Every day we seem to lurch from one example of our crisis of leadership and trust, to another. I'm not alone in feeling adrift, confused, and searching for purpose, but whatever else is going on it doesn’t
have to be one of crushed personal responsibility and accountability. This pandemic
and the ensuing lockdown has been a shock to the collective system and to
individual hopes and dreams.
I hardly stand unique in this country at my disgust and horror at how the most impressive collective contribution of sacrifice and civic spirit was frittered away by a lethal amateurism. It is a time of intense national shame. Yet organisations and individuals across our country have displayed leadership, generosity and a capability to contribute to the common good, and it is from them that we must take inspiration in order to contribute to a rebuilding of trust.
Many of us are determined the inevitable change should be positive, and a few of us have been knocking ideas around. For me, this arose from a small group of us from within the Freshwalks hiking group. We were split into smaller groups to support one another during lockdown and see where it took us. We've done OK, I think. We've shared a lot, helped one another and enjoyed the experience. I knew one of the others quite well, another a bit, one used to work with Rachel years ago, and the final chap, not at all. I'd say we've been through a fair bit together since and know each other pretty well now.
Let me start with my own state of mind.
I’m one of those people on the divide in society that has been able to work from home. I’m not going to complain about that, because others have suffered far worse symptoms than the new blight of being all Zoomed out. We've done alright at home, eating together, I exercise regularly, Rachel's done well with her work, raising money for people in crisis.
But while I’ve got a lot done - finally written an MSc thesis - I’ve also drifted and dithered. I’ve wondered how I can make a meaningful contribution to my work, and to making the world better, to know what I’m doing in my job, and that it matters. In reviewing things I’ve written and read, there’s an awful lot of nostalgia. From that comes a melancholy about what I’ve missed out on. I think we look back because there’s precious little to look forward to. The promise of the future as a better place is an uncertain one now.
I have three impatient words written on the opening page of my work journal – the book where I take notes at meetings and where I write ideas down. It just says – does it matter? Frankly, at the moment, it doesn’t always feel like much does; but it must. I want to articulate a bold sweep of key actions and behaviours that can and should take place as we emerge out of lockdown to contribute in our own way to Build Back Better, it can’t happen just by willing it so.
And much as I muse at a policy level - I literally wrote a thesis on it - it's at a personal level that I have had similar moments of clarity that have looked at the ticking clock of life and thought – I no longer have the patience to work with unpleasant people. I think part of me has always done this. I've definitely been guilty of discriminating in favour of working with people who crack on, get stuff done, work at a pace I do and share my values. I described it recently as finding a golden thread of good people. However, I’m also aware that has come across in the past as 'picking favourites'. But for many emerging from this terrible pandemic and the recession to come, we’re going into a severe economic situation where plenty of us will be content to work for anyone, assholes included. Therefore it also places an even greater importance on those of us who can discriminate to build alliances with the good, the kind, the generous.
Here, then, are my three thoughts on where I think I must go:
All of us who can must double our commitment to get on and do stuff - I think of what Matthew Taylor at the RSA described as the need to 'make power, not take power'. Not require power to be given to us, but demonstrate we are effective community leaders and actors, capable of using the skills, efforts and capacity we have to make change. It’s not a substitute for gaining real power, but it’s a step towards it.
Secondly, more than ever, we need to build alliances. I’m in a community of people loosely based around our hiking group, Freshwalks. It’s but a small example of how we can support one another. It's not the solution to the world's problems, but right now as a collective it works for me. So does the People's Powerhouse, the RSA, my Church, other networks I'm part of, and the links I've built through my work. Our whole world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and obviously plenty of people say this, repeatedly. But maybe within that we have to understand there are things beyond our control and decisions made that we don’t like and that our response has to be messy too. So to counter that feeling of helplessness we need to ask the right questions, not always to try to provide all the answers, and only through thinking through a potential answer with others, will we be able to make progress.
Thirdly, we must never be afraid to think big, and realise it’s not just for us. I’ve stumbled across something called “Cathedral thinking” the idea that you are creating something you may never see built in your lifetime. Greta Thunberg has talked about it, apparently, which is fine with me. Submitting yourself to the pursuit of a big idea.
The bottom line is a revolution in spirit, in kindness, in a new conception of how we live our lives in relation not only to each other, but to nature, to our air, our rivers and seas and a different understanding of how our land is our common treasury. I've said so many times that happiness is about spending time with the people you love, but it's also about knowing you are living your life as close as possible to your own sacred values. Mine are to be honest, be loyal, be kind. When I fall short on any of them, it crushes me. So I need personal strength, but also that of others, to uphold those pillars.
Where we individually go with that I genuinely don't know. The answer to the question of "what we do" isn't actually as important as the why?