There is an important theme that runs through three recent high-profile crises: the Volkswagen “defeat device” scandal, the mishandling of the Grenfell Tower fire and the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse case. This theme is the perception of an utter lack of care and indifference by senior people towards those for whom they had responsibility. It has caused huge and long-term damage to the organisations and people involved.
In the case of VW, a team of engineers sought to keep Volkswagen cars competitive by systematically cheating on emissions tests. As a result, questions were asked all the way up to board level about who knew, who sanctioned and who benefitted. On the Grenfell Tower fire, it had hardly been extinguished when accusations emerged that concerns raised by many of those who lived there had been ignored. And whilst Weinstein is a single predator, it seems that those around him looked away – or worse, even facilitated him. In all three cases, the public outrage in reaction to these apparently systemic failures of care has caused deep reputational and financial damage. This applies not only to the relevant organisations and many individuals within them, but to their sectors as a whole.
Most people are sufficiently reasonable and realistic to accept that things do go wrong on occasion. Human beings are far from perfect – we know we all fail from time to time. We therefore tend to regard personal failure as an opportunity for growth and a necessary experience for learning lessons and building resilience. However, where we are less forgiving is when we get the impression that those in charge have not taken care of their constituency when they had the opportunity to do so. This type of failure has a very different quality. The impression of arrogance, disregard, indifference and moral weakness of leaders can turn anger against the few individuals who did the deed, into rage against those in charge.
Human beings have a fundamental need to be seen, to be listened to and to be regarded. This is linked to our innate survival instinct from birth. If babies are not listened to and their needs not cared for, they will not survive. As human beings, it is in our nature to live in groups; we all depend on reliable relationships.
They provide what the psychiatrist John Bowlby conceptualised as the “secure base”. Secure relationships are built on trust. We have to trust, because we cannot control each and every aspect of our lives. Like it or not, we need others, and we need them to be as dependable as possible. This requires first and foremost that those on whom we depend ‘bear us in mind’ at all times; that they respectfully take us into consideration when they make decisions.
Thinking through the impact on others of what we do, as a matter of course, is thus an attitude and should be daily practice. It requires a particular type of conversation and communication. Aiming to make an organisation ‘careful’ is not just a ‘nice to have’, and can be hard work. It is the opposite of cutting corners, and a protective factor against our human greed for instant gratification, whether for financial gain or some other motive. Being careful of others builds organizational resilience as well as goodwill against a rainy day. It is absolutely at the core of good leadership.