Leadership Matters at Aston Business School: Speaking truth to power

It was an honour and a privilege to be one of three people on the panel for the first Leadership Matters event of the academic year at Aston Business School last Thursday. Its subject: Leadership through crisis.

The evening  was facilitated by ethicist Lauren Traczykowski, who as well as being one of our Board members, is also Senior Lecturer at Aston Law School and External Engagement Lead at the Aston Crisis Management Centre (where, by the bye, I am a Visiting Professional Fellow).

Lauren began by asking NHS strategist Simon Evans (1) to talk about preparedness after the searing experience of Covid. Lauren then turned to businessman Richard Stevens (2) and asked him to talk about external forces. What societal vulnerabilities do you have to prepare for? What externalities from society, government, shareholder etc are the biggest challenge when facing a crisis, and how do you respond?

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She then asked me to talk about speaking truth to power.

I explained the fundamental role of Birmingham Food Council is  to be a critical friend to the socio-political set up.

And we have done just that. Recently, we’ve been highly critical of ‘food strategies’ at both national (3), (4) and city-level (5), (6), (7).

The ethics of all this? Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, summed up a similar position to ours with regard to scientists advising the Government during the pandemic in a recent Guardian article: I feared scientific advisors were being used by the government — the Covid inquiry shows they were.

What does an individual do when faced with such a situation? Staying on means collusion; walking out means you can no longer advise, and at a personal level, there’s often a ££-price to pay too. It would arguably have been, however, a far more powerful message to the public as well as to Government had Whitty and Vallance et al walked out.

I went on to say this:

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21st century challenges
Since 2018, (8) our main focus has been find ways to enable socio-political decision-makers and influencers grasp that the 21st century challenges we’re facing are radically different from any humanity has experienced in all our recorded history. We therefore require radically different ways of thinking in order to grapple with them.

(a) The factors to take into account include population and demographic pressures, resource depletion, bio-diversity loss, pollution, ice melt and rising sea levels, wildfires, emerging pathogens, mass migrations, new technologies, increasingly volatile geopolitics and, affecting all of the above and more, the accelerating pace of climate breakdown.

  • Professor Bill McGuire on climate breakdownMost world leaders just don’t get climate breakdown. They don’t know how bad it’s going to be. It’s going to reach into the global economy and tear its heart out.
  • It is possible that Professor McGuire has overstated the impact of climate breakdown. That is as maybe; we hope he’s wrong, though fear he is right.

I continued with this statement:

(b) The up-coming generations (i.e. nearly everyone in the audience) look set to learn what the new carrying capacity is for humans on this planet — and the possibly brutal means by which they are going to be forced to get there.

I’m sometimes told that people don’t want to hear this, that we don’t want to frighten people, blah-blah. (9), (10)

Well, they will find out soon enough, billions across the world are already finding out.

Our stance is not only (only!) an ethical one, it’s a practical matter too. Without facing the convenient truth of the nightmare of the worst case scenarios, we cannot act.

What’s truly frightening is the collusion of silence on these matters by those in national and local government, both in the UK and overseas. For without radically different governance, we may well be facing ‘climate endgame‘.

The silence, though, is beginning to be broken.

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I mentioned, too, our scenarios work, including (what we have simply called) The Game. (11) We’ve learned this from the Players’ responses to often shocking but plausible future scenarios:

  • It doesn’t have to be like this.
  • Humanity is facing huge, potentially existential threats — and there are ways through. (12)

Life on this planet will be very different very soon.

We can and should prepare for it.

And that means speaking truth to power, (13) to those with vested interests in the status quo.

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For those of you who were in the Susan Cadbury Theatre last week, here’s an article about the world premiere of the food crime musical! Yup, we do serious. But we don’t do solemn.

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For more about our work, see also footnotes (14), (15) below.

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(1) Simon Evans is Group Chief Strategy Officer at the The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust & the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust.

(2) Richard Stevens talked about his previous role with the  mobility app, Free Now in Germany which was inevitably massively affected by the Covid lockdowns. He’s only recently been appointed VP Strategy & Analytics at Aston Villa FC.

(3) About the Dimbleby plan: National food strategy plan: None of our criteria was met. Does this matter?

(4) About the Government’s food strategy: Will this Government’s White Paper on food strategy sink with barely a trace?

(5) see: Our Response to Birmingham [City Council] food system strategy consultation document.

(6) Regarding their final version, there were only minor changes; see page 5 our 2022-2023 Annual Report.

(7) Neither local government organisations (including Local Resilience Forums) and anchor institutions, nor the third sector have the resources, capability, power or authority to ensure communities have access to a safe, sufficient and healthy diet.

(8) Six years ago we began a year-long horizon scanning project, culminating in this report published in January 2018: Back from the future. What we learned from this exercise so  frightened us that we developed The Gameas a means to engage people with the challenges ahead. In 2021, we reviewed our findings of only four years previously, and realised we had been 10-15 years too optimistic — yup, even more frightening.

(9)

(10) I’ve been criticised by many, including a fair few Professors, for saying it as it is. You mustn’t do that, Kate, they sayPeople will switch off, do nothing. My answer to that is this:  Imagine yourself in front of a medic, and she’s about to put you through an essential but painful procedure. Will it hurt? you ask. And she replies: No, no, you mustn’t think like that. Be optimistic! You won’t feel a thing . . .  And then the agony happens.

Medics know that if you’re prepared for pain and its management, you will respond better. They also know if they lie to you, you’ll never trust them again. Far worse than that, you might never trust any medic again. What medics do is change the contextof their intervention, psychologically and/or physically.

(11) Our Player alumni are a burgeoning cadre of people from diverse backgrounds who have felt as well as learned a lot of info about these new challenges. Our ambition is that this cadre will collectively and individually play a significant role in food security matters.

(12) For example, see our report of The Game we delivered at the Warwick Crop Centre in June 2023: UK food security into the Anthropocene. This was published in the October, after some of the worst fears of the damage climate breakdown will wreak on our food were already being felt. And yes, there are ways through.

(13) Easy for me, I don’t have a career to lose. Have the tenacity to find a different voice and that might mean finding others who can speak truth to power. Or doing so via a different medium; the arts are a particularly fertile ground for the dissenting voice.

(14) There will be shortages and scarcities of safe, nutritious food. The only viable strategic option is to have buffer/reserve stocks. During the pandemic, we carried out a virtual version of The Game, positioned to explore what a feasible system might be — yes, our Players indicated it was both desirable and, even more importantly, feasible; see the third “critical message” we make in our (very) recently published Note to the National Preparedness Commission.

(15) For our other reports, podcasts et al link here, and articles are linked here.

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from left to right: Ian Cornelius from Aston Business School, yours truly, Simon Evans, Richard Stevens, Lauren Traczykowski and Professor Zoe Radnor, Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean for the College of Business and Social Sciences.

  One thought on “Leadership Matters at Aston Business School: Speaking truth to power

  1. I graduatedin 1983 from
    Aston management school
    After 6 months I resigned from my Post of Senior Tutor at John Radcliffe Hospital Oxford
    Started a chain of Nursing Homes
    Sold out to European Care in 2002
    Now residing in Malaysia under a long term visa

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