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Failure has many faces…too many

During 2021 I posted frequently on LinkedIn to generate awareness of the book I had written about the events leading up to and following the suicide of my sister Alison. I was contacted by one of my connections asking me to refrain from using LinkedIn to share this story. They felt, it wasn’t the right platform to share such things. Perhaps it would be useful if I were to explain why I feel it is precisely the right platform...

I have been on LinkedIn for well over a decade now. Back in the early days, I was listed in the top one per cent of globally viewed profiles, in fairness that was before everyone else got on it, and when employers finally realised their employees weren’t using it to look for other jobs, at least not all the time, but were in fact, using it to connect with people, prospects, ideas and expertise. Much of what I see on LinkedIn and a great deal of what I have shared over the years fall’s unashamedly into the category of “boring but potentially important to someone”. And I understand completely that a business networking platform isn’t the right place to post clips of my excursions to Glastonbury or family barbecues. I treat Facebook as my front room, Twitter as the Pub, even more so now they are all shut, and LinkedIn as a workplace. This simple guidance shapes what I post on each of the Social Media channels I frequent.

The need for good leadership and management is always a hotly debated and frequently posted topic on LinkedIn. Type the search term Books on Leadership and Management into Google (other browsers are apparently available?) and you will get a staggering number of results, an amount which will doubtless have increased by tomorrow and which I imagine will continue to grow exponentially as every author issues a new version of their work with the words, “in a post-pandemic world” or “how to deal with the new normal” added as a subtitle. In my opinion, you don’t have to know that much about leadership and management to publish a series of top-selling books on the subject, but you have to be great at promoting yourself and maintaining your relevance. I myself have read and own a great many books on business and management. My wife Debbie bought me a Kindle some years ago because we were running out of shelf space. But in all honesty I could count the ones I would take to a desert island on one hand, at most.

If we think leadership and management are appropriate topics for discussion, then we must think that failures of leadership and management, especially when they occur in sensitive settings, are valid totems for serious informed discussion. The failures of leadership and management in our public services have names and faces, an increasing and worryingly significant amount of names and faces. If leadership matters, why are so many of us afraid to acknowledge or talk about the human cost of poor leadership? Heartache, harm, mental health breakdowns, premature deaths, and in my families case, the suicide of a young woman; over and above the obvious financial costs to us all, these are what failures of leadership and management look like. You will not find people like Alison mentioned in the pages of Johnson & Scholes MBA textbooks; I think we should.

The book I wrote, Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison, may not look or seem at first glance to be a traditional management textbook, and why should it; does the world really need another of these? As well as being a very personal and honest story, it is essentially a tale about the consequences, the impact of poor leadership. And I know I am biased, but I can’t think of any more relevant topic to post on LinkedIn.

The person who suggested I was publicising my book in the wrong place belongs to a national company that works closely with the NHS, interpreting data. And that is precisely the problem. Data is nothing on its own, but too many managers are blinded by it. Data is not messy, it is simple to deal with and it doesn’t answer back. It is the lazy thinker’s route to leadership Valhalla. But data is little without context and I believe stories are simply data with soul, we forget this simple fact at our peril and at the expense of our better nature. When the NHS itself admits that its inward-looking collusive cultures may be contributing to the unnecessary or premature deaths of more than 10,000 people a year, isn’t that the most incredibly telling indicator of the impact leadership and management can have. Is there a bigger story in the world of leadership and management right now?

I have read countless dry texts written by counsellors and consultants without wisdom. They rarely if ever come from a place of such intimate if unwanted experience as I do. And they fail to tell the very real story of the heavy human cost of poor leadership, weak management and collusive cultures. The faces of the dead can tell us more, move us more to action, than data ever will, but we have to remain open to acknowledging their stories and hearing their voices…

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