation processes that Corbyn seems to envision would be ‘power-liberating’ rather than power-sharing. Well-designed and facilitated participation processes liberate the collective power of the people who are directly and indirectly involved to respond creatively to the complexities of the challenges they are facing.
Here are a few examples from the hundreds that are available.
The Charrette process
The Charrette process was developed in the USA in 1967 by Walter Mylecraine’s team at the Office of Construction Services of the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). Mylecraine had wanted ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to the construction of new schools would produce satisfying outcomes for everyone concerned. Thus the School Boards, politicians, architects, teachers, students, parents, potential employers and members of the community were all involved in the participatory processes that decided how best the money should be spent.
Many Charrettes lasted for ten or 12 working days, plus a a month or six weeks of preparation and pre-publicity to attract participants. Within a year, Charrettes were being successfully deployed in dozens of towns and cities across the USA.
“It Was An Impeccably Democratic Process”
From the mid 1970s to the 1980s, I introduced and organised (admittedly watered-down) versions of the Charrette Process into the UK. With the help of friends and colleagues at the Manchester Business School we recruited a score of volunteer facilitators from industry, voluntary agencies, local government, and management consultancy. We used to joke that we should promote ourselves with “Have flip-charts, felt-tips and blu-tac, will travel”.
Together we demonstrated many times that almost any number of politicians, officials, professionals, residents, parents, patients, schoolchildren, could work together in well designed and facilitated participation processes to reach agreement on improving existing services and outlining new initiatives.
For example, we designed and facilitated a mini-charrette for the Community Health Council in a Lancashire cotton town. The process was being tried out because of the ferocious local opposition that had been mobilised around the proposed re-location of the town’s much-loved General Hospital.
About 100 of the most vociferous local people and thirty health professionals met for four evenings to try to work out what would be the best thing to do. In the end, everyone agreed that the old hospital could not provide the range of services the town needed. However, in order to make it easy for local residents to use the new hospital they needed a whole new bus service from the centre of town, and various other forms of logistical assistance.
The resultant proposals were presented to a crowded public meeting a week or so later by some of the local people who had participated in the mini-charrette. When we asked for comments from the floor, the first speaker tore into the proposers: they had betrayed the town, allowed themselves to be manipulated and fooled by the health professionals and the out-of-town consultants. He soon got his answer. One of the proposers rose to his feet and fixed his accuser with a steely glare.
I went into this process as cynical as you and determined to keep the old hospital. But when we examined and checked and discussed all the facts and data, we saw the old hospital just wouldn’t be adequate for the needs of ‘Cottontown’ in the future.
It was an impeccably democratic process and we came out of it with no doubt that we had done a good job for the town.
If you had been there you would have arrived at the same conclusions that we did, and not made a fool of yourself as you have just done.
He sat down to thunderous applause from the people in the hall.
Corbyn’s Next Steps.
These brief examples out of hundreds of possibilities, show that participatory decision-making processes can work in many areas and produce highly satisfying results for everyone involved. They also show that to translate his rhetoric into a working political reality, Corbyn needs to put together teams of people who can design and facilitate such processes and teach hundreds of other people how to do it. This, like nothing else, would show that a radical new force for democratic innovation has arrived on the world stage.
Where best to start? Just look for places where Corbyn is accepted and valued as a leader: in over 80% of Constituency Labour Parties, 140 branches of Momentum, in most of the UK’s largest Trade Unions, and in many Town Halls. Those are the places where Corbyn and his teams and his supporters could to start to learn how to ‘be far more participatory. Bringing people in, letting people’s ideas flow, with imagination’.
In the UK, Europe, the USA and Latin America there are thousands of practitioners who have initiated, managed and facilitated successful participatory processes in every kind of complex organisation. They are a huge resource that Corbyn and the Labour Party could draw upon so as to be ready to turn his rhetoric into reality once in Government.
Over the coming months and years, Corbyn could rapidly get the ball rolling towards the new kind of participatory politics he is offering.
The first step would be to bring diverse groups of officers and members of the Labour Party, Momentum, local councils, Trade Unions, the PLP, the wider public, and participative system-change practitioners into a series of open-ended dialogues to build a shared understanding of the best ways of managing the complex challenges we are facing in the UK and beyond.
It would be and hugely energizing process, and a defining example of the benefits of the Corbyn model of democratic leadership in action.