Lessons from Cuba

The death of Fidel Castro contrasts starkly with the election of Donald Trump. 

Among countless other differences, in one way they were similar: they were populist leaders. 

Both, that is, are leaders who appeal in some way to the popular views of a significant group or groups of people in a country, and do so by drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

A progressive form of populism – one that could be developed to counter Trump in the US, the Brexiteers in the U.K or Le Pen in France – could learn a lot from Castro, and its worth reflecting on some of the lessons to draw. Five lessons from Cuba for a progressive populism are nicely articulated by DL Raby in Democracy and Revolution, where he evaluates Castro’s record fairly, identifying where his strengths were and where he ought to have embraced greater pluralism and openness.

  1. Extend democracy. A progressive populism needs to ensure democracy is extended beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy, into workplaces and communities. 
  2. A progressive movement needs to allow for a range of ideas, not have a single view of what it is trying to achieve. To be successful it needs to embrace a range of people and views.
  3. Debate and diversity is important, but at the same time there needs to be unity around certain elements; otherwise it isn’t a movement. The key here is unity, not uniformity.
  4. Just as Trump managed, the populist values being articulated need to chime with established cultural values and beliefs. Start where the people are, not where you want them to be.
  5. And, despite extending democracy and encouraging pluralism, there needs to be clear leadership and organisation of the kind Castro offered.

It’s the complex mix of grassroots activism and leadership, unity and diversity, that made Castro such a successful and popular leader, despite his many faults.

We certainly don’t want another Castro. But we must learn what we can from such an effective and transformative leader if we want to see anything like the deep rooted alternative he offered take hold.

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Comms, leadership and the risks of Have Your Say

[This is a longer, more opinionated version of something I wrote that features in today’s Co-operative News]

The Have Your Say campaign shows a bold leadership style, but risks alienating members and employees if it isn’t a genuine opportunity for people to shape the Co-operative Group’s strategy.

The Co-operative Group recently launched its Have Your Say campaign. Supported by extensive advertising and media activity, it aims to get input from members, staff, customers and the public on where the business is now and, most importantly, it’s future direction.

For Euan Sutherland and the management team at The Co-operative Group, it is a bold statement. They are signalling that the Group is ready to break with the old and that it wants the views of people across the UK to shape what the new will look like.

Interestingly, in Have Your Say, the Group’s executive and Board also appear to be demonstrating an innovative approach to communication and leadership. As Euan Sutherland said in the statement accompanying the launch:

“We will be asking people up and down the country what they believe the Co-operative should really stand for. This is an unprecedented move for an organisation of the size and the scale of the Co-operative and the results will feed directly into our wider review of strategy and purpose.”

Arguably, most businesses faced with the difficult task of reinventing themselves and demonstrating a turnaround take a conventional approach. The Board and executive team work closely with a limited number of stakeholders to develop a new vision and strategy, which they then launch to the employees and public.

The foundation of this approach to leadership is sounding authoritative – setting out a clear vision, outlining the plan to get there and showing that the business is in a position to deliver. Appearing in control is everything.

There is the danger of seeming arrogant, though, and after the very public failings of The Co-operative Bank last year – and Euan Sutherland’s view that it has ‘lost touch with its members and customers’ – this is the last thing the Group wants.

It makes sense, then, that The Co-operative Group has adopted a different, more collaborative, leadership style. It appears to turn the standard approach to leadership on its head. Rather than announcing the business’s vision and strategy to the public, it is getting input from a huge number of people, which can then help the Board and executive determine the strategy.

As a communications device to demonstrate that The Group is not a conventional large business but one run by and for people, the Have Your Say campaign is outstanding. And, if the right questions are asked – and all the input is used effectively – The Group is likely to have significant information to shape the strategy.

But there is a serious risk emerging: that rather than getting the support of some of its closest and most engaged stakeholders – its employees and active members – the Co-operative Group alienates them.

A number of active members in the co-operative movement on social media are dismissing Have Your Say as a PR exercise rather than a genuine opportunity to shape the business’s future strategy.

Worse, others on social media and members and employees contacting the Co-operative News, think the big questions are loaded or even missing.

The Guardian’s leader comment the day after the launch argued that the questions about funding the Co-operative Party make it almost impossible for respondents to agree that the party’s funding should be continued. Others have pointed out that the big questions about the Group’s role in providing ethical leadership are not asked and instead the focus is on more local and community matters.

All this points to the concerns, amongst some, that the vision and future strategy of The Co-operative Group is in fact already decided. As one employee put it to me, Have Your Say is really intended to ‘manufacture a mandate’ for a new strategy that the executive and Board has agreed.

We cannot know whether or not this is the case. The challenge for the executive and Board, though, is to assure it’s employees and members that Have Your Say is more than an expensive communications exercise or an illusion of democracy. They need to demonstrate that this really a collaborative approach to leadership and a genuine opportunity to shape The Co-operative Group’s vision and strategy.

Three lessons in collaboration from The Apprentice

There’s been some interesting criticisms of the BBC’s The Apprentice over the last couple of weeks.

The Business Secretary said it is a bad example of business, whilst social enterprise bodies have begun a campaign for a ‘social apprentice’ because, rightly it seems, The Apprentice misrepresents what inspires people into business today.

But, for all its lack of reality, watching The Apprentice I’m struck by how much it tells us about the role of collaboration, teams and trust in business.

Here are three lessons, though there’ll be more.

– The project managers that are most successful show ‘collaborative leadership’ skills – they listen to their team members, give people roles they are best at, devolve responsibility and make the decisions when others don’t or can’t.

– The teams that are the most successful listen closely to what the customers want, give them what they ask for and a little bit more, and keep checking they are continuing to give it to them. They take the time to engage with the customer.

– The candidates that are most successful combine independence and co-operation in equal measure. They are willing and able to take responsibility, plan and get stuff done; but they also build a strong and positive relationship with others.

Of course, the boardroom is never collaborative and the fact that every business they set up is a one-off means that they don’t need to build the relationship or trust with suppliers or customers that a real business would. It’s reality TV after all.

But, by looking at what makes for success on The Apprentice you can see why collaboration, teamwork and trust are central to doing business.