Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Four by four

Our topic today is not four wheel drive vehicles, but rather the fact that this blog is now four years old and also that today sees the publication of the fourth edition of the book. In the preface to the new edition I write about the various ways that the book has been received and I won’t repeat that here, except to say that for me the blog and the book have become increasingly intertwined. It is beginning to feel as if the book develops an unfolding life of its own as I write the blog, whilst this new edition incorporates numerous examples and idea drawn from the blog posts in the intervening years.

Writing this blog has become something of a labour of love. I try to make sure that, unlike some blogs, there are frequent and regular postings – normally one a week – so that there is always something fresh on offer. I also try to include in each post copious links to a wide variety of media sources and, to a lesser extent, academic works. I don’t know how many readers follow these links but at any rate I feel better-informed as a result of digging around to find them. Typically, I think of a topic on Friday morning, ponder it during the day and write the post on Friday evening (yes, my life really is that exciting). Most posts take two to three hours to research and write.

Each year since its launch I have provided an annual update of the readership statistics, and in this last year these have seen a large upsurge, especially in the last few months. The year-on-year readership figures are:

Year 1: 3367 (all time: 3367; last month of year: 390)
Year 2: 3688 (7055; 390)
Year 3: 10,745 (17,800; 985)
Year 4:  24,282 (42,082; 6376)

The international profile of the readership has stayed about the same, but the biggest increase has come in US readership which has quadrupled in the last year, whereas UK readership has doubled. Thus all-time page views by country are:

United States
United Kingdom

All this is very gratifying, but I would love to know more about who is reading and what they think: there are very few comments left on the posts, so do consider leaving one to let me know.

The last year has seen huge shifts in the geo-political landscape, with the Brexit vote in the UK and more recently the result of the American presidential election. Neither of these things had happened when the text of the fourth edition was finalised, making the blog especially important in keeping things updated, especially as regards chapter five which is where most of the overtly geo-political discussion takes place.

In the run up to the EU Referendum I wrote several posts on the topic. But with the consequences of the vote being likely to take several years and to involve numerous twists and turns, I made the decision to create a new Brexit blog. This reflected my own passionate involvement in this issue, but a recognition that it could swamp this blog, which has and will continue to have a much wider remit and also a different, more opinionated, writing style. But I do hope that those who read this blog and who share my own interest in Brexit will go regularly to the new blog, which is also frequently updated.

So far as this blog is concerned, my aim is to continue to range over a wide canvas that takes in anything and everything that is relevant to organizations, responding to the main news stories and occasionally, things that are happening in my life. Looking back over the last year, topics have ranged from chocolate to dentistry, the rise of Uber to the fall of British Home Stores, press freedom in Turkey to espionage fiction, steel tariffs to the frustrations of air travel, public sector pay to The Waltons. There is even a short story about leadership.

The point being, I suppose, that in writing about anything and everything that is relevant to organizations it becomes clear that anything and everything is relevant to organizations. That is, indeed, my view of organization studies (which I also sometimes post about) but, of course, it’s also the case that it is great fun to try to write sharply, concisely and, I hope, sometimes provocatively about anything under the sun. I expect to continue in the same vein in the coming year. I fear there is sure to be plenty more political turmoil, but hopefully there will be time for some lighter topics, too, such as death which, I see, is the tag of eight previous posts. I hope that those, apparently many, people who regularly read this blog will continue to do so, and that it is as enjoyable to read as it is to write.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Reflections on failure

It has become a truism of at least some parts of the research literature on leadership that to focus on successful leaders is to neglect the importance of the other side of leadership, namely followership (see Uhl-Bien et al, 2014 for a summary). Less discussed, so far as I know, is the other side of success, namely failure.

This thought was prompted by the US Presidential election result, where much attention has focussed on Trump’s success but less on Clinton’s failure. What does it feel like to fail, especially when coming so close to success? A clue may be in Hillary Clinton’s exhausted-looking appearance since the election and her statement that since her defeat that there have been times when “she never wanted to leave the house again”.

It is generally the case that when leaders – whether in politics or business – fail they disappear from public view. They don’t want to be seen and we, apparently, do not wish to see them (perhaps especially if we were their followers, as if their shame has become ours). And whatever prior success they may have had, their names become forever associated with, and their lives defined by, the failure with which their careers ended.

I suppose there are some exceptions to this. Leadership theory seems always sooner or later (usually sooner) to mention Churchill, and he is an example of someone who came back from failure and isolation to lead wartime Britain. Or, to take another stock icon, this time from business, Steve Jobs having been forced out of Apple in 1985 came back in 1997 to successfully lead the company again. But such cases are rare, I think. In general, once they’re gone, they’re gone.

The stigma of failure is profound. There are many books about successful leaders, very few about those who fail even though these might yield more valuable insights. Or, if the maxim that “all political careers end in failure” is true then perhaps success and failure are not the opposites that one might suppose. But the issue is wider than that of leaders. In the US Presidential election (as with Brexit) much was made of how the result reflected the vote of those who had lost out from and been left behind by globalization. I’ve written elsewhere about my scepticism of this explanation, but acknowledged that it is partially true. And to the extent that it is true, it must partly be to do with the anger induced by failure.

For to have ‘lost out’ and ‘been left behind’ is surely a deeply hurtful experience. In the US, where the ideology that anyone can be a success ('from the log cabin to the White House') is especially strong, being a loser is galling. In a more general way, the idea that was at the core of the western liberal post-war settlement that if you ‘worked hard and did the right thing’ security and success were available makes it humiliating if you have done these things and yet find yourself a failure. All of this becomes even more humiliating if, every hour of the day, you see media images of the rich and successful, and adverts for a lifestyle that you can never have.

Of course there is no automatic association between failure and humiliation. But when winners take all, and are lauded as they do so, and failure is absolute and stigmatic it is very likely also to be humiliating. Humiliation is a complex and powerful emotion, which may provoke hatred of oneself and/or of others, anger and violence in both inter-personal (Walker & Knauer, 2011) and political (Fattah & Fierke, 2009) relations. One way it may be assuaged is, indeed, a matter of leadership. As Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If had it, both triumph and disaster are imposters. The etymological twin of humiliation is humility. Perhaps if the successful exhibited more humility, failure would be less humiliating?


Fattah, K., & Fierke, K. M. (2009), ‘A clash of emotions: The politics of humiliation and political violence in the Middle East’, European Journal of International Relations, 15, 1: 67-93.
Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014), ‘Followership theory: A review and research agenda’, The Leadership Quarterly 25, 1: 83-104.
Walker, J., & Knauer, V. (2011), ‘Humiliation, self-esteem and violence’, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22, 5: 724-741.

Friday, 11 November 2016

What will Trump's victory mean?

I wrote in my last post about the possibility of Donald Trump being elected. Now that it has happened, I want to share some preliminary thoughts about what it means. Of course, much is unknown. Trump is an unpredictable character anyway, and in any case all politicians find that their freedom of action is more curtailed than either they or their electors expect.

In my book I frame much of the analysis of contemporary organizations in terms of ‘the new capitalism’, meaning the neo-liberalized, globalizing form of capitalism that has been dominant since the 1970s, especially in the US and the UK. I also (nevertheless) record scepticism about ‘epochalism’ (p.104), but with that caveat it is at least possible that we are witnessing a significant shift away from the new capitalism.

What is distinctive about Trump, as the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle wrote today, is that he is both socially and economically illiberal. That, Kettle argues, has not been true of recent US presidents: they have been illiberal in one or other meaning, or in neither, but not in both.

Trump’s social illiberalism is what made his campaign so controversial and divisive. But it is his economic illiberalism that is truly remarkable amongst, especially, Republicans. He appears to be hostile to the global free trade system that defined the new capitalism. He has promised to reverse the offshoring of US jobs, to punish US companies that relocate abroad and to impose high tariffs on, especially, Chinese imports. It seems highly likely that he will abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TTIP negotiations with the EU, and if not scrap then comprehensively re-negotiate NAFTA.

These policies, which I have described as nationalist populism, are, like many forms of nationalist populism, similar to left-wing economic programmes. Equally, Trump’s ambitions to create jobs through national infrastructure projects are akin to neo-Keynesian economics (although likely to be funded by foreign investors rather than state investment and so in that sense understandable as a form of privatization, and somewhat at odds with Trump's 'America First' rhetoric).

These are potentially profound shifts, then, but as a counter to epochal thinking, it should be recalled that other parts of his economic agenda, most notably (probably) holding down the minimum wage, cutting corporation and other taxes and financial deregulation, are part of the familiar repertoire of the political right. Moreover, Trump’s calling card that he can run the country as if it were a business and his embrace and embodiment of macho leadership also suggest continuity rather than abandonment of many aspects of new capitalism.

If aspects of Trump’s rejection of economic liberalism have a leftist tinge to them, it’s important to recognize that their nationalism means that they do not offer any general relief from the consequences of globalization. It is in fact questionable whether they can even deliver this for the people of the US. Globalization may simply be too far advanced for that to be possible: it is highly unlikely that the American rust belt will be re-industrialised. At all events, Trump’s nationalism (like Brexit) marks a retreat from the multi-lateral, global governance that offers to best hope of taming and regulating global capitalism, with climate change agreement the most likely early casualty.

Trump is also likely to reverse Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. That is apparent in relation to the points mentioned above about TPP and tariffs against China, but also to the likelihood of his administration taking a relaxed view about Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and agnosticism on the issue of Taiwan. This links with the wider foreign policy aspect of Trump’s presidency, which appears to entail significant withdrawal from global leadership. Some of that leadership has, of course, been highly damaging and other parts of it ineffective. Nevertheless, Trump’s apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin (it’s no coincidence that the Russian Parliament applauded the result: Trump’s election, like Brexit, represent major foreign policy boosts for Russia) and lukewarm support for NATO could be highly de-stabilising for, especially, the Baltic States and the Balkans. This could have potentially devastating consequences, both for those regions and for the wider world, making anything and everything else that Trump’s presidency may mean completely trivial.

Going back to economic issues, I’ve depicted Trump’s election, like Brexit, as triumphs for nationalist populism. But they also represent a huge threat for it. Nationalist populism operates primarily as a vehicle of protest against the establishment. But when it is victorious it itself becomes the establishment and has to take responsibility for the policies it espouses. So what happens if (and, in my view, when) those policies fail? One possibility is that its supporters realise the error of their ways and return to liberalism and social democracy. Another, far more likely, outcome is that those supporters conclude that their leaders have been thwarted by the establishment or, even, that they have betrayed them. The reaction will be to turn even more harshly against perceived enemies: immigrants, liberals, democracy itself. And to seek and support even more extreme leaders. Many people around the world are scared about what Trump’s success means: the greater fear is what his failure will mean.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Trumping rationality

This week will see the outcome of the US Presidential election, with the possibility of the victory of Donald Trump. If this occurs it will have profound consequences not just for the USA but for the world. It is hardly worth me adding to the many voices that view the prospect of a bombastic, ignorant, vicious narcissist in the White House with alarm.

But whether or not he is elected, Trump’s popularity has a significance as part of the wider rise of a nationalist populism (very evident in Brexit Britain) which can be read as the illegitimate offspring of four decades of neo-liberal globalization. Those decades, as I argue in chapter five of my book, are both the condition and consequence of much contemporary organizational practice. A key theme of nationalist populism is an angry backlash against the loss of secure employment and against immigration, both of which can be ascribed to globalization.

Hence Trump rails against NAFTA, just as Brexiters rail against the EU. At the same time, the very evident crisis of neo-liberalism that has been ongoing since 2008 has not only born down hard on employment and public spending but also opened up a profound sense of injustice and inequality. Allied with this is the idea that powerful elites – corporate, financial, political and intellectual – are profiting at the expense of and unaccountable to the people.

Something like this has become a fairly standard analysis of nationalist populism from the liberal-left (and elements of the right as well), and it clearly captures something of what is going on. However, I feel increasingly unpersuaded by it, for several reasons. Not least because under the guise of understanding, it exhibits a kind of patronizing liberal guilt: ‘those poor little people, left behind by neo-liberal globalization, of course they are angry’. That patronizes because it absolves nationalist populists from responsibility for their choices and actions. There is no reason why their reaction has to be one of vicious denigration of immigrants, for example. Nor is there any reason why it should lead to making choices which will not improve, but worsen, the lot of the left behind.

The liberal-left are often associated – by nationalist populists especially, as it happens – with ‘political correctness’, but there is a new political correctness associated with nationalist populism in which it is unsayable to call out stupidity. Because to do so is just another sign of elitism. We are ‘the people’, and you cannot question the ‘will of the people’ or you are ‘the enemy of the people’. But we are all people, and we are all equally capable of stupidity, and all equally challengeable as to the basis of what we do and think. There are not special rules for those people who proclaim themselves, and only themselves, as ‘the people’.

Nor does it make much sense to think that nationalist populism is confined to those left behind by globalization. In the US (and the UK) it seems as if something like half the electorate is willing to vote for nationalist populism. So many of them are well to do and by no means ‘left behind’ (for some fascinating data on this, see this report showing that Trump’s supporters are actually better off than most Americans). Equally, the other half of the population can hardly be described as ‘the elite’ – or if it can, that’s a hell of a big elite. And in both the US and the UK the populist leaders are themselves very obviously members of the elite, Donald Trump being an obvious example with his inherited wealth and massive business empire.

Beyond all that, nationalist populism long precedes neo-liberal globalization. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate in the 1964 Presidential contest, with whom Trump is often compared is an obvious example. So is McCarthyism, perhaps the most shameful element of Twentieth century US history. Both these comparators relate to the period of post-war US prosperity and progress whose loss is supposed to account for the nationalist populism of Trump. Going further back we can see in the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh very similar political positions. In the UK, it can be seen in Powellism and Thatcherism.

So nationalist populism has long been with us, and whatever the failings of neo-liberal globalization we should not hesitate to say that it is the wrong answer, even if to the right question. But that proposition runs into trouble for a reason which is perhaps new. The philosophical underpinnings of right and wrong answers have been substantially battered by the intellectual climate of postmodernism that is more or less coterminous with neo-liberalism. That is to say, the critique of rationality that has dominated recent decades of intellectual debate has found an unhappy partner in the ‘post-truth’ politics of nationalist populism. So evidence, expertise and rational debate can themselves be dismissed as just another way that ‘the elite’ tries to put one over on ‘the people’. It is a rich and bitter irony that the rarefied intellectual salons of 1970s Paris are being channelled to the American Rust Belt and the former mining towns of Britain. The more bitter since those Parisian salons were also where the Enlightenment was in some part born, and which had so profound a part in the formation and constitution of the United States.