For Whom Division Bells Toll
When a Parliamentary vote is called, Division Bells ring. Across the Palace of Westminster and its precincts members run to be counted FOR or AGAINST the motion of that moment. As they hurry to the House some members may not even know what they are called to vote about. All will become clear as they recognise party colleagues or glimpse of one the hundreds of monitor screens in the Palace bars, meeting rooms, offices, or nearby pubs. The purpose is Decision. The accent is very firmly on Division. Their tribal judgments will only be tested in the perfect vision of the rear view mirror of hindsight.
Ambushed, shot and left for dead in Riyadh, the former BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, now writes well-informed fiction. In one of his novels a chapter ends with an account of a government facing a crisis. “ . . . in the most time-honoured of all Whitehall traditions, a decision was taken to delay making any decision until there was more information to hand.”
Decision Avoidance is not exclusive to politicians — though, like senior corporate executives, they are well practiced in that art. Uncalled-for ideas routinely get lost in long grass. Cans are repeatedly kicked further down very long roads — roads so long in fact that, as yet, there’s little or no sign of that bridge we are supposed to cross if, heaven forfend, we should ever get to it. For many it will only be with the benefit of hindsight (and the unintended consequences) that we’ll realise we should never have ventured down this pot-holed road — leastways not without a crash helmet and comprehensive insurance.
Incomprehension is not just the killer of many a good idea but also the dodgy foundations of poor decisions. An ardent proponent may claim great insight but, in championing the cause, selectively set aside contrary views. Solid decisions need foresight — not some magical or mystic dream but a smarter, more incisive, more comprehensive and deeper analysis of evidence that may not yet have dawned on the wider world. Time does not always allow such deep reflection, nor are the resources always to hand. The strongest, most confident, leaders are those with a vital ‘convening power’ — an almost magnetic ability to bring folks together and encourage willing collaboration.
In corporate or public life the challenges are greater if views are polarised — with proponents and opponents mired in the mud of mutual incomprehension and minds closed to cross-communication. At such pressured points difficult decisions cannot be avoided. Flip a coin? Pull rank? Crack whip? Exert authority? Call in the army? Throw in the towel? Sack the Unbelievers?
This situation is routinely faced by business leaders — but usually in a minor way. The critical Bid deadline is looming and they have no idea how competitors will respond. The initial bid champions seem strangely muted. The analysts and advisers are fresh out of old ideas. Gloom descends on Monday morning’s Bid Management Team meeting.
Breaking through the thick silence, a small, oft disregarded, voice speaks from the back of the room. ‘Oily Tweak’ (the man with the can) — that ‘semi-detached know nothing snowflake’ — quietly observes that the emperor ‘is not wearing any clothes’– or, even worse, utters the heresy that a great many folks in this organisation do not altogether share the directorial delusions of those claiming to be in command.
The great vacuum of indecision at the top is punctured in a collective sigh of relief or, as Spike Milligan wrote, ‘a sea of irreverent laughter’. The supposed leader has lost it. The people (those who allowed themselves to be subjects) reassert common sense and legions of lackeys rush to shredders lest their former advice might be audited during the inevitable ‘Failed Bid Post-Mortem’.
It is difficult to imagine that a single Bid Management dilemma would raise massive strategic issues, but what if this were just the latest of many contests for the soul of the enterprise? What if, like some huge building contractor or a chain of pastry shops, the pursuit of growth was thin cover for years of dodgy accounting? Some disillusioned employees would call it a day and look elsewhere. Some Board members might wake up. Some shareholders may look askance at the falling stock price and uncertain returns. But the real stakeholders are suppliers, clients and employees, and all their dependents. For years they’ve all been urged to keep the faith — to tighten belts — to help the enterprise through, ostensibly, lean times. It is rare to see, but these pent-up resentments trigger furious chain reactions. Tolerance can be tested to breaking point.
Not unlike that uninspired, deluded and expensive, corporate Bid Team, imagine an entire country edging daily towards a cliff edge, deeply polarised but still perhaps trusting in authority to lead them, obediently, in some new direction.
Despite years of much muttering, the naked reality suddenly kicks in — aided, it must be said, by an unaccountable addiction to social media and the gallows humour of the condemned. Large sections of the populace (those who’ve not already left) feel they now have nowhere to turn. This is their time to take control — to reassert common sense. The ‘convening power’ of leadership has not merely gone walkabout — it has been trampled underfoot. We collectively sense a new empowerment, a new responsibility for a higher purpose — the future for our children.
Last October 700,000 folks peacefully turned out on the streets of London. Now they may protest again but, this time around, they might do so exactly at the same time as hundreds of thousands in every one of the UK’s major cities — in Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, Belfast and Birmingham . . . and, peacefully, regardless of the numbers, everywhere, in every community. They will not seek vengeance — the shame is shared — nor will they wait for hindsight. They are come to that bridge. They now know for whom Division Bells toll. Their foresight will triumph selective insight.