Monthly Archives: December 2021

The Culture & Leadership Conference: Building on Sand?

A Polemic

My interest was piqued recently an open invitation to the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference titled ‘Culture and Leadership’. The premise of the conference is:

The success of any organisation depends upon its culture – the values, beliefs, attitudes and ethos that shapes it’s collective identity. Culture, in turn, informs our behaviours and directly influences the ‘lived experience’ of our people.

The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference seeks to better understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership. It also seeks to ask the difficult questions. What is culture? Why is it important? Is our culture fit for purpose? What are our strengths? Where are our shortfalls, gaps and failures and what is being done to address these? Most importantly, what role do we as leaders played in shaping a better culture?

These are all laudable aims, and I looked with interest at both the speakers and the topics. If you are not planning on going, in person or via Zoom, then I would recommend that you give it serious consideration; the programme is excellent.

And yet.

Despite explicit acknowledgement of an “ever evolving social, political and economic landscape” and the “symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership” the conference fails to address the evolving culture of the society from which we draw. The topics are clearly focused internally, and yet our Army culture cannot be divorced from the culture of the society we inhabit; there is a symbiotic relationship between the army and society.

There are three aspects in particular that I would have considered worthy for consideration. Two are foundational to the type of society that we are and aspire to be, the third, a Pandora’s Box, is not yet foundational but is ubiquitous.

1. We live in a post-modern society.

2. An evolving moral framework. This post-modern society is post-Christian, yet our moral fabric, exemplified in our legal framework and in large elements of our moral outlook, is based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

3. The Information Ecosystem. We inhabit a society with a failing information eco-system characterised by information disorder.

Looking at each in turn.

1. The implications of of post-modern society. ‘Post-modern ‘ is a used here in its philosophical sense. Post-modernism is a critical movement, largely sceptical of the idea of constant progress by society. It is acutely sensitive to the idea and danger of universal truths, for if universal truths are claimed, then inevitably there follows the the universal police to ensure compliance. There are four pillars to post-modernism (according to Walter Truett Anderson, a US political scientist)

  • Pillar 1. The social construction of the concept of self. There is no such thing as a real or substantive human nature. A good example of this in modern societal discourse is seen in the concept of transgenderism.
  • Pillar 2. The relativism of moral and political discourse. The primacy of the individual expressing her or his will to power. Good examples of this is the current focus on the rights and feelings of the individual as opposed to the responsibilities to and sensibilities of the many, and the increasing tendency to create our own moralities.
  • Pillar 3. Deconstruction in art and culture. Things are not as they seem, truth is constructed not created, and so a dialect of deconstruction leads to truth. This can be seen in the critical approach taken to historical narratives and art, and in part, in the so called ‘cancel culture’.
  • Pillar 4. Globalisation. Borders are seen as a purely social construct; relegated in use and importance.

So what are the implications for the Army and our leadership? How do we lead an organisation where corporate values and standards are seen as at best anachronistic? How do we lead individuals where realities are self-defined social constructs, moral codes ambiguous and cohering narratives belong not to the institution or the nation state but to other entities or ideas? One only has to look at how the Covid19 vaccine mandate is playing out in the US armed forces to see this being manifest in the here and now.

2. An evolving moral framework. The increasingly relativist  framework of modern morality has been touched on already. One senior officer has already pointed out the need for PME to focus more on how to think and not what to think, including on ethics. We are a society in flux. Our personal moral frameworks are evolving quickly, yet our institutions of state and society are still founded on Judeo-Christian morality. Most do not give much consideration to ethics, and it is not taught at schools. But how can we lead by example in a complex fast paced and increasingly morally ambiguous world if we do not know what is right or wrong and why? We want critical thinkers, but are we prepared for when they challenge us on ethical grounds? In our modern diverse army the fact that Generation X has a fundamentally different moral framework to Generation Z appears to have passed most people by.  We ask our people to act with integrity and do the right thing – what happens when individual moral integrity runs foul of lawful orders? What does it mean to have personal integrity mean when everyone’s is different yet valid? How can our leaders extol us to ‘do the right thing’ when that ‘right thing’ is different for different people? Does the Army need to develop an ethical framework to buttress Values and Standards? 

3. The Information Ecosystem. In a world of ideas where the individual and not the state is supreme, where reality, truth and morality are relative, cohesion is challenged. We are in a crisis of trust and truth. This crisis is brought about in part by the ideas we build on, but also by the information ecosystem that sustains us. An ecosystem that is decaying. We are living in a time, a crisis of information disorder. Information disorder, denotes the broad societal challenges associated with misinfor- mation, disinformation, and malinformation (“The Commission on Information Disorder, Final Report.” page 9, The Aspen Institute, Nov. 2021. CC BY-NC. by-nc/4.0/ )

As the Aspen Institute’s  excellent report makes clear, there are no quick fixes or easy answers to address information disorder, or repair the crisis of trust that strains our civil fabric. The core problems and challenges of this era are deeply rooted and indicative of larger issues our society is struggling with across modern life (page 14), and misinformation and disinformation expose society’s failures to overcome systemic problems, such as income inequality, racism, and corruption, which can be exploited to promote false information online (page 15). Information disorder exposes systemic issues within society, yet in a manner that exploits systemic weaknesses in our information ecosystem to deliver corrosive effect. A systemic problem requires a systemic solution, more than the military could or should deliver. However our leadership and culture must acknowledge the environment within which it operates, the symbiotic relationship between information, culture and leadership. I wonder if we understand this fully, let alone comprehend the implications for 21st century organisational leadership culture and praxis.

The CAL leadership conference looks excellent, but we need to cover the societal fundamentals first. This polemic is aimed at starting the conversation.