Mad Management: It is duty, not ethics, that makes for wise leaders

by | Jul 30, 2017 | General | 0 comments

Richard Brown, a former director of InterCity and Chairman of Eurostar International, once remarked to me that there was a four letter word that managers of that time needed to understand: D-U-T-Y he spelled out. I agreed; now, and twenty years later, even more so.

Forget about the wishy washy ethics campaigns or the generally meaningless PR exercises around corporate social responsibility. What we need to understand is duty, our obligation to others in our system and to the system and society. 
During my summer break I experienced two good examples. 
The first was at a conference in Switzerland on Human Security where I was running workshops. I met an advocate from South Africa, Paul Hoffman, whose company tackles institutionalised corruption through the courts, including challenging the President and Justice Minister. 
Paul stepped away from his very successful legal practice to take on this risky and arduous task. Why? He sees it as his duty to protect the rule of law and to point out obvious failures in the state’s duty of care, at considerable cost to himself.
The second example was at Oxford where my son, Joe, received his masters degree ten days ago. It was a remarkably meaningful ceremony, much of it being in Latin. 
Thumbing through the degree ceremony booklet I came across the following translation of the oath candidates had to swear to, i.e. to bear themselves “well and faithfully to the honour and profit of the university.” This means to help bring about the Oxford University vision, which is “to lead the world in research and education in ways that benefit society on a national and global scale”, and to collaborate (not compete) in so doing.Oxford is not about promising students a good job or even success. It is about promoting learning and, “doing the good”. The exemplars given in the booklet were the writer, Monica Ali; the Nobel prize-winner Dorothy Hodgkin, and Tim Berners-Lee who gave, literally, the world the World Wide Web. No politicians, celebrities or billionaires there. I now feel that my son is part of something really worthwhile, and expect that he will undertake his role dutifully.
The third example is about a friend of mine, James Miller, former chairman and MD of Abermed, an occupational healthcare company servicing the North Sea oil and gas industry. Since the staff comprised doctors and other healthworkers, i.e. caring professionals, it seemed obvious that the better cared for they were the better care they would provide. This became one of five core values.
This core value was put to the test when one of the doctors said he needed to resign to look after his wife who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The board decided that, in the light of the core value of caring for one another, he should not resign, they just needed to change his job description – to that of caring for his wife, and then working when he could. James and his team regarded this as Abermed’s duty of care.
The doctor’s wife died after five years, and although he got his full-time job back, things had changed for him. His heart was no longer in it, so he decided he had to leave. Your hard-nosed investor would say that this was not a financially sound decision. Maybe not, but Abermed’s turnover grew from £800,000 in 2001 to £22 million in 2011, with an eightfold increase in market share. Not a bad bet for an investor, even one who is suspicious of the value of “values”.
It is salutary to compare Abermed’s duty of care to its staff to that of the NHS, the nation’s flagship of care. Here the leadership has contrived to demoralise staff by unnecessary value-less reorganisations, constant funding threats and outsourcing to incompetent private providers. Jeremy Hunt is often found praising the staff for their dedication, while at the same time making working conditions worse. He is the very antithesis of my friend James Miller, and resembles much more the World War I generals for whom the brave soldiers were just cannon fodder.
It seems that the health department’s attempts to ape business practice are absolutely hopeless, especially at the now largely discredited outsourcing, and at procurement generally. Every good organisational leader knows that they are hostage to fortune to their suppliers and contractors, and that if you keep squeezing their costs the quality will fail. Look at the tragedy of Grenfell Tower: a classic failure of their duty of care. The council procurement policy put cost ahead of prevention – just like the NHS.
Wise clients study supplier histories and learn from their mistakes with suppliers. However, if the suppliers don’t learn they are let go. So why does the NHS persist with providers that fail? Why replace the failed NHS SBS (whose paper backlog has put 1,700 patients at risk) with Capita, of whom the BMA states: “GPs and LMCs identified serious issues with the service from the outset, with patient safety, GP workload and GP finances being affected.”?
It is clear that procurement is a major problem; but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The NHS is the sole owner of an excellent procurement company called NHS Professionals which sources locums for 55 Trusts successfully, saving £70 million a year. Here is best practice that can be available throughout the NHS. Oh, wait, it is being put up for sale!! Ideology trumps excellence.

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Article by John Carlisle published in the Sheffield Telegraph on 27 July 2017.

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