How to prevent a nuclear disaster

Chernobyl teaches us that bad management choices are really just bad choices.

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Like many others, I just watched the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. And if you haven’t done so yet, I give it my highest recommendation (mild spoilers ahead: only in general terms).

Being six at the time of the disaster, I have only vague recollections that this was something the grown-ups talked about. My grandpa in Norway didn’t want to go hunting that year for fear of radiation, that kind of thing.

While fascinating on its own account, the portrayal in the series at least also teaches us, once again, the danger of human ignorance.

It’s a classic military maxim: If the map and the terrain disagree, trust the terrain. And in this case, certain leaders were so hell-bent on their own agendas – their KPIs, if you will – that they lost track of reality, in effect triggering the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Today I find myself working for a company which has been hit hard by what may turn out to be largest money-laundering scandal in Europe, or even the world. The management at the time has resigned due to not sufficiently having prevented the incident.

Fortunately I have no more detailed knowledge than the public on the matter, but I do believe it’s an apt comparison: how could they not see the danger signals in time?

Sure, the Chernobyl power plant had crucial – literally, fatal – design flaws. But even with these flaws, the catastrophe would not have happened if not for people in leadership positions who chose to blatantly ignore facts on the ground and push their own misguided agenda, even to the point of disaster.

One pessimistic conclusion would be that giving humans any amount of power is a risk. The more pragmatic learning is that checks and balances are always needed, even at top tiers.

Vive la résistance

There is intelligent life in the White House, after all. What about Silver Spring?

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Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times was one of the most interesting, and heart-warming pieces of news recently. Yes, you heard me right.

nytimes_opedInteresting, sure. An anonymous senior White House official points the gun at President Trump, essentially saying: we know he’s amoral and erratic, but we are working behind the scenes to contain the damage and counter some of his worst tendencies. Trump has responded in his usual manner, shouting and threatening on Twitter. The circus continues.

But what makes this heart-warming is the fact that even Trump’s supporters are aware of the reality. Even if you blinded yourself to believing in the man, this op-ed shows us that there are still people in power who want to work for what’s best for the country.

Things may not change overnight, but this gives me hope.

Church politics gone sour

I have previously mentioned the ongoing political theatre in the Adventist Church, which I am a member of. And I have compared General Conference President Ted Wilson to Donald Trump – not for his morals, but for his ignorance of the limits of power, and lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Next month, the church’s world leadership will meet for their Annual Council, and following last year’s failed attempt at forcing unity, an inquisition-like setup of oversight committees is once again on the agenda.

Where is the op-ed from within the General Conference office?

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We probably won’t see that, but I have to believe that not everyone is happy with the president’s warmongering. It would not surprise me if – like in the White House – a large group of church officials are silently playing along, but doing their best behind the scenes to mend some of the wounds which the president’s actions are creating.

Silent majority

The president can be a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, I don’t care. But a president should not be authoritarian and despotic, whether he is president of a country or a church.

Yes, Trump got elected. But I still believe in the American people. I choose to have faith that a silent majority of Americans cannot abide this man’s values and actions.

Similarly, I choose, for now, to have faith in the Adventist Church. I have to believe that a silent majority cannot abide by the divisive, un-democratic behavior of its highest elected official, but have hopes and intentions that transcend political games.

The Management Blind Spot

Wake-up call: Your team members probably know less than you think they do.

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Ten years ago, I wrote my MA thesis on internal communication at the office of LEGO Australia. I made theoretical as well as real-life discoveries, and my recommendations to the management were well received.

One key finding especially has followed me ever since: what I then dubbed the management blind spot.

It’s not rocket science, it’s social science. And even if it sounds like common sense, I’ve found that the issue is quite pervasive.

The Downside of a Strong Leadership

At the time, LEGO Australia had a very strong leadership team with highly effective weekly meetings for sharing key insights across the board. Every member of the leadership had a great sense of where the business was going.

This made it so much more striking that the feeling did not reflect upon lower levels. One employee told me: “There’s no way we can interact with one another. I assume that the leaders get together and then they share.”

But confronted with a lack of cross-company interaction, a member of the leadership told me: “I don’t understand that, because I work with every part of the company.”

Team leads play a crucial role in sharing information with their teams. But since they are embedded in both the leadership team and in their own teams, they become blind to the perspective of their own teams, and sometimes wrongly assume that their employees have the same knowledge as themselves.

Oblivious or Machiavellian

I’ve seen this situation play out again and again, where especially senior leaders are oblivious to the lack of knowledge at lower levels – knowledge that they themselves are gate-keepers of.

(In one case I have even suspected a manager of actively preventing a free flow of knowledge, for whatever reason.)

Assuming a well-functioning hierarchy, the situation is difficult to avoid. Obviously, the more senior you are the more you should know across the businesses, and conversely less of the details.

But as a manger you should never forget that often your team only knows what you tell them.

Was Blind, But Now I See

What should managers do about it? Most importantly, they should acknowledge their own blind spot, and work actively to mitigate the pitfalls.

My recommendations to LEGO were:

  • Identify key relationships and interactions between teams and engage these people in dialogue.
  • Set up a “huddle exchange”, where employees on a rotational basis join the team meetings of teams outside their own, to learn more about the business.
  • Increase informal interaction (social events, lunch, etc.) to make people more comfortable with each other across teams.

Today I would add that in a less hierarchical, more matrix-like organisation, the issue would be less prevailing, or take a different shape.

Finally, I should add that too much knowledge can be time-consuming, of course not everyone needs to know everything. Need-to-know is a separate topic I will explore later. The point here is awareness: you should know what you know and don’t know. And as a manager especially, you should know what your teams know and don’t know.

This post also appears on www.deja-vu.net.

What can Iceland’s football team teach us about women in leadership?

Let’s learn a lesson or two from the Vikings.

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The Icelandic miracle is over for this World Cup, but with inspiring play and a draw against Argentina (1-1) these North Atlantic peaceful marauders have captured our hearts once again.

How did a country of merely 350,000 make it so far? Others have described the miracle, including Time Magazine in a cover story on June 7.

time_icelandA combination of investment in year-round facilities, more and better coaches, a sports-for-all philosophy, and full support from the population has paid off.

Can we learn anything from this in a business setting? Yes, I believe we can.

Increase the talent pool

On one level, it’s a numbers game. If you look at the best teams in football, you see big countries like Germany, the UK, and Brazil, but also small ones like Croatia, Uruguay, my native Denmark, and yes, Iceland, punching way above their league in terms of population.

On the other hand, China is a mediocre team which rarely qualifies, not to speak about India or Indonesia.

So it’s not about how many people, it’s about how many people play football. This is a different picture, with Iceland in 17th place with 11% of the population in 2006 (probably even more today).

The business application of this has been raised before. By actively or passively excluding minorities, you are reducing the talent pool for employees and leaders. And if you routinely discard half of your employees for leadership positions just because of your gender, you miss out on a lot of potential.

For instance, women hold only 14.2 percent of the top five leadership positions among S&P 500 firms, Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote for Inc., stating: “Companies that ignore the insights of their talented women will lag the curve in delivering successful solutions to the marketplace.”

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Remove barriers

True to its name, Iceland has long, cold, and wet winters. This was previously a big obstacle for raising the level of outdoor sports, but by investing in indoor facilities and making them accessible to all children and young people, they effectively removed one of the key barriers to success.

To achieve equality in a corporate setting it is necessary to look at both invisible barriers. These can include work-life balance opportunities, meeting schedules, but also cultural elements such as excessive ‘locker-room talk’, small-talk in a native language, or other elements of stereotyping.

More and better coaches

Instead of relying on parent coaches, Iceland has invested heavily in upskilling of their coaches, with a huge increase in UEFA-licensed coaches, and not only to top-tier clubs. “In Iceland, anyone can join a local sports club that employs elite coaches, for an average of $600 a year,” writes Time.

To succeed in business, you also need good coaches and mentors. If middle-managers play the dog-eat-dog game, thinking only about their next promotion, they are not worthy of the manager title. On the other hand, having managers who nurture and guide their people, spotting talent, also in minorities, is essential to the long-term success of any organization.

Secure full support

Everyone in Iceland is a part of the football adventure. New York Times writes that “In a country of fewer than 350,000 people, most everybody either knows someone on the team or knows someone who does. There is no celebrity culture.”

Around 30,000 fans travelled to France for the Euro 2016 – that’s more than 10% of the population! Similar numbers are reported for the World Cup in Russia. And a staggering 99.6% watched the match against Argentina.

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How’s that for a commitment to corporate values? Nobody would expect numbers like that, but if you do want to succeed as a company, you’re surely better off if your employees support the journey. And that’s all employees, mind you.

So, to sum up, there’s a lot to learn from Iceland. Who, by the way, had the world’s first democratically elected female president, from 1980 to 1996. Huh!

The Legacy of Luther and Adventist Authority

Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.

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Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.

The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.

Dealing with Adventist dissent

In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.

Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.

Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)

JanPaulsenThis is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”

His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.

Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness.  He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”

Open or closed leadership?

While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.

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The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.

Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.

Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.

The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.

The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.

I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.

Pope or no pope?

George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:

“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”

I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.

Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.

I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.

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