Dame Liz Forgan, Photographer: Debra Hurford Brown

There is a wonderful scene in The West Wing (amongst countless other wonderful scenes), where the Josh Lyman character provokes potential new boy Matthew Perry, by forcefully arguing for a misconceived position. The Perry character must make a choice: to say what it appears his potential new employer wants to hear, or to correct the argument and say why he is wrong, possibly losing the job in the process.

It’s a test, and Perry passes with top marks – by telling his new boss exactly why he is wrong. “Congratulations” says Josh Lyman “I wanted to know if you can speak truth to power”.

This is of course the hopeful world of The West Wing, not only fictional but idealistic in the extreme (“the Democrats’ wet dream” as one critic put it). But writer Aaron Sorkin hits on a tremendously important point here, one that echoes through literature from the bible onwards.

The basic principle is that if you want good – or even excellent – governance, you don’t surround yourself with yes-men and yes-women, but with capable intelligent thinking professionals and an environment that values and enables those capabilities. You encourage them to tell you when you are misguided or making the wrong decision, and you expect them to come up with viable alternatives. You do this because it is the critical factor in making you a really good leader, one who makes the best possible judgements.

Sadly, it seems to me that these qualities – of speaking truth to even petty power – continues to be one of the most under-valued professional abilities in corporate UK. For all the deafening rhetoric around creative thinking and innovation, organisations are often deeply uncomfortable with staff who display any such behaviour.

It seems there are two main reasons for this:

1.     The organisational structure is not set-up to encourage cross fertilisation of ideas across hierarchies, or questioning of received orthodoxies. At best it is wedded to “the way we do things around here”, and at worst, uses hierarchy as a culture of demonstrable power and control.

2.      Organisations are made up of individuals, and many staff, even senior managers (maybe especially senior managers) find it incredibly difficult, and even threatening, to cope with independent analysis and recommendations from their underlings. Especially if it challenges their own or the organisation’s beliefs or positions. Understandably – but sometimes counter-productively – many managers appoint people that they perceive to be similar to themselves to avoid this situation.

This is a vast simplification and summary of a complex subject, but I’ve been musing on it since Jeremy Hunt’s decision to ask Dame Liz Forgan to step down as Chair of the Arts Council.

Forgan was, I think, very capable of speaking truth to power, and this is part of what makes her so very good in the job, and so very formidable a woman. I suspect she does this on many occasions, in all her roles, and has done so with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

As with other UK plc organisations, it was tolerated up to a point. I suspect the point of intolerance was reached by the February State of the Arts conference where publicly at least, Forgan struck a conciliatory note (see my polemic for New Statesman).

It didn’t work, and I wonder if she regrets the attempt? In colloquial terms, it is very much a regrettable truism that in England, if you are one of “them” rather than “one of us”, no amount of saying or doing what you think others want will change that perception. And that perception will always ensure that your role or your time in any particular situation will be limited. Forgan is associated with liberal agendas, and Hunt is a Tory. Hunt will now appoint someone who is more aligned – he will appoint someone who holds similar views.

For Forgan, it is clear that you can be right, admirable, honest and courageous, but it won’t change the outcome. Forget conciliation – far better to depart on your own terms, with your dignity and pride intact.

Speaking truth to power is, I fear, alien to the culture and repressed in Britain.  Maybe that is partly why the need to do so erupts periodically in riots and white collar crime?

Read Forgan Forgone on the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.


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