It’s brilliant to be able to welcome you all to our Conference this year. I know some of you have come a very long way to be here – I think I can count delegates from at least 15 different countries – and I believe that our line-up of presenters spans 5 continents as well. So it truly is an international conference. I am looking forward to meeting and talking to as many of you as possible and to listening and learning – from you and alongside you.
We are very lucky to have two distinguished keynote speakers in our conference programme. And the titles of both their talks are mouthwatering indeed – today from Marianna Fotaki we have ‘Rethinking embodiment – a route to relating meaningfully’ and tomorrow from Arkady Ostrovsky we have ‘Media and mass consciousness: nationalism and imposed identity in Russia’
Both of these fit very nicely into our conference theme – IDENTITY AND LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES. If you are an habitué of OPUS Conferences, you will notice that our decision to introduce a theme is one in a relatively long list of small but important differences between this conference and the OPUS conferences of the past. I hope you will find them all to your liking, because many of them came out of the delegate survey we did after last year’s conference. We will be doing another survey this year, and I look forward to receiving your scorecard telling us how you think we’ve done.
So the conference, like OPUS itself, is under new leadership, has a slightly altered identity, and in many senses is operating in turbulent times. We have changed venue and I’m afraid to say that because this place has now been sold to the London Business School, we’re going to have to find another venue for next year. As for OPUS, well I can tell you it’s been quite a year for me. Some of it hasn’t been particularly pleasant, although I have received lots of goodwill and good wishes but there have been a few unwelcome surprises too, and lots and lots of work. And, although I have been shovelling hard there is still plenty more to do. The question I ask myself is – is it worth it? I can answer that for myself but I want to ask it to you too. If your answer is yes, then perhaps that means you care enough about OPUS to get involved. If you do, OPUS could do with your help.
Most of you will know that in London, OPUS runs quarterly reflective events called Listening Post and we also hold them annually around the world. The Summer and Autumn Listening Posts both spoke directly to things that I think are relevant both to OPUS and to society at large.
The first Summer Listening Post was in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which around 70 people died and another 70 were injured. Ironically, the fire started in a fridge freezer. The spread of the fire is thought to have been accelerated by the exterior cladding fitted to the building’s superstructure, which was supposed to be flame retardant but was not.
The idea of cladding was taken up in the Listening Post as a powerful metaphor for society’s approach to problem-solving – leaving the fundamental issue unaddressed but concealed – cosmetically treated so that the blemishes are covered over. In this case, it meant that the underprivileged part of an over-privileged borough in London could be overlooked, with lethal consequences.
Cladding is the lipstick we put on a pig that doesn’t stop it being a pig; it is the statements we get from Government ministers when they want to conceal the truth; it is the slogans and lies of politicians who want to secure our votes; it is the re-announcements of extra money for projects that contain no new money; it is the insincere expressions of regret that do not amount to an apology or admission. It is the decaffeinated training modules sold to organisations wanting a quick fix for stress, resilience, leadership development, emotional intelligence, you name it. And it is the gesture politics of expressing protest, empathy, outrage and compassion that is not then followed up by action. Let’s get rid of the cladding. Is it enough to be reflective citizens who seek merely to understand society, or should we in OPUS rise up from our circles of chairs and start to be active citizens too – not instead but as well? I think we should.
In the Autumn Listening Post, the recent number of Government blunders, scandals, catastrophes, murders, shootings and terrorist atrocities felt to some like being in London during the Blitz – you never knew where the next bomb would fall. This led to the story of a participant’s house where he grew up that survived the Blitz but was later found to have been kept from a major explosion by a tiny piece of cork used to plug a hole in the gaspipe.
This became a metaphor for the fragile means by which we sometimes sustain an illusion of normality. We are dealing with society’s problems by hiding them beneath a cosmetic makeover, or we are coming up with extempore bodges to keep them at bay. How much time have we got left before something, or someone, explodes? If you like, I have taken over the role of OPUS Director but I am just a temporary bodge solution. OPUS needs more fundamental change, and a new system of governance, if it is going to be viable in the long term. We are holding a members’ forum in this room at lunchtime today so, if you are an OPUS associate or member, please come along to talk more about what those fundamental changes might be.
The starting point for most types of useful action is thinking. OPUS was described in The Times newspaper recently as a think-tank, and I rather like that. So let’s be a think tank today and start to address the serious issues of identity and leadership in turbulent times. Because these don’t just apply to OPUS but to all of society.
This has been described as ‘the most unpredictable geopolitical climate in living memory’. Twelve months ago when we came up with our conference theme, we all had our jaws on the floor at the election of Donald Trump, and were still in delayed shock over Brexit. Well, it hasn’t got any better since then, has it? But as we mark the centenary of Passchendaele and The Russian Revolution perhaps, when assessed in a broad historical context, things could be a lot worse as well as a lot better.
But there are worrying signs that we are in an unhealthy state of mind as a society. This turbulence in our outer world is mirrored in our inner world. There are the fight-flight groups of extremist ideologues aggressively splitting and projecting disowned characteristics onto the hated other, the pairing groups of nationalist, separatist and populist movements employing simplistic single-issue politics and magical thinking to invent a brighter future, and there are the dependant groups, unable to keep up with the pace and scale of change who regress to the infantile position of blaming everything on the leaders.
In a world like this, we need to create space for thinking or we will be on the way to a collective nervous breakdown. It is precisely the space for thinking that OPUS can offer and what makes it – and other organisations like it – so important at the moment. Let’s be suspicious of our certainty on issues and look again at them more closely. Might we be in some way wrong? Might we not be seeing the full picture? Might we be plugging the leaks in our argument without addressing their inherent weakness? Might we be putting cladding on the problems we don’t know how to solve in an effort to make ourselves feel better.
To give you a controversial example of how we might always not be as right as we might like to think, I’d like to quote someone I don’t admire and never voted for in an interview given almost exactly 30 years ago to the day.
‘There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us is prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’
Those words were spoken by Margaret Thatcher and immediately follow on from her infamous statement ‘there is no such thing as society’. She was saying that society is us, and not a convenient other onto which we can project responsibility. And in saying that, she was right. If we can’t open our minds to possibilities that we don’t like then our minds are not open. If they are not open then we cannot think.
So I have spoken up publicly in defence of Margaret Thatcher and I challenge you all to say or do something hitherto unthinkable this weekend.