The power to challenge

Dictator - sAre you an accidental dictator?

The separation of powers: whether the executive, legislative and judiciary; or of the secular and the spiritual, has long been a recognised tenet of good governance – for at least the last few centuries anyway.

And for good reason. People make mistakes, and the more power that’s concentrated in fewer, like-minded hands, the more catastrophic those mistakes can be. Not to mention the countless examples throughout history of what power tends to do to those who hold too much of it for too long.

These lessons are as relevant as ever to politics today, from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to the situations in Hungary, Syria and elsewhere. And even here, with MPs willing to decry proposed legislation as damaging, immoral and illegal, yet declining to vote against it for fear of the party line.

A party riven by internal squabbles will never win power. But conversely, one that has purged itself of all potential challenge, and tolerates zero internal dissent, can never be trusted to govern.

The problems of concentrated power aren’t restricted to politics, they have famously showed their face in business many times, leading to scandals, governance reviews (like the Cadbury report) and most recently, by putting the G in ESG.

Even family businesses, where the stereotypical lone patriarch or matriarch might once have wielded tyrannical authority over family members and outsiders alike, are increasingly recognising the inherent weaknesses that brings. And as a result, most of the larger ones have gone through sometimes painful processes to professionalise their boards and executive teams, and to bring in strong external advisers and independent voices.

The irony of the charity sector is that, while we have the rules and oversight of a regulated industry, and the legendary risk aversion of a deeply conservative institution, to all intents and purposes, most charities have all their practical power vested in just two people: the chair and CEO. And in many cases, one of those pretty much rules the roost.

I’m not arguing for more governance or more oversight. But I am highlighting the inherent weakness of the situation within many charities. Indeed, in the past few years I’ve had numerous CEOs and no shortage of chairs proactively coming to me, specifically for “challenge”, because they recognise they’re not getting it where they should.

These are the enlightened ones. Aware that there are times they might be wrong. Conscious that their thoughts and ideas will only ever benefit from being poked and prodded, challenged and if necessary torn apart, by the scrutiny of perceptive, forthright, and intelligent others.

And as a short-term measure I’ve often provided that service, but usually twinned with some development for one team or another, to generate their own heated internal debates, to grow their own capacity and tolerance for constructive conflict, to ultimately provide that challenge themselves.

But I suspect there are many, many more Chairs and CEOs out there who are very happy without that challenge, and the longer they’re in role, the more embedded the autocracy gets, and riskier that situation will inevitably become. You know it’s true. You’ve seen it play out.

So, if you’re one of those leaders who does have a challenging board and can only dream of the easy-ride scenario I’m describing, genuinely, think yourself lucky. Because without the grit and the irritation it creates, no oyster can produce a pearl.

But if this article speaks to you and your organisation, think about how you can get more challenge and constructive conflict into your decision-making. Think about it, and then act. Because with great power comes great responsibility, and it’s your responsibility to ensure your thoughts, ideas, directions, and diktats are made better and stronger through the robust scrutiny of others.

And if that sounds uncomfortable, give me a call, because it might be we need to talk.

Leave a Reply