Thursday, 11 August 2011

After The Storm

It’s August and, as demonstrated by the absence of politicians when the flash violence, rioting and looting commenced in cities across England at the start of the week, many people are away on holiday.  I returned yesterday from some blissful days in Somerset, full of smiles and memories tinged with a warm glow (or perhaps that was the local cider).  Driving into London was sobering.  Boarded up windows and burnt out shop fronts lined the road to Lavender Hill – evidence of the thuggish behaviour that was demonstrated earlier in the week.  It was interesting to note that the bookshops hadn’t been touched (perhaps the looters only use e-books – they clearly like trainers and TVs).

At the start of the week I thought I would write a blog on the repercussions of mob mentality – something often seen inside organisations, as well as having been demonstrated on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Enfield, etc…  We have all been in situations where in a one-to-one discussion or within a fairly intimate environment, a person will voice a particular opinion but, when surrounded by others, they will change their tune to fit in with the broader consensus, so as to be seen to support the actions and outcome that others desire.  A striking example of this is related to the Challenger disaster.  The failure of an O-ring seal was determined to be the cause of the Space Shuttle tragedy on January 28, 1986.  A leading engineer, Roger Boisjoly, voiced concerns that the O-rings would not function as required in cold weather conditions.  When the matter was discussed in a larger group, he demurred under pressure from the wider team for the launch to go ahead.  It is easier to run with the herd than be viewed as difficult, unsupportive or different.  Much of the blame for the disaster was placed on NASA’s organizational culture and decision making processes.  We are not always good at enabling the voice of reason or the quieter/less eloquent speakers to be heard.  It is too easy to go along with others’ ideas and actions, especially if their proposals are seen as being more exciting and potentially rewarding or when the risk of not concurring could make an individual unpopular or perhaps even be personally damaging.  I actually want this blog to reflect the power and importance of individuals.

This morning I went to the funeral of a wonderful lady who dared to be different and seldom hesitated in voicing her opinions.  My friend Morag Young was 86 and had been battling with cancer for a number of years.  Born in Glasgow in 1925, her family emigrated to South Africa when she was five.  She was a pioneer in so many ways: undaunted at being a woman in a man’s world, she attained impressive academic qualifications from Rhodes University, before commencing in business.  She always claimed that her life’s achievements were grounded on her education.  (She has left a legacy to fund South African scholars to study at Glasgow University, so I hope a number of people will follow in her footsteps).  Fiercely bright and feisty, even at the end, she managed to secure operational roles in organisations across the African continent, worked as an anchor woman during the early years of TV and she was an inspiring journalist.  She made the most of the opportunities that life presented and was always a challenging but supportive friend.  It was inspiring talking to people at her wake, each of whom had stories of battles that Morag had won against the odds.  Even when raddled with cancer she was standing up for the underdog and fighting for what she saw as right – combating racial inequality, questioning politicians and businessmen and encouraging learning.  The best friends and team members are those who will challenge and speak out to ensure that the correct decisions are made.

With apologies to Robert Burns for changing the gender, his words are an apt epitaph for Morag:

An honest woman here lies at rest,
As e'er God with His image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, the guide of youth:
Few hearts like hers - with virtue warm'd,
Few heads with knowledge so inform'd:
If there's another world, she lives in bliss;
If there is none, she made the best of this.

Not only is there turbulence on the streets of England, but also there is turmoil in the financial markets across the globe.  The world currently is a frightening place and we are all being buffeted by the storms.  Now is the time when each of us needs to have the strength to do and say what is right.  I found it heart warming that Twitter and other Social Media sites were being used for good as well as evil earlier this week.  The mobilisation of local communities to clear up after the riots, the messages of encouragement and concern and offers of assistance from strangers around the globe all contributed to what is now a calmer end to the week.  I would like to thank all of you who have been brave enough to speak out or act.  Little by little we can improve our environments. 

We all need to make the best of the world that we find ourselves in and to be brave enough to say and do the right thing.

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