The Fall of Boris Johnson

Audience for Sebastian Payne at the Blue Bear Bookshop in Farnham

There’s recently been a Literary Festival (3rd-12th March) in nearby Farnham and one talk I went to featured Sebastian Payne, author of the recently published ‘The Fall of Boris Johnson’. The event was held in the delightful Blue Bear Bookshop (see picture above). 

Sebastian Payne was until recently a political journalist at the FT, often seen as a commentator in the media, and is now the director of the centre-right think tank Onward. The event was advertised as ‘in conversation’ with Richard Hunt CBE, who is a former chairman of the London Ambulance Service.

I was attracted to the topic as it’s a curious but important political subject, particularly as it’s still casting a shadow over everything that’s going on.

The session was a taster for the book which I’ve not yet read but have just received from the local library. Here are my thoughts from the evening:

There was a good intimate atmosphere and the ‘interviewer’, Richard Hunt, asked some very insightful questions which sparked a flowing and fascinating conversation. There was also a question and answer session afterwards. 

Richard Hunt started the talk with a question to the audience:

Q: Who wrote this?

“When a regime has been in power too long, when it has fatally exhausted the patience of the people, and when oblivion finally beckons – I am afraid that across the world you can rely on the leaders of that regime to act solely in the interests of self-preservation, and not in the interests of the electorate.”

A: Boris Johnson

The interviewer had read the book in detail (some talks I’ve been to they’d not apparently done this) and had come up with his own overview and stance. He also obviously liked the book (which I guess helps). This then prompted a series of themes and the discussion jumped around to different parts of the book. So it was more interesting than a simple chapter by chapter overview.

The conversation went through all the well publicised issues: Partygate, Pincher, Ukraine, Sue Gray etc. Some of the themes that stayed with me were (in no particular order):

Handling Major Mistakes: Could he have scraped through if he admitted mistakes early and unequivocally? I think the general impression was no but it was odd that this approach was not even tried. It’s also quite odd that similar mistakes were made again and again. The author made an interesting remark that Boris’ view on what is success or failure may be different to most people. Perhaps based on a Greek rather than standard modern interpretation (this unusual statement is presumably clarified in the book). 

Approach: Although there was a clear goal to win the election there did not seem to be a clear idea of what to do next. I imagine the issue is that it’s a complex mess with no clear ‘solutions’ so tempting to just patch up, appeal to key voters and run diversions. It seems a missed opportunity for clear bold thinking. Perhaps, fundamentally, he wasn’t that interested? The prestige of the role was more important than the duties.

His Chosen Team: Consistently appointing ‘crap’ people to important jobs. This is puzzling as a standard model is for a smart leader to appoint the very best they can get. It may reduce friction in the short term but otherwise just stores up problems.

International (Ukraine): Here he went against the standard Govt advice of being far more cautious. So there was vision and bravery (and self-promotion) there. In addition the Johnson/Wallace combination seemed to work well.

Character Strengths and Weaknesses:  These are well documented and various people’s viewpoints abound. I’ve always remembered something my manager said to me early in my career. Strengths can be simultaneously weaknesses (if the context changes). They don’t need to be independent of each other. In this case they’re difficult to modify.

The Civil Service: There was a discussion of the role of the Civil Service. The strong background figure of Sue Gray (who was practically unknown to the general public), with her unusual career with it’s sojourn in N Ireland, was highlighted.

The Crucial Role of MPs: One point I had not heard emphasised before was that it was the MPs that actually changed the situation. It wasn’t the Cabinet or the ‘feelings of the Party’ although they obviously had influence. In this sense, in spite of some early mishandling, a clear and definitive decision was made by MPs. The system eventually worked. Parliament can often come over (whether true or not) as archaic, privileged and inward looking so it was reassuring that reality was a little different.

There was a final point that definitely resonated with me:

The Entertainer: Is it all a carefully cultivated act by Boris? I’ve often wondered this myself. To support this, the author pointed out that he’s quite reluctant to talk about his private life as this might conflict with the ‘brand’. It could also enable a distance between the lies/misinformation of the act and the real feelings of the person (shame, humility, anger etc). Although I’m definitely not a supporter, he’s obviously a charismatic character who loves interacting with the public, is quick on the riposte and seems to effortlessly dismiss criticisms. In fact I’ve often thought of him as an ‘entertainer’ in much the same way that Trump is. An actor playing to the gallery. This makes him an excellent campaigner of course, without an equal at present.

It was a very enjoyable evening and I’m looking forward to reading the book, partly to flesh out the initial thoughts and impressions above.

As a total aside, over the last few years I’ve been to a number of book publicity talks and this was certainly one of the best. In fact some of the others, even given in well-known institutions, were fairly insipid in comparison. This got me thinking why some ‘in conversations’ are so much better than others. From the event, two features stood out:

Confident questioning, from someone used to the issues and the type of people concerned

Intimate atmosphere, here an unusual bookshop and the speakers sat in comfy chairs at the front. In other places, speakers can be on a raised platform and everyone is lined up in neat rows watching. I think the latter lends an unhelpful air of formality whilst the bookshop came over as looser and more relaxed/creative.

Details of the book can be found here.

A Visit to Messums in Wiltshire

The renovated tithe barn that is now an expansive exhibition space

I occasionally meet up with a friend who lives in Dorset. Previously we used to meet in Salisbury which is a beautiful cathedral city and about half way for both of us by car. By way of a change we thought we’d try somewhere new and took a chance on the gallery and art centre Messums Wiltshire. We were so impressed we met up there again in August.

It’s quite an unusual venue as it seems to be in the middle of nowhere and you get there via small lanes and the occasional village or hamlet.

However on arrival you see a number of large buildings plus an open air sculpture park.

We had coffee outside in a courtyard area (great weather at the time) as well as a very tasty lunch in the restaurant inside later. The staff were extremely welcoming and friendly which gave a nice feel to the place.

Ongoing at the time was an impressive exhibition from the sculptor Laurence Edwards (that runs 6 August – 16 October 2022). Here are some pictures from inside the barn, which gives a flavour of the impressive atmosphere created by the space.

And one from outside, in the open air

I’ve noticed that Messums Wiltshire is developing further by starting evening sittings for the restaurant plus giving a variety of courses on the creative arts (at Messums Creative). Their web site gives the latest details of events and exhibitions plus an extensive overview of the centre.

If you’re in the general area, it’s well worth a visit (see map below). Entrance to the exhibitions, restaurant and sculpture garden is entirely free and there is easy parking.

Map of location of Messums Wiltshire

The Impact of Daily Reflection

I’ve been meditating for short periods for over a year now, usually first thing in the morning and found that it’s really helpful. Recently I’ve started a daily self-reflection period to get a more balanced view on things.

I was interested to read that research reported by UCL has provided evidence on the positive impact of self-reflection even in later life.

Some extracts (see here):

“Researchers found that older people who regularly evaluate their thoughts, feelings and behaviour (kindly and without judgement) had significantly better memory, concentration and problem-solving abilities, known as cognition, and superior brain health to those who didn’t.

It could be that self-reflection makes us calmer, reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our blood that has previously been linked to cognitive decline. Or it could be that it improves our mental health, aiding recovery from depression that is known to increase the risk of dementia.

Either way, the research suggests that setting aside as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day to quietly reflect on work, relationships, social encounters and other experiences could cut the risk of dementia.

The study is based on data from two clinical trials involving a total of 259 participants with averages ages of 69 and 73. They answered questions about reflective pondering, measuring how often they think about and try to understand their thoughts and feelings.

The new study is published in the journal Neurology and involved researchers in the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain.”

Power Over The Future

Quote from a recent article from political journalist Patrick Cockburn in the i newspaper:

“In Chinese mythology the beetle walks from east to west each day, exhausted but proud that he is pulling the sun behind him. He knows that if he pauses in his daily journey the sun will pause and, if he stops, it too will stop. Light will disappear from the earth and all creatures on it will die in the darkness.”

An allegory on how politicians (and others) can pretend to have control over future events. It’s also a bit like the mentality of someone who thinks they are indispensable in a large organisation.

Expectation Management

From the journalist Ian Dunt, on the role of expectation management in handling government election results (but is far more general):

“The purpose of expectation management is to neutralise the impact of that data. It uses storytelling to blanket the brute reality of the numbers. It turns an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document.”

Succinctly and nicely put. The last sentence is very evocative!

Knowledge Cafés – What Are They?

Recently I attended an online gathering known as a Knowledge Café. It was organised by David Gurteen who is well known for his many contributions to knowledge management as well as running such Cafés all over the world.

Here’s David’s description of a Knowledge Café and it’s purpose (my emphasis in bold):

“A Knowledge Café is designed to engage people with a subject or theme. I start with a short talk on a theme for maybe as little as ten minutes (though it could be a longer 30-45 minutes talk) and then pose a single open ended question for the participants. They then break into groups to discuss the theme and the question and then reconvene as a large group to finish off with a large group discussion. The Café is not about debate or making decisions but about gaining a better understanding of a topic or issue.”

Written like this the Cafés can be physical face-to-face gatherings or online. I’ve attended the physical version of these gatherings for over 15 years in various locations in London but this was my first online one (the change in approach was necessitated by COVID-19).

As an example of a previous physical Café, I’ve written about one held at the headquarters of Arup here.

Incidentally the word ‘café’ is an unusual but good one as it differentiates it from a standard meeting (where there may be an agenda, decisions, actions etc). It also conjures up an image of free-form conversations mimicking what happens in actual coffee shops when talking with friends. It’s interesting to note that free-form conversations on a theme or question (to gain better understanding) are relatively rare in business and organisations.

They can be used, amongst other things, to complement formal meetings.

Contrasting different types of conversations

The process for the online cafe (it took 2 hours in total) was:

  • Speed conversation – 2-3 short one-on-one conversations with different participants (ice breaker)
  • Presentation, David Gurteen gives an overview of the cafe and introduces the question
  • Breakout rooms where 3-4 people talk about the question amongst themselves for c 15 mins each time
  • Gathering together as a complete group to share insights and views

The question for the current meeting was ‘How can we disagree constructively?”

On this occasion there were 37 participants from 11 countries (pretty impressive, originally 80 people had signed up from 23 countries!). This translates to a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and cultures to converse on the question.

In my case, the speed conversation was with someone from France who was attending for the first time and then someone from the US. The aim is just to get in the mood for talking to people you’ve never met before (and may never meet again).

In the small group conversations, the question was addressed in groups of 3-4. This was repeated 3 times and often themes carried on from one group to the next. One interesting aspect that came up very quickly was how or whether you show disagreement can be very cultural eg East v West. This was something that was not prevalent in the physical meetings I’d been involved in previously so was an interesting new aspect.

Large group discussion – quite a few points resulted, here are some I liked especially:

  • Many role models are adversarial (eg on TV) so there was a need to develop alternative more conversation-based leadership styles
  • Approach conversations with an attitude of curiosity to avoid knee-jerk reactions
  • Encourage conversation in the education system (listening skills etc) so better known
  • Appreciation of the subtle role of cultural aspects

Others may well have drawn out other key points. What you take away from a Knowledge Café will be quite personal.

It was amusing that after the café, and later on in the evening, I was watching a news analysis programme where the interviewer asked ‘Can you guarantee X?’. It was obvious that no one could guarantee anything like X (especially in the current circumstances) but the aim was to get a ’no’ and then the resulting criticism. The interviewee, being experienced, responded by answering a different but related question, fairly mechanically but at least well-rehearsed. This went round in a circle a few times before they agreed to move on to another question which had a similar response. So the net understanding from the interaction was minimal. After watching this I was quite frustrated, especially after coming out of the Knowledge Café the complete opposite, very energised! It gives a tantalising glimpse of how things could be.

You can find out more about forthcoming Knowledge Café events here. Hopefully, in time, there will be a possibility of both face-to-face and online gatherings, as each offer slightly different benefits.

Comment on Cultural Differences:
There are different approaches to handling these but a good starting point is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer (‘provides a field-tested model for decoding how cultural differences impact international business’).

Comment on Physical Knowledge Cafés:
In London, these meetings have been held in a wide variety of locations, typically universities, government departments and commercial companies as all have a vested interest in knowledge management. This also provided an interesting and changing mix of participants.

Exhibitions At The London Tates

I’ve recently been to exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London. The first was by (the very impressive) Paula Rego, followed by Anicka Yi and Rodin, and finally the recently opened Hogarth exhibition. I’m a member (supporter) of the Tate and decided a couple of months ago to visit regularly as Covid-19 issues are now greatly reduced and London is not far away. It’s also good to support the arts whenever possible as they are currently going through such a difficult period (funding).

Here are a few photos from these interesting exhibitions:

Paula Rego at Tate Britain
Paula Rego
Very interesting background on Paula Rego
Overview of part of the Rodin exhibition at Tate Modern
The famous Burghers of Calais by Rodin
Overview of the living machines installation by Anicka Yi in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
Close up of a living machine (it moves around in response to sensors, best appreciated through a video eg here)
Entrance to the large Hogarth Exhibition at Tate Britain
Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth

Making Decisions Under Doubt

A previous post discussed new approaches to handling doubt, motivating it’s use as a source of creativity and wisdom rather than as a mental block. There was a focus on exploring unknowns and not being paralysed by them. I was interested to see this quote from Deborah Meaden, a well-known UK entrepreneur and investor:

“But my thing is, all I need to know is enough to know what I don’t know. I don’t need to know everything. I can find the expert. I always look for the expert in the room. I need to know what I don’t know. And once I feel like I will know what I don’t know. Then I can invest.”

Meaden appears on a TV show, Dragons’ Den, where a panel of investors grill a wide range of entrepreneurs who are looking for investment and business advice to grow their businesses. Although you only see an edited version, it appears that decisions have to be made fairly quickly on limited and sometimes confusing information. The quote indicates how she proceeds even under doubt.

Doubt As A Superpower

The most popular post I’ve ever written concerns the well-known physicist Richard Feynman and how he overcame a brief period of dejection after winning the Nobel prize in 1965. Perhaps paradoxically, he doubted his ability to continue to make useful and original contributions to theoretical physics after the prize, maybe thinking he had reached his peak.

On this theme, I heard a podcast recently featuring Nicola Reindorp, the CEO of the international charity Crisis Action. She aimed to recast doubt as a source of creativity and innovation rather than as an annoying obstacle.

From an early age we’re given models of behaviour that focus on certainty of purpose and having leaders that, if they have doubts, hide or mask them. This occurs even in situations where it’s hard to believe in any form of certainty due to the situation being intrinsically complex (climate change, pandemics etc).

Although Reindorp had important doubts during her career, eventually she came to the conclusion that doubt can be a productive driver for insight and wisdom. She proposes the question: perhaps some of the conventional myths and stories we’re fed on handling doubt are simply misleading or even wrong?

Turning things around, she suggests viewing doubt as a potential superpower that helps us realise what we don’t know and hence what important perspectives might be missing. Practically this amounts to using doubt to formulate and ask more questions, especially on what may be absent and then carefully listening to the feedback. All this is done in a positive spirit of curiosity and learning rather than anxiety and worry.

I thought her viewpoint was well summed up by her phrase

“What have my doubts come to teach me?”

That’s quite a powerful question and has wide applicability, not just in a business or work setting.

In the case of the (highly original) Feynman, and in a research setting, he learned that it it was best to focus on your own work and disregard or not be unduly influenced by the work of others (see here):

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

An obvious repost to Reindorp’s approach to handling doubt is that, unbridled, focusing on doubt could just lead to prevarication and avoiding taking action (similar to ‘paralysis through analysis’). Her response to this was there is a need to impose a process discipline and a time frame for action. Indeed overall there should be a bias to action, so if still in doubt simply act but learn through the result, whether it’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

It’s an interesting idea and I hope she’s able to expand on it through a book or similar (she mentions her ideas were developed over a long period through conversations with leaders from many areas). It would be great to hear some situations where it worked well, where it didn’t and the lessons so far drawn from this. A brief overview can be found here (extract below):

“I’ve been interviewing leaders from different sectors, generations, ethnicities, nationalities and sexualities about their views and experiences of doubt. I’ve also talked to psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural economists, teachers of leadership, coaches and counsellors about doubt, certainty and leadership, what we’re learning at this moment in history, including what the COVID pandemic may be teaching us…

Doubt is experienced as a destructive thing – the cause of emotional pain and stress, the cause of breakdowns, sleeplessness, freezing on stage in front of hundreds. Those I’ve interviewed give their doubts names of dark places and demonic creatures.”

In particular it would be interesting to better understand the practicalities of conversation and listening in this approach. Although ‘we need to question and listen more’ is easy to say, doing it in practice needs well thought out approaches. See for example the work of David Gurteen who has been raising awareness and promoting these (usually untapped skills) for over 20 years often using so-called ‘knowledge cafes’. I also think it’s helpful to broaden the discussion as everyone is a leader in some way or other (it’s just a matter of scale), so this way of thinking should not just be restricted to ‘conventional’ or hierarchical leaders.

Doing a bit of googling, there are some recent articles from the Said Business School that also go into this topic. Here’s an extract (see here):

“Doubt is generally viewed as a negative trait, yet in times of uncertainty, it is emotionally and intellectually essential. CEOs who incorporate doubt into their decision-making process can question and test their environment and traverse the currents of the market they operate in and add another layer of vetting to their process. While we have an innate and primal urge to seek certainty, our certainty can be deceiving and can sometimes have us drawing a wrong conclusion. To counteract this hidden mind trap, we can harness our doubt and cultivate it to awaken our curiosity, use it as a source for continuous learning and as a catalyst for agility, to explore other possibilities freely. Those with a willingness to embrace uncertainty and leverage the power of doubt can improve their judgment and make higher quality decisions.”

This article on how CEOs manage doubt is also helpful (see here):

“Understanding the risks and remedies for doubt enables leaders to mitigate their discomfort, whether its source is cognitive or emotional, and return to a zone where they can make more productive and well-considered choices, turning doubt into a powerful decision tool.”

Serendipitous Conversations

Last week I was waiting at the station for a train to make a trip to a nearby town. For a change I decided not to take the car. Whilst waiting, a gregarious Glaswegian starting chatting to a man and a woman standing nearby. They ended up talking enthusiastically about the music scene in Glasgow in the 80s. He used to play in a band and so knew lots of musicians and she, by chance, was a journalist who also had lots of music connections. As I’d lived in Glasgow for three years I decided to join in the discussion too. A very friendly, relaxed and enjoyable conversation then took place revealing lots of unexpected connections (illustrating in part the famous six degrees of separation).

I shared part of my journey with the journalist and her father and found she worked for the Los Angeles Times and was visiting the UK. In turn he was Irish and I’d lived in Dublin for three years so there was an enjoyable chat about that too. There were lots of other links. Emails were exchanged and will presumably be followed up.

All this was pure serendipity and it made me wonder why more of this doesn’t go on, particularly as it’s obvious there are connections everywhere (they normally just remain hidden). Thinking about this one specific occasion, the conversation ingredients were:

  • Speaking up, participating or initiating
  • Finding an exciting and perhaps unusual topic to generate interest
  • Letting conversations go anywhere (there will be rabbit holes of course, you can always double back)
  • Keeping the atmosphere light and friendly, with no one trying to impress or dominate
  • Allowing people to open up in the ways they like best
  • Developing an atmosphere of ‘play’

What about the physical circumstances?

A small group of people all waiting, near to each other and with nothing much else to do, open to relieve (perhaps) some boredom.

None of this seems special.

It’s a perennial topic of how you can stimulate similar sparky conversations in the (more formal) workplace to encourage innovation and creativity. We can all do it easily out of the workplace. So maybe we need to create sub-environments in the workplace as a sort of halfway house? I mean more than the standard internal coffee bars or similar which can sometimes seem a little forced.

Any thoughts or details of attempts in this direction?