These interviews took place on October 26, 2018, at the Hilton Hotel, located in West Palm Beach, Florida.Learn more about Keith Grint
Scarpino: Alright, so now we’re recording. Today is Friday, October 26, 2018. My name is Philip Scarpino, Professor of History at Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI); and, Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, also at IUPUI. I am interviewing Dr. Keith Grint in a conference room in the Hilton Hotel, located in West Palm Beach, Florida. This interview is a joint venture undertaken by the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association.
Both of us are attending the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association.
The recognition that brings us here today is the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the International Leadership Association.
I’d like to ask your permission to record this interview, to transcribe the interview, and to deposit the recording and the transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives where they may be used by patrons, including posting all or part of the recording and transcription to the website of the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, and the same considerations for the Tobias Center and the ILA.
Grint: It’s absolutely fine with me.
Scarpino: Good. Alright. I’m going to start by explaining for your sake and for anyone who’s using this interview that I’m going to begin by asking you a number of big picture questions about leadership. Then we’ll shift to some basic demographic questions. Then we’ll talk more or less chronologically through your career with plenty of discussion of leadership.
The first general question that seems appropriate for a scholar of your standing is how do you define leadership?
Grint: That’s probably the worst question you could possibly ask anybody. Well, I mean, the easy way to think about leadership is leadership is having followers. But I think, in my work, what I’ve tried to do is differentiate between leadership management and command, which means I end up with a strange definition of leadership, which is more to do with getting the collective, however that is defined, getting the collective to face up to and respond to what we would call wicked problems or really complex issues that don’t necessarily get resolved very easily. So, I try to differentiate between management, which is the dealing with tame problems where we know what the process is and we know how to fix them, from leadership, which is about a collective response. I recognize that definition then seems to exclude a huge area which other people would call leadership. So, there are two ways of thinking about it. One is when I’m just talking about it in terms of the differentiation between leadership command and management, and the other one is generally speaking about what leadership is. I think generally speaking, it’s just getting collectives to address particular issues, but in the specific nature of my own work, I try to differentiate between leadership management and command. Command is just dealing with crisis and, in some ways, command is the opposite of leadership. So, if leadership is about getting the collective to engage with a particular issue, command is telling the collective what they’re about to do. So, it’s a very different understanding of the notions of leadership and command.
Scarpino: Through the lens of the way you understand leadership, what constitutes good leadership?
Grint: So, I would say that good leadership is more to do with the difficult task of getting collectives to address collective problems that they probably don’t want to address. So, how do we deal with climate change? That might mean that we have to give up our cars or do something with air conditioning or whatever. Most people for good rational reasons would rather not give up any of those things. So, I think leadership in this sense, or good leadership, is the difficult task of getting collectives to look at problems that they probably don’t want to look at, which is much more difficult than leading collectives to the sunny uplands, which is how we would normally consider leadership. So, I’m trying to veer away and move away from the notion that leadership is about being heroic, either
individual or collectives. In some ways, it’s much more unpopular and mundane than conventional assumptions about leadership.
Scarpino: In the world in which we live today, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, is there anybody who successfully meets your definition of good leadership?
Grint: I think you can always find good leaders in all organizations and all communities. The difficulty is that nobody would probably know of them. So, that’s one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is if you’re talking about people that most of us would probably have heard of, either political leaders or business leaders or public sector leaders, I don’t know that there are many. Certainly, in the political realm, I don’t know that there are many that would fit that model because I think most politicians are more interested in gaining consent and support and popularity than the way I’m thinking about leadership, which is actually, probably the opposite of that. I’m going to tell people things they really don’t want to listen to and, therefore, that’s going to make me unpopular and I’m not going to get voted back in, but somethings are more important than other things. So, I think the way that democracy operates, in some ways, is a real problem for the notion of getting people to address especially long-term difficult problems that transcend the electoral cycle. I mean, one way of resolving that is just to make sure that politicians don’t sit for more than one term in wherever they happen to sit, in which case, you don’t have to worry about being popular. But if you’re concerned about reelection, then you, by definition, have to maintain some level of popularity, which might allow people to do things that they probably shouldn’t be doing.
Scarpino: What do you see as the relationship between leadership and power, which kind of follows up on what you were just saying?
Grint: So, I think you can differentiate between power and authority – there are various ways of doing this. One is to differentiate between power and authority. This is kind of Max Weber’s argument that power is more like naked coercion than authority is legitimate power in some sense. So, that’s one way of dealing with it. Parson’s argument is actually quite interesting in terms of arguing that power is much more of a community aspect, there’s a collective aspect to power. But I think probably the thing that has intrigued me most is work that comes out of people like Foucault whose arguments are that power is not something possessed; it’s something in the relationship. So, you don’t have power. What you do is if people comply with what you’ve asked them to do, then you have power over them; that’s a consequence of their compliance. But if they refuse compliance and take the consequences of noncompliance, then you don’t have any power over them. So, I think very often we have assumed, and we talk about this in terms of people in power, we say like, “Trump is a very powerful person, full of power.” But the only reason that Trump and
anybody else is powerful is because people comply with them. If they didn’t comply, then they wouldn’t be powerful. So, I think what happens is we tend to fool ourselves by saying, “Well, I couldn’t resist this very powerful person,” but you can always resist if you’re willing to pay the penalty for resistance. This is the kind of argument that a lot of people make about, “Well, sometimes you don’t have any choice, Keith,” and actually, you always have a choice, except in really exceptional circumstances. You can always say, “I’m not doing what you just asked me to do and I don’t care what you do to me.” History is full of people who said, “If you don’t kill that person, I’m going to kill you,” and you say, “Go kill me, I’m not doing it.” So, we know that power is not possessed in that sense, but it’s easier for people to legitimate their nonaction or irresponsible action by saying, “Well, I didn’t have any choice,” when in reality, if you face him in the mirror and say, “yes, you did, you could’ve said no, I’m not doing it,” and it’s just easier for us to live our lives as if we are controlled by somebody else or something else or we didn’t have much choice and, therefore, we’re not responsible for what is about to happen. It’s much harder to be able to say, “You know what, I am responsible for just about everything I do,” and that is a really painful way to live your life, knowing that you don’t have any excuses.
Scarpino: Is that the way you teach leadership?
Grint: That’s the way I try and teach it. I’m not sure that I can do it myself and I quite often hear myself saying things and I think, you know, and ‘that’s not right Keith.’ So, I think it’s easier for us to rationalize our decisions by explaining to ourselves that we had virtually no choice, when if you looked in the cold light of day, you would say actually, “You know what, I could’ve done something different there, but I chose not to.” And the chose thing is the really important thing, that I chose not to intervene or not to stop it. I mean, life is full of really evil things because people choose not to engage rather than – so, what happens is rather than saying, “I wasn’t actively responsible for X,” what actually happens is that I didn’t do anything about X and, therefore, I appear to myself not to be responsible, when actually if you just got off your fat backside and done something, that might not have happened.
Scarpino: Let’s just turn that slightly and talk about governance and leadership. I’m going to set this up by noting that in 2012, you published with Linda Sue Warner an article called “The case of the noble savage: the myth that governance can replace leadership.” It was in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies and Education. So, what do you see as the relationship between governance and leadership the way you understand leadership?
Grint: Yeah. So, I see governance, in some ways, as a kind of political organizational system for ensuring some kind of control in society or
organizations, whereas leadership is not really necessarily to do with the mechanisms of responsibility or accountability. Leadership can be all kinds of things, some of which are completely irresponsible and unaccountable. So, the governance system is an important aspect of this. And I think that kind of runs back into the thing I was talking about before, about how electoral cycles undermine our addressing of long-term problems because the governance system inhibits this. Some people will then argue, “Well, you seem to be implying, Keith, that what we should be looking for is a benign dictatorship, a different governance system that allows political leaders to say ‘we’re not doing this and I’m not interested in your concerns about this.’” And, in some ways, you think that might have some advantages, but of course, what you don’t get with that is the ability to replace the people that you just elected. So, the democratic system that we have is at least worst as opposed to the best.
Scarpino: I’m going to transition in a minute to followers, but based upon what you said, and you’ve mentioned several times about the challenges of dealing with long-term problems, and climate change is obviously one of them, so is it possible that one of the challenges to any leader is to try to figure out how to get followers to pay attention to issues that are not of immediate concern?
Grint: Yeah, I think for those kinds of problems, like climate change, this is probably the most difficult issue, is how you get people to look at those things that are not in their face and do not appear to be in their interests or will only affect their grandchildren and all those kinds of things. So, I think there is something really important about the role of political leaders in particular, but not only those, in educating people because I don’t think our educational system is sufficiently deep into the communities to get people to understand that we all have some kind of responsibility here. I think what it does is on the surface level and only for a small proportion of the population. You can live your lives just not knowing or caring about what happens to anybody else in the world. And that, I think, is a really important responsibility that many politicians don’t actually look at. So, a good example of that would be in the U.K., we have a health system, the National Health System, which is free at the point of delivery and has been since 1948. But within six months of it starting in 1948, the budget was blown, the budget was doubled because what you’ve stimulated is demand that didn’t preexist this. I don’t think we, in the U.K., have gone back to the original framework and asked what is the purpose of the health service, what are we trying to do with this? And at what point do we say actually we’ve spent enough money on this and we can’t do any more with this and we can never afford it. And because we have exponential growth in technological innovation, which means we will always have more and more expensive ways of keeping you alive, irrespective of whether the quality of your life is there or not, and because we also have this concern for the sanctity of life, and because we have a growing aging population
with all kinds of nature of illnesses, we have infinite demand and finite supply. So, we can’t actually afford to keep the system going, but there is no political vote to be had in telling people I think we need to rethink this and think about how we deal with old people who’ve got multiple illnesses. That is a really difficult moral dilemma. So, politicians don’t do it, but what we end up doing all the time is just managing to scrape together enough money to keep the system going before it completely stops. But nobody has been tempted to say we need to rethink this radically. That isn’t to say that we should go down the American line, it’s we just need to think about what we’re trying to do in the U.K. and what we were originally trying to do and whether we can actually save this? And if we can, who will pay for this and who will lose out of the new system? There’s no real political incentive for addressing this. So, we just don’t look at it; we just avoid the really terrible questions.
Scarpino: In the absence of some looming awful crisis, is it really possible to address a problem like that in an electoral system?
Grint: I think what we do, and what we end up doing all the time is we end up running – it’s a kind of Red Queen complex thing, you know, you run faster and faster to stay in the same place all the time. So, we all do that, so all our employees in the health service are more and more exhausted all the time and we just manage to keep it going and then it just frays at the edges. In the end, what we do, what we end up doing is rationing by default. So, we find reasons to say, oh, you do need the hip operation, but luckily, you’re so overweight, we found a criteria for not doing it. So, that saves us money and it’s not just about you actually do need to lose some weight to get the hip operation, it’s also useful for the system. So, we end up going around all the corners to be able – rather than facing the headlong problem, we’ve found ways around it all the time that just about keeps it going. But I’m not sure that you can keep it going forever on that basis because I think in the end, and certainly with Brexit, I mean probably it’s like a quarter of the employees in the NHS are European origin. If they go home, then we don’t have an NHS.
Scarpino: And I’m going to say just because not everybody that listens to this is going to be from the U.K., that’s National Health Service.
Grint: Yes. And Brexit is an attempt to come out of the European Union. Yeah.
Scarpino: Maybe one universal aspect of leadership, and you’ve already mentioned this, is that leaders must be able to persuade other people to follow them. Can you talk about your understanding of the process whereby leaders persuade others that a particular course of action is necessary or required?
Grint: I think there are all kinds of various ways of doing this or explaining what happens. So, there’s a kind of framework locked into a rational or logical approach which says what you do is you set out a whole series of proposals which are logically correct and appeal to the interests of the population and, therefore, they follow you. But we know that actually most of the time, followers don’t follow these because they’re logical or correct. What they do is they appeal to their particular interests and sometimes they’re a very basic interest. So, it’s much more to do with appealing to interests than it is to appealing to logic or rationality. You can see that in notions of voting, so assumptions of why people vote in certain directions are probably quite flawed. So, people don’t vote left or right, Republican or Democrat, because they’ve looked through the entire program which is available for those two parties; they have some tribal allegiance which says generally speaking I always go left or right or whatever it is I happen to vote. And a lot of that is often against the direct material interests of the people who are voting for them. So, there quite often isn’t a very strong connection, a logical connection between where people sit materially and who they vote for. It’s quite often much more on a tribal basis and if the tribal leader says this is what we’re doing, then that’s got to be good. So, there is quite a strong illogical and irrational link, this is much more of an emotional link between followers and leaders than it is a logical link between followers and leaders. I think a lot of our assumptions are that it’s really about logic, it’s really about people looking at the programs and deciding which way to vote, but that’s not actually historically accurate. People vote for tribal reasons, not for logical reasons.
Scarpino: Based on what you just said, would somebody listening to this be correct to conclude that you’re arguing that an effective leader in a political arena, particularly dealing with difficult problems, is the one who’s the best at ginning up tribal loyalty and appealing to people’s emotions?
Grint: I think, unfortunately, yeah, I would agree with that. I would like to not agree with it. I would like to think that we are in a different place, but I think if you look historically, the appeal of many leaders has been on a really raw emotional level and not on a level of logic or rationality. The implication of that, of course, is that it’s therefore very difficult to get people to address issues that contrast with or in contradiction to those kinds of loyalties.
Scarpino: When you’re teaching leadership, say to students, and you’re telling them about leadership the way you understand it or the way you think it should be, and then they go on the internet or they watch television or they read the newspaper, and there are all these examples of the kind you just talked about, how do you deal with the world versus what you tell people in the classroom?
Grint: Well, when I, when I do teach, I’ve tried to use a very large number of examples to tease out the complexity of what we’re looking at and try to avoid people getting into binary arguments about it’s either this or this which explains that, and it’s usually 50 of this and 30 of that and 20; we don’t even know, we don’t even know why people vote. I think it’s the same with leaders. We don’t even know what makes people good leaders quite often. We pretend we know. We do all kinds of quantitative and qualitative research, but I don’t know that we know that much that we could predict what’s going to happen. We don’t even know about – so we don’t know, for example, whether children in school are going to end up as leaders or not based upon their behavior at school. We pretend that we do, but there’s not a lot of longitudinal empirical research which says we mothered all these children since they were five and they end up over here and you can predict that, because A) we don’t have the data, and B) I’m not even sure that we could predict it. I think quite often what we do is we conflate certain kinds of behavior in youth and assume that’s the same behavior. So, if you look in the school playground, you’ll see some kids in charge and you think, oh, they’re a natural leader; well, they might just be a natural bully. Then there’s an interesting question about, so is that the same thing? Is leadership actually derived and related to and correlated with bullying? Is that what we’re looking at, is the ability of somebody to coerce others into compliance with them? So, we don’t know whether the bullies at school end up as great leaders or actually don’t end up because they’re bullies. We don’t even know that kind of basic stuff. Some of the very interesting material on the selection mechanisms for leadership come out of the – I do quite a lot of work about the military and, at the end of the first World War, when the American military is trying to work out whether they’ve been selecting the right recruits for officers, there’s quite a lot of work done there about: so what is the mechanism by which they select people? It turns out to be what is sometimes called the halo effect, is that as soon as you walk in the room, people have made assumptions about you; and if you’re tall, dark and handsome, then, by definition, you’re good officer material; and if you’re not, then you’re not. Then the consequence of that is once you’ve made your first assumption, everything else flows from the first assumption. So, if they respond to a question in a really complex way and you’ve already decided they’re really intelligent, the fact that you don’t understand the answer is because they’re really intelligent. And if you’ve come with the same answer from somebody that you know or assume to be actually not that intelligent, the reason you don’t understand it is because they don’t speak proper English. So, all the time what we’re doing is fundamentally supporting our original prejudice, and I’m not sure we’ve gotten much further than that. I mean, there’s a lot of empirical work around, but I think we still have this thing that you make up your mind so quickly about people and then the prejudices just filter out all the data. There’s a piece of work, I can’t remember what the author’s name is, that I’ve been using recently, and it’s looking at – there’s over a
thousand people in the survey and they’re divided into quarters, but the first part of the survey is to work out what your political preferences are. They’re all Americans, so in this case, it’s about whether you – on the range between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The second bit of the survey is two work out, amongst other things, what your mathematical ability is. And then the first quarter of the survey is given a ratio or something to work out mentally about whether in fact a particular sun cream is improving or enhancing or degrading your skin, and the correlation is – it’s quite a difficult ratio to do in your head and about a third of the population get the sum, get the ratio right and it correlates exactly with those with good mathematical abilities, nothing to do with politics. The second quarter of the cohort is then given the same data, but the answer to the question whether the sun cream works or not is reversed. And again, about a third of the population get the sum right, and nothing to do with politics. Then the second two quarters, the second half of the group, is then given the same data, but the question is changed to whether in fact carrying concealed handguns makes city life safer or more dangerous, and that is done to the last two quarters. And again, the answer to the question is reversed for the last quarter. So, in all of these four quarters, all the data’s exactly the same, but the answer is changed. And in the second half, the carrying concealed handguns, the people that get the answer right are not those with good mathematical skill. People who get the answer right are those where the answer supports their political prejudice. So, conservative Republicans get the sum right if it supports their political prejudice, and liberal Democrats get it right if it supports their political prejudice. And if it doesn’t, you don’t get the sum right. Now, this is a really worrying issue in terms of people that concern themselves with evidence-based policy and whether you can persuade people with logic and rationality and data. Because the implication of that is it’s really hard to do that because we don’t see the world in any kind of neutral way, and our political biases prevent us from reading the data. So, when we’re trying to think about, so how do you persuade people to address long-term problems like climate change, well, give them the data. Yeah, but they read the data in a particular kind of way which supports their prejudice, so if the data says we are in trouble and we need to do something now, they’ll come up with arguments about fake news and the data doesn’t work and I don’t trust the data. So, it’s really hard to be able to work at what you could do with these kinds of people. Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher of science, now dead, is sometimes associated with the so-called Popper question, which is a way of framing a question to work out how you might persuade someone to change their mind. So, a Popper question, in this case, in the climate change case, would be: So, you seem to be very cynical about climate change, very skeptical of the data. So, what do I need to say or do or give you to prove to you that climate change is happening and is an effect of human action? And the answer would probably be either, well, you give me this data and I’ll
believe it, or there’s nothing because I don’t believe the data. So, then you have a problem about, so are our arguments about logic and how you persuade people to follow you rooted in this notion of give them the data, give them the logic, they’ll be persuaded by that? Or is it back to the stuff I talked about in the beginning? – it’s really about an emotional tribal thing. It’s about, no, my tribe says there isn’t; it’s not happening, so I don’t believe you.
Scarpino: Let’s shift a little bit and talk about context and tribes. Contingency theorists, such as Fred Fiedler and Robert House, have argued that good or effective leadership follows from an accurate or correct assessment of context that the leader happens to be facing, whatever it is at the time. As I understand your work, you’ve taken exception to that understanding of context. So, I want to talk to you about your understanding of leadership as situational by looking at the idea of leaders in context. In your understanding of leadership, how do you see the relationship between leaders and the context within which they function?
Grint: Okay. So, my argument is not that the context is irrelevant; my argument is that the context can be constructed in certain kinds of ways so that it supports whatever the leader is trying to do in the first place. So, let’s go back to the climate change. In theory, since something like 97% of the scientists think that climate change is happening and the humans have got a lot to do with this, in theory, the context says we must do something about it, but in practice, we know that this is not happening and lots of people are very skeptical. So, why is that the case? Because the contingency theory which should be: you can’t resist this, or the context is telling you what’s happening, my argument is the context is constructed by those very leaders who persuade their followers this is all fake news or it’s not really happening or it’s got nothing to do with humans or it’s a natural cycle and it will come even again. So, that then persuades the people that the context is not this objective monolithic truth; it’s actually just as variable as politics are. So, I think that contingency theories are based on again, this kind of logical assumption that we know what’s happening at the outside and there’s no disconnect between the world and our understanding of the world. But I think our understanding of the world is based upon all these prejudices or constructions, which means that we don’t even agree what the world is. And if you don’t even agree what the world is, how can we possibly agree on what to do about the world? So, it’s like the Brexit case at the moment is, in theory, fairly simple. I think we know what’s going to happen, so we should do something about it, but actually, there’s huge disputes about what is happening and what will happen and what the consequences of this are. And even if all the economists were to say, “Listen, we’re in for a 20-year rough ride if we come out of the EU,” the supporters of Brexit will say, “Yeah, but 20 years is worth it because once you get past the 20 years, then it’ll be glorious uplands.” And of course, there’s no way of denying this. You can’t
possibly read in the future 20 years. So, the context itself is part of the argument; it’s not beyond the argument.
Scarpino: Is it fair for somebody to conclude who reads your work that understanding or interpreting the context is A) it’s contested so that part of B) part of successful leadership is gaining control of the context or the understanding or definition of the context?
Grint: Yes, so it’s something about how do you persuade people that the context is A) or B) and can you – and sometimes, of course, sure, what people do is they use the context to generate a particular kind of response. So, it would be something like – the Brexit case is now so difficult and we’re so split that the government is making a decision, we’re doing this, we’re having another referendum or whatever. So, the referendum is not a consequence of the context, it’s just the politicians are deciding here is a context that’s so fluid, we could take political advantage of the fluidity and do what we want to do in this particular direction. So, I don’t think there’s a link between the two except in the sense that political leaders in this case will generate a construction of the context which facilitates their own particular response. We also know that some people have particular preferences for decision styles. So, some people like being in command all the time. They like the buzz of a crisis, they like shouting at people, they don’t like dissent, so for them, everything is a crisis which means that we don’t have time for debate. If I give you time for debate, the crisis will get even worse, so listen to me; we have to do this. And then when you say things like – something on the news the other day; it’s the kind of caravan that is coming from Honduras and I can’t remember the name of the South American leader who was involved in this and said, “Yes, there are lots of very bad people in the caravan.” It wasn’t Trump that said this particular thing. “There are lots of very bad people in the caravan, but I can’t tell you who they are because that would make it worse.” This is an archetypal response of a political authoritarian leader to be able to say we’re in a crisis and it’s so bad I can’t explain it.
Scarpino: A question that sort of bounces around in leadership circles has to do with dictators and demagogues, do you view people who are dictators or demagogues as leaders? Or if I make it a little more positive, is it important or necessary for a leader to have a positive, reasonably well-supported set of goals and projected outcomes?
Grint: This is the Hitler problem that’s sometime referred to in leadership research, which is about an argument…
Scarpino: Or that Latin American leader who’s demagoguing about who’s in the caravan.
Grint: Yeah. The original argument was placed by several, actually American, academics who argued that you could differentiate leadership from demagoguery or dictatorship on the basis of their political goals. So, if the goals were positive, then they were a leader. If the goals were negative, then they weren’t a leader, they were something else; they were a psychopath or they’re a dictator or whatever happens to be. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the issue of leadership. So, leadership to me is not about necessarily positive in the sense that we would understand it because a lot of Hitler’s supporters thought he was very positive. So, the question is not whether they’re positive, the question is do the supporters think that their leader is going in the right direction? And for Adolph Hitler, there were millions of people that thought he was going in the right direction. For most people, they thought it was the completely wrong direction, but for his supporters he was going in the right direction. So, for them, he was positive. So, I don’t think the notion of being positive or negative actually differentiates between leadership and something else because in Hitler’s eyes and the supporters, and Nazi supporters of Adolph Hitler, what America was doing was negative. So, it’s not about negative or positive in that sense. I think it just – what this linguistic device does, differentiating between positive and negative, is protect the word leadership in a way that it doesn’t deserve protecting. Leadership is just a mechanism for getting followers to do stuff. It’s not about political morality, not in my opinion anyway. It’s just about the mechanism of how you get people to do things, and that can be for good or evil, and what counts as good or evil depends upon who is looking at it. It’s not inherent in the issue.
Scarpino: Positive and negative are not fixed variables.
Grint: No, they’re absolutely not, no, and certainly not fixed moral variables. You know, what counts as morality now, if you were to go back 500 years, they would think what we do is crazy and visa versa. There are lots of examples of mass executions by Christians of Muslims in the 15th and 14th and 13th century, and visa versa. So, it’s not as if at some point you can say all of X are good and all of Y are bad. They’re just leaders doing different things, and at the time, they persuade their followers this is the right thing to do.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you a question about yourself and set it up a little bit and hope I got the facts right. You earned your Doctor of Philosophy in 1985 in sociology…
Scarpino: … and thereafter, you were publishing at what I would describe as an impressive rate. The first two books, The Sociology of Work: An Introduction, 1991, I believe it’s in its fourth edition…
Scarpino: … translated into numerous languages. You followed that with The Gender-Technology Relation, co-edited with Ros Gill, 1995, and your first several refereed articles dealt with topics like women and equality, computers, Japanization and performance appraisals.
Here’s the question – how did you transition from those initial interests and topics to leadership?
Scarpino: How did you get from A to B?
Grint: So, I started out – I probably need to go back a bit on this. So, before I went to university, so I got expelled from school…
Scarpino: Which school? I mean, at what level is what I meant?
Grint: I was 18, so…
Scarpino: Well, I got thrown out of Sunday School, if it makes you feel any better.
Grint: Yeah. So, we need to go back to 1968 for this to make sense.
Grint: So, 1968, because my father’s in the Army, I’m at a boarding school in England, and I only saw my parents every six months or something for a couple of weeks on holiday, wherever they happened to be in the world. So, 1968, it’s October, I don’t remember the exact date, I’m in Lancaster, I’m at school, Lancaster Grammar School, and I go for a walk downtown. When I’m downtown, a student pushes a piece of paper into my face and says, “Read this.” I didn’t read it; I just put it into my pocket and I walked back up to school. The head teacher saw me coming up to school and saw this piece of paper hanging out of my jacket, said, “Come over here Grint, what’s that piece of paper?” I said, “I don’t know, sir. Some student gave it to me.” So, I gave it to him and he said, he read it, and he said, “If I ever catch you with this material again, I’ll expel you on the spot. Do you understand?” And I haven’t even read the material, so I have no idea what he’s talking about. So, then he gave it back to me and it said something about Vietnam on it, and it turned out the students were protesting against the Vietnam War in Lancaster. Now, I didn’t even know where Vietnam was, never mind that there was a war in Vietnam. So, it had nothing to do with me. I had no idea what they were talking about, but as a consequence of this connection, I then became named as this extraordinary rebel who trying to bring the entire system down, and it’s completely untrue. I didn’t even know where these places were. But then
a whole series of events happened which kind of pushed me into a particular kind of corner so that I was unable to do what I was probably going to do in the first place. Now, I ended up being labeled as this extraordinary rebel, which actually in reflection was completely untrue. I had no rebellious – I mean, I was never particularly compliant, but I wasn’t a political rebel. I was always a bit awkward, but I wasn’t a political rebel. Then in the end, I get expelled from school for something that I still don’t understand what for. When I spoke to my father about it, you can’t remember why I got expelled, and I was never told. So, anyway, so then I end up – so the last year really of school, when we’re coming up to the really important what we were called A-levels, the 18-year old exams that get you into university, so my life is a bit of a mess at this point and I mess up my A-levels, don’t get the grade, so don’t go to university. So, then I spent 10 years of my life in blue-collar jobs and trying to work out what I’m trying to do. Then, as a consequence of this, I end up in the post office trade union movement. I become a union leader quite early on in my life and then I get bored doing that. Then the Open University starts in the U.K. and I thought ah, that’s interesting, maybe I’ll get back to university after all, so I’ll do it this way. Start doing an Open University degree, find it so interesting and find my job so boring that I leave work and go to York University to do politics. Then, basically, I never came out of university after that. So, I spent 10 years in blue-collar jobs and then I became an academic. So, I’m interested in politics mainly because of the things that have happened to me which have driven me into a particular kind of corner and then I get involved in the trade union movement. I never actually joined any political party. I was never political in that sense. Then I go to university, do politics and then I go to Oxford University and do my doctorate and that’s in basically labor history. So, my doctorate is about the post office trade union between the wars. Although when I went to Oxford, my intention, my doctoral intention was to follow the – they had an industrial democracy experiment running at the time that I’d gone to Oxford. So, they had about two employees on the board of the post office main business board, and that’s a really interesting way to think about how you would run businesses, so I’m going to follow these boards. As soon as I get to Oxford, the whole system is removed because Mrs. Thatcher comes into power and removes all that stuff. I end up at university, but without a project. So, then I decided I’ll just look at the history of the union. So, then I did my – so my doctorate is in labor history and I major really in sociology as much as politics and a lot of historical stuff. So, I end up teaching the sociology of work, which is the area I know best because I’ve been 10 years working at work, and all my degrees funnel me into this area. But the only reason I really ended up at the first publication, The Sociology of Work, is my doctoral supervisor, Eric Batstone, who was at Oxford, he died shortly after I’d finished my doctorate. And when I’m clearing his office with his now widow, I came across all of Eric’s lecture notes, pages and pages of lecture notes. So, I
agree with his wife that maybe what we should do is I should combine what I’m now teaching at Brunel University, which is industrial sociology, the sociology of work, with Eric’s lecture notes. We could combine them and then I could write a book which would be a tribute to Eric and all of his work. She says that’s a good idea, at the time, except when I start to do it, I realize that Eric’s notes are not really translatable into text and I don’t agree with quite a lot of the things he’s talking about. So, I end up with this project now that I have to complete because I’ve got a contract. So, I complete the project on the sociology work, but it was never really my intention to write the book, but then I write it. And because The Sociology
of Work is just about everything, any topic under the sun…
Scarpino: But it’s had a long life, that book.
Grint: Yeah, it has, yeah because it covers a very vast field, both historically and theoretically, and because I like to use lots of examples and I think it appeals to students; it’s not a heavily theoretical book. I mean, there’s a lot of theory in it, but I’ve always tried to illustrate it. So, my first movement into publications is this really wide The Sociology of Work book, which means all the bits that you’ve talked about in terms of the women and equality and Japanization and all of that stuff, it comes out of this kind of vast field and I’m just like a magpie; I’m just picking bits out that I think are quite interesting rather than having a particular focus. Well, this goes on and I teach at Brunel University for six years and then there’s a post that comes up at Oxford University. So, I come back to Oxford and teach there and, in theory, it’s the same kind of area. It’s industrial sociology/organizational behavior. I have one or two lectures in there about leadership, but it’s not my specialty and at the time, leadership was really not an area in the U.K. There’s quite a few American academics writing about leadership, but not many British ones. So, it’s an unknown field. Then I remember somebody coming up to me and saying, “Oh, Keith, we’ve got an executive group coming up on this day, would you be interested in teaching them? Because this is outside your curricular activity, so we would pay you for it differently.” I said, “How much would you pay me?” He said, “Well, we’ll pay you 500 pounds for the day.” Now, at this point, I’ve just spent eight years without any money getting myself educated and I’ve got three children and the mortgage and a big debt. I’m think 500 pounds sounds good. So, I said, “Well, I’m not sure the way that I teach leadership would be of any interest to the executive group because I take a really critical approach to it.” He said, “Well, we haven’t got anybody else, so if you want to try it, try it.” So, I did it and it seemed to down quite well and they paid me for it. Then the more I looked at this, the more I thought there doesn’t seem to be any British scholars in this area at this point – it was 30 years ago – writing in this area, so maybe, maybe this is going to be my area because the sociology of work, there’s lots of people working in that, but there’s nobody really on the other side of the pond writing in leadership. Then the more I thought
about it, the more I thought the leadership angle enables me to do what I really don’t like doing, which is anything anywhere at any point in time. You can just pick – you can through ancient Greece to contemporary business and do whatever you like and it’s all legitimated by the word leadership example. So I thought this is my field. It came about quite coincidentally really, and then as soon as I got into it, I thought yeah, this is really good; I can do this and yeah. So, there you are.
Scarpino: Do you still think of yourself as primarily a sociologist?
Grint: Yeah, I’m kind of wary of the disciplinary backgrounds because I think a lot of my stuff at the moment is as historical as anything else. So, I think I’m a social scientist rather than a sociologist. A lot of my stuff is political. I have a degree in politics. And a lot of my stuff is historical, but I don’t count myself as a historian. I’m not a professional historian. I’m just interested in historical stuff. So, I’d probably say that I’m just a social scientist with a historical bent.
Scarpino: Given that people who make use of this interview are probably not going to be from the U.K., you mentioned Open University?
Scarpino: Does that mean open admission?
Grint: Yeah, so Open University starts, must be about 1976, I think, from the Labour Government and it’s an attempt to capture a large proportion of the population who have not gone to university. Because when I should have gone to university, just before I got expelled, no more than about 5% of the population go to university, between 5 and 10%. So, it’s much more of an elite place than it is now. The Open University was an attempt to get beyond that elitism and start educating a vast number of people here in jobs like teachers, for example, who had teaching qualification but not a degree. So, this was a way of tapping into a very large market and it just appealed to me because it was all distance learning. I had to go kind of once a week for an hour seminar or something and then in the summer for a couple of days on the module, but I could do it at work, which made it much more easy for me and there were no entry qualifications. And it was just liberated because I think, for me, and it’s still the case now, I think my Open – I did two undergraduate degrees; I did sociology with the Open University and politics with York University. My conventional politics degree was much easier than my Open University degree because they made me work, whereas when you go to a conventional university in the U.K. at the time, if you wanted to work you could, if you didn’t, you didn’t need to. You could get away with quite a lot, whereas with the Open University you just had tons of material to read all the time. So, it was quite an interesting discipline and it was much tougher than my politics
degree, but that gave me a sort of very broad social science background to be able to then go and do my doctorate and all the work that I’ve done since.
Scarpino: So, now, Open University literally opened the door for you.
Grint: Yes. I think Open University saved me. So, here’s a kind of personal anecdote. I was working in York – so I’m in the post office, I’m on the counter, I’m selling stamps and giving pensions out, all that kind of stuff, and I remember it was a, I think it was a Thursday when we used to pay the pensions. The pensioners would come in with their little pension books and we’d give them the money back. We opened at nine o’clock and, at this point in my life, my domestic life is fine, but my professional life is, I’m just wasting my time here. There’s got to be more. I remember when we opened the door at nine o’clock in the morning – this York post office is quite big; we had about 15 counters – and all the pensioners come in and I can remember shouting, “If this is all there is to life, I am now going to kill myself with my date stamp and at least everybody will know the date at which I died.” So, I then laid my head on the counter and held my date stamp over my head. An old lady came along and she pushed her pension book through the gap in the glass door and said, “Before you kill yourself, young man, could you just pay my pension?” So, anyway, I paid her pension, I survived the morning, but then that lunchtime, I thought I’ve got to do something about this. I went out for a walk into York and in York there’s a very nice book shop about halfway up the place called the Shambles, which is a really old, medieval street. I went in and there was book in there, there was a novel in there, Mrs. Dalloway, and on the back of the novel it had a little sign which I’d never seen before. I picked the book up and I bought it and then I got back to the post office and I looked at the sign and it said “set book for the Open University,” which had just started. I thought ah, that’s interesting; I wonder what that is, and that’s basically what happened. So, that’s really why I ended up in the Open University, but it absolutely saved me, absolutely did.
Scarpino: Almost the flip-side of that student who gave you the paper that you stuffed in your pocket without reading it.
Grint: Yeah, yes, yeah.
Scarpino: So, Followership – in 2006, you published “Followership: The Anvil of Leadership,” edited by Keith Grint and John Jupp, Beyond Command: Perspectives on Air Force Leadership – I’m just going to say that you supervised John Jupp …
Grint: Yes, that’s right.
Scarpino: … in his dissertation, “The RAF Transformational Process,” edited in 2014. Why did you elect, or you and your coauthor, elect to frame a piece on the Air Force or on Air Force leadership in terms of followership?
Grint: So, I’ve always been interested in the assumption that, by definition, leaders require followers; and when I looked at the literature around this time, there was almost nothing on followership. There was everything on leadership, nothing on followership. I’ve still yet to find a course called followership, an executive course. It’s all called leadership. So, there’s something about in theoretical terms, as long as we get the right leader, we don’t need to worry about the followers, which I thought was really a bizarre way of understanding how organizations operate and the relationship between leaders and followers. So, I became intrigued by followers and I started doing work mainly with the military actually. And the U.K. have a Defense Academy, which is like a military university…
Scarpino: At Granville.
Grint: … at Granville, which I eventually ended up in. But before I got there, I’d done some work with military senior officers and I was asked to come and talk about followership. So, I would relay all these examples and details and theoretical assumptions about how we misunderstood the importance of followership to leaders. And for them, I think it was an eyeopener because they’d never really thought about it in that way, and then it became an important new area for me. I’ve written several pieces around the followership notion and trying to categorize it in the sense of whether followers are the people that destroy leaders or whether leaders are so important, it doesn’t matter what the followers do. So, the anvil bit is about if you don’t get the relationship with the followers correct, it doesn’t work, then you can’t really lead anybody. So, it’s a kind of reversal, an assumption that the most important thing actually isn’t the leader, and in some ways, the most important thing isn’t the follower. It’s relationship between the leader and follower which is the most important thing.
Scarpino: Even in the military.
Grint: Even in the military. I mean, as I said before, my father was in the Army, so I’ve grown up as an Army kid. I’ve lived around armies forever and a lot of my civilian colleagues, when I talk about the military, they say, “ah, it must be really weird to grow up in the military where the people just give orders and they comply.” And I said, “I don’t think you know anything about the military. That very rarely happens that they give an order which you must comply with.” When you ask most military officers, when was the last time you gave an order and meant it as an order, it happens kind of once or twice a lifetime really because the whole system of the hierarchy and processes means you don’t have to do that by and large. So, there is something about – so that implies it’s not about the
compliance system; it’s about the relationship system and that explains also why you get some more and some less successful military groups. It’s about the relationships that you construct with followers. So, yeah, so that’s really where that came out. And John Jupp’s PhD, that was an interesting issue, too. John was looking at what was called the RAF 2020 project at the time, which was an attempt by the chief of the air staff to look at what the RAF would need in 2020, what it would look like and, therefore, how to work at those kinds of issues. At the time, the RAF have never worked as – or the top of the RAF have never worked as an egalitarian group. It had always worked in silos, professional silos, or worked in status groups. The chief of the air staff wanted them to work as a single egalitarian group for the purpose of this particular project, to work at what the RAF would look like in 2020. So, he decided for the kind of 18 months that he’s in position to have a monthly meeting with the top three ranks, which would mean a dinner and then a conversation, then a breakfast, and there’d be no uniform and it would be first names only. So, they’re working as an egalitarian group for the first time ever. John’s role was to facilitate all these meetings and his PhD is based upon what happens at the meetings. The intriguing thing about this is that John says that the egalitarian group did actually work, but it only worked if the chief of the air staff was in the room. As soon as he left the room, they went back to their silo groups and they went back to their status groups. So, this is the kind of ironic and what I call clumsy issue. Counterintuitively, the egalitarian group only worked within the hierarchy and you wouldn’t design it like that. I think the lot of our really clever organizational moves are counterintuitive like that. They don’t make sense on paper, but they actually work. So, you would never say, okay, I’m going to get an egalitarian group and we’re going to have the boss in the room to make sure it works. That would never be a plan, but actually that was required in that particular context.
Scarpino: It wouldn’t work without the boss.
Grint: Yeah. Well, it only works if the boss is in the room. So, this is the point, you can’t get – so bizarrely, the egalitarian nature of the group is dependent upon the hierarchy that supports it. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but that’s why it worked. There is something in there that I think about in terms of levels of innovation. Sometimes we’re so logical and linear that we don’t allow these counterintuitive freaks of nature to operate. That would never work; well, let’s just try it and see whether it works or not.
Scarpino: But one could interpret from what you’ve said that being an effective leader or effective organizer sometimes requires a person to be sensitive to these counterintuitive…
Scarpino: … situations.
Grint: Yes. I think there’s something about being flexible in your head, a kind of admittance that you don’t know the answers and if we’re looking at a problem that we haven’t been able to solve, maybe the process we’re using is part of the problem as opposed to part of solution. So, it’s about trying to recognize that there may be other answers in the room, but if you don’t allow the other answers to emerge, then we’re never going to find out, and it’s about being much more experimental. It’s about saying, well, what we’re doing, isn’t working; let’s try this. If that doesn’t work, let’s stop doing that too and do something else. So, it’s a pragmatic experimental approach which differs from the assumptions rooted in the conventional business consultants, which are basically this is the process for this kind of problem and we know it worked, but actually, there are some problems that this doesn’t work for. So, we’ve got to get beyond that process, beyond that convention.
Scarpino: Do you think that being a good leader, an effective leader, requires the ability to know in what you’re doing isn’t working and have the courage to change?
Grint: Yeah. The courage to accept that you’re going in the wrong direction is a really problematic aspect of this because we know from a lot of work on rationalization that people will constantly lie to themselves about the direction they’re going and the success level. So, if you’re not successful, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, and keep going at a faster rate, and then when that doesn’t work, it’s because you’re not going fast enough. So, what we do is we rationalize our failure and assume that actually it’s going to be successful eventually rather than saying this isn’t working, I think we’ve made a mistake. And a lot of that runs into a problem we have with accepting failure and mistake making that I think we penalize it so much and we get involved in the blame culture which is so strong, and we know that. So, the rewards for being successful with a risky operation are way smaller than the penalties for screwing up something. So, the way to success is not to screw up. So, we undermine our own ability to innovate, and innovation requires mistakes and that requires us to accept – a lot of what we’re going to do isn’t going to work. That’s okay; that’s the way the world works, so let’s just get on and see whether it works or not, but be really mindful about whether in fact what we’re now doing is rationalizing what we’ve just done. The power of rationality, rationalizing, not rationality, the power of rationalizing is so strong, and you see that all the time in everyday occurrences. So, you know, you’re driving along, there’s a car crash, you pull the driver out, the legs are all mangled and you say things like, “Oh, my God, are you alright?” And they say stuff like, “I’m so lucky, I could’ve been killed.” No, that isn’t lucky, friend. Lucky is not having the crash in the first place. But we rationalize where we end up all the time, and that means that we do
that when we’re going in the wrong direction and when we’re not able to distance ourselves sufficiently and say, no, this really isn’t working. Let’s just stop doing it, we made a mistake, that’s okay, we’re going to have lots of mistakes, but we’ll probably get somewhere if you go in that direction.
Scarpino: I’m going to continue on leadership and I’m going to continue the conversation by referring to another piece that you published in 2011, “Followership in the NHS,” which you talked about before you first began, with Clare Holt in a volume called Commission on Leadership and Management in the NHS. So, I’m going to say that you were Clare Holt’s dissertation supervisor…
Grint: I was.
Scarpino: … she defended in 2016 and wrote a dissertation titled “Engaging Individuals to be Effective Collectives: A Ganzian Analysis of Leader/Follower Relationships in Times of Challenge,” so people will know that. So, in this piece, “Followership in the National Health Service,” it was commissioned by the King’s Fund to inform something called the Leadership Commission. Just for some clarification for users of this, what is the King’s Fund?
Grint: The King’s Fund is an organization that works almost wholly on the National Health Service. So, they’re an endowed organization. They do lots of research, they do some teaching for the Health Service, and they’re probably the main independent research body looking at the Health Service and how to improve it. I mean, there are lots of people looking at the Health Service, but the King’s Fund is probably the biggest single institution that does it. So, they commissioned us to look at followership when they were trying to look at leadership, and we talked about maybe you need something on followership to understand all this. So, the paper that we wrote is a version of the “Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions” paper that I’d previously written. So, it uses the same frame of looking at wicked problems, tame problems and critical problems, management, command and leadership, uses the frame, but then reverses it by saying this is not about leaders, management and command, it’s about the followers for these particular kinds of situations. So, I mean, the first thing to recognize is that this sounds like a conventional contingency theory again, but actually there’s an argument inside here about the way that we see the world means that it’s not a conventional contingency theory. But that aside…
Scarpino: Well, and we’re going to actually probe into that …
Grint: Right, okay. So, on this particular paper, what we’ve basically done is saying, so we have a kind of utopian and the dystopian version of this. So, the utopia is when you have a crisis and you’re in command mode,
what kind of followers do you want? You want absolutely compliant people. If a fire breaks out in this hotel, we are not having a discussion about what cancels the fire, I am telling you get the hell out of that door. When we have a tame problem, which is the management role, what kind of followers do you really want? You want followers who are technically adept, so all you have to say to me is, “Keith, this is that kind of a problem, you know how to fix it, go fix it.” And I’ll do exactly that; I’ll take responsibility and I’ll fix it. When we have a wicked problem, the role of leadership, as defined here, which means that you as the boss don’t know the answer and I as the follower probably don’t know the answer, but I’ve got a couple of good ideas. So, then your question would be, “What are we going to do about this, Keith?” I’ll say, “Well, let’s have a talk about this. I think I’ve got a couple of ideas that may not solve it and might start getting worse.” It’s that kind of approach. So, that’s the utopian version. Then the dystopian version is so, when you have a fire, what kind of followers don’t you want? You don’t want followers that are saying no, I’m not getting out; I want to have a discussion about this because this seems to be the third fire we’ve had in three weeks and I no longer believe it because we keep going out and there’s no fire; let’s have a think about –because if there is a real fire, we’re all going to die. In terms of the tame problem and the management issue, what kind of followers don’t you want? You don’t want followers who are technically incompetent. So, you tell me, “Keith, your job is to get that IT system working,” and I’m thinking yeah, I have no idea about that. I’m now – I’m the opposite of what you need. And then when you have a wicked problem and the leadership role, and your question is, “Keith, this is a wicked problem; I need your help.” I’m going to say, “Uh-uh, I don’t think so, you’re the boss, you take responsibility, I’m not interested.” So, that’s basically what the follower thing is and then we try to set that in the context of the Health Service.
Scarpino: Let’s see if we can take this apart or put it back together or something, and again, because I’m going to assume that if somebody uses this interview, they may not have read everything you’ve written. In the Executive Summary of the piece on “Followership in the National Health Service,” I’m going to read a couple of lines that you know well, but I’m putting them into the record. So, the two of you said:
“The next section provides a typology of followers based on the original typology of problems originally undertaken by Rittel and Webber. This suggests that the kind of followership is dependent upon the attribution of particular requirements to a specific situation,” which you’ve just been talking about. “In effect, a wicked problem (the land of leadership) requires responsible followers; a tame problem (the land of management) requires technical followership; and a critical problem (the land of the commander) requires compliant followership. However, since this all occurs within contested space, the kind of followership that occurs is also
dependent upon a persuasive rendition of the situation by those in authority.”
So, we’ve been talking about those ideas. I also note that Rittel and Webber refers to Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, two scholars who formally described the concept of wicked problems in a 1973 article titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” appeared in Policy Sciences.
How did you first encounter the work of Rittel and Webber?
Grint: I think it was as a consequence when I was at – I think I was at Lancaster University and I worked with a health program. One of the consultants, not medical consultants, although he was a medic, one of the guys who was working as a facilitator mentioned this. I thought that was a really interesting way of describing situations where you don’t know what the answer is. For me, that was quite an eye opener. So, what the original work did is just differentiate between tame and wicked problems. There was no connection to a decision style, management and leadership, and there was no third category, there was no critical problems or command, as I did. So, what I did is take the original two, expand it into three and then associate those with decision styles, and then also flip it in terms of thinking about these are not objective categories, these are subjective constructed categories. That’s where the origins of my work came out of that piece of work.
Scarpino: So, you said a wicked problem (the land of leadership) requires responsible followers. And I note just, again, for the benefit of anybody using this thing that in addition to this particular piece that we’re talking about, wicked problems is something that you’ve lectured on dozens of times, written about multiple times. So, we talked about what a wicked problem is and a little bit about this next question, but why do wicked problems belong in the land of leadership?
Scarpino: I mean, because one could reason in the opposite direction and say if we’re faced with a problem that doesn’t have an apparent solution, what we really need is somebody tough to get in there and say just do this.
Grint: Yeah, yeah. So, when I teach it, what I try to do is get people to come up in the beginning with their own wicked problem and then get – and I’ve done the typology, is get them to think about, so are you sure it’s a wicked problem? And one of things that comes out of a conversation is the recognition of problems don’t come marked out, in a little box marked tame, wicked or critical. They come as a bit of a mess. So, it may well be that the problem has got all kinds of aspects locked into it. It may well be that there’s never going to be a consensus about what the kind of problem
is, which also implies that what we do about it is difficult and so it’s not always obvious. So, if you come along and say, “I’ve got a wicked problem,” and I’m going to say, “Actually, I know how to fix that,” so for me, it isn’t a wicked problem. It is for you, but it isn’t for me. Once I tell you the process, then it’s no longer a wicked problem for you. So, these are subjective categories and what it is depends on where you sit and what you know. It’s much more complex than the original typology. The original typology for me is just a heuristic, it’s a sense-making activity, but we need to be careful of confusing the heuristic for reality, which means that when you’re facing a problem in the sense that you said, “This is a wicked problem, we don’t know what to do about it, we need a commander to come and do something,” quite often you do need to be able to say – let’s take the global warming, climate change. We now have a period, which isn’t very long, if all the science is right, where we can have big discussions about what we’re going to do about it because we’re not quite sure, but at some point, if we don’t do something about it, someone is going to take command and say, “Well, I gave you five years to do this and nothing’s happened, so this is what’s going to happen. You’re not driving your car anymore.” So, they become commander as a consequence of our inability to come up with a plan for addressing the wicked problem. Sometimes it’s a requirement to get people – this is a kind of burning platform argument – is what do we need to do to get people to even think about the wicked problem? It might be that a commander is required to do something which coerces people into focusing upon a particular kind of issue. Ronnie Heifetz talked about this in terms of cooking problems. Sometimes you have to cook people into taking responsibility. And that’s a difficult thing to do because, by and large, most of us want to help people as opposed to cook people, but we know that if you address peoples’ problems yourself, they’ll just keep bringing you more problems. So, they have to learn to be able to cope with them. So, it may well be that a lot of these things require some level of command, some level of leadership, and maybe a bit of tame comes out of the end, some bit of management. So, it’s rather more complex than the original typology appears to be.
Scarpino: Makes sense. By referring to the original typology, as a way to launch conversation, you argue that wicked problems require responsible followers.
Scarpino: Do you think, based on experience in the real world, that political leaders actually want responsible followers?
Grint: Good question. I think…
Scarpino: And I realize I stereotyped there, but…
Grint: Yeah, yeah, right. I’m just thinking about that. It’s a difficult question to answer in abstract because I think it probably depends upon the kind of problem we’re looking at. So, in terms of climate change, you do need to have responsible followers. We do individually need to do something, but one of the biggest problems with responsibility is that we know, and there’s a lot of data on this, that groups don’t take responsibility. Individuals might, groups don’t; and yet the problems we’re looking at are group problems. So, I think this is one of the biggest issues with a wicked problem is how to get group to take responsibility when we know that the groups don’t take responsibility very easily. So, there’s something about engaging individuals and saying, in the climate change thing, we all individually have to do something; and just because you’re not going to do something doesn’t mean that we don’t have to either. It means it’s more important for us to do something. So you have to be able to get people to think about: So, why would I do something about a problem that seems beyond me? What is the mechanism that persuades me to think actually, you know what, even though it’s not going to affect my life very much, it will affect my grandchildren’s lives; I have a responsibility to do something about that. There is some research that people will engage with these kinds of problems if two things hold. One is it looks like they can make a contribution; and secondly, they can see the effects of the contribution right in front of them. So, you have to get beyond this kind of pragmatic cynicism. You have to be able to say, “I know you don’t think you can do much about climate change, but if you do this one particular thing, you will see what its effects might be right in front of you.” So, you need to be able to persuade people – A) you have some responsibility for this, B) you can do something about this, even at your small level, your low level, and C) you’ll be able to see the effects of this right in front of you. And that is a really difficult triple to construct, how you get people to take responsibility, find something they can do and see the effects because most of us will do things, okay, so I’ll get rid of my diesel car and get an electric car, and it might make me feel a bit better, might make me a bit more sanctimonious, but will it make any difference to the climate change debate? Well, it might, but I’m not going to be able to see that in front of me. So, the difficulty is, you can get people to change their minds, but what is the evidence that they can cling onto to say, yeah, look what I did! You can see that in things like, you know, plastic. So, how to get people to avoid plastic? Well, you can see the effects of that in your own neighborhood, but all of a sudden you don’t have all this litter around everywhere, so you can say, “Actually, I did notice the litter is down a bit because we got rid of plastic.” So, that would be an example of how you can get people to take responsibility and see the effects right front of them, but a lot of the issues are beyond that visualization. I can’t see the effects of climate change in front of me if I get an electric car.
Scarpino: So, a willingness to accept responsibility has to be based on some information input.
Scarpino: If we go back to where we were toward the beginning and the example of climate change, where people who are on the other side simply say they don’t believe the science, then how does this understanding of wicked problems and responsible followers…
Grint: Yeah. So, this is the point…
Scarpino: … play into this?
Grint: Yeah. This is an important question in terms of, okay, so I’ve given you all the data and 97% of the world’s scientists agree on this and you’re still resistant. So, I’ve got 66% of the population are doing these things and you, for some reason, are not willing to do this. This is where the command bit comes in. You are going to do this. I am going to prevent you from driving that particular kind of car. So, the wicked problem stuff is not just about collective responsibility, it’s also accepting that sometimes problems don’t just appear wicked, they also don’t just require leadership, they might require some command aspect to this if people are unwilling to take responsibility. So, you’ve had 10 years, you’ve done nothing, this is it. You’re not driving your car anymore.
Scarpino: You talk about tame problems belonging in the land of management, so relatively quickly, what is a tame problem?
Grint: A tame problem is something that we know how to fix, and probably 80% of our professional lives are addressing tame problems. If you don’t get the tame problem right, the lights don’t stay on, the air conditioning fails, a really important part of everyday life. I think in some senses we quite often ignore that because we’re so focused on the leadership role, we don’t worry -- I mean, I don’t remember the last time I saw a management course. Everything is leadership as though leadership is the only solution to our problems, but actually, if you don’t get the management right, then nothing works. So, you have to be able to get all of those things working at the same time. I think kind of MBA curricula are full of tame solutions to tame problems. We teach people processes to get this, this and this done, and it works; by and large, it works all the time. So, the trick is to be able to recognize that there probably isn’t a process for everything. Business consultants sell their services on the basis of having an existing procedure to fix your problem. So, their problem is, so how do you sell your services to a client saying “I’m not sure how to solve your problem.” That runs contrary to a lot of those kind of philosophies of can-do attitude and I think that in itself is also a dilemma. It’s about how you persuade business consultants to be able to tell clients that there are some things that are probably beyond us individually, but collectively we might make
some progress here, and we could sell your process that would help you understand this as opposed to we will sell you a process that will fix it.
Scarpino: But that’s really what most business consultants do is I’ll sell you a process to fix it.
Scarpino: Alright. So, critical problem belongs in the land of the commander. What’s the difference between a critical problem and a wicked problem?
Grint: So, a critical problem has a solution that we know of…
Scarpino: The building’s on fire.
Grint: … the building’s on fire. So, a critical problem requires a commander – I’m not interested in your concerns about this; you’re getting out the room or I’m going to throw you out the window; one of those two is going to happen. The wicked problem is this is the fourth time we’ve had a fire in this building in three weeks, how come? And no one seems to know that, and when we find out, we might not have an easy solution. It might be something quite radical that we’ve never even thought about. So, sometimes the fire appears to be both wicked and critical at the same time, but the critical is we haven’t got time to discuss this; we’ll put the fire out and then we’ll talk about why we keep having fires. We’re not talking about why we keep having fires as we’re putting the fire out. So, the time thing is quite often one of differentiators of this and the notion that this isn’t a land of debate or democracy. This is the land of, hopefully, the commander having the answer.
Scarpino: So, would one be correct in concluding that as we go from tame to critical to wicked, what we’re doing is seeing an increasing level of uncertainty.
Grint: Yeah, yes, yes.
Scarpino: You note that this complex typology of followers plays out in contested space and say the kind of followership is also dependent upon persuasive rendition of the situation by those in authority. So, just for a little bit of clarity, and particularly for somebody who just comes into this, why does this typology play out in contested space?
Grint: You mean why is it contested?
Scarpino: I’m sorry; why is it…?
Grint: Yeah. So, I think it’s contested because we have different understandings of the way the world works and the way that the answers should operate on the world. So, whether we have a crisis, or whether the, excuse me, whether the caravan from Honduras is a crisis now or a wicked problem depends upon our assumptions about what the group is doing, what we would do in their position and what the answer to the problem is; and all of these are contested. So, Mr. Trump has a different assumption as do a lot of other people. So, it’s not as if there’s a consensus about A) what the problem is or B) what to do about it, which means everything is contested and there is probably never going to be a consensus of that. So, there’s never going to be some academic comes along and says, “I’ve done all the research, here’s all the data, so we can all agree upon what’s going on.” That’s never going to happen. So, there will always be some contestation here and it’s not just about what the situation is externally in the so-called real world, it’s also what our preferences are. Some people like to operate as commanders. So, by definition, everything we see is a fire and we know that, for example, in most organizations, you don’t get rewards for being such a good manager, nothing ever goes wrong; you get a reward for putting the fire out. When something goes wrong, you become the hero, you put the fire out, you get the promotion. So, in some ways, there’s an argument in there that maybe what we’re doing at work is encouraging arson because that’s where the rewards come from. So, it’s trying to understand this notion of you don’t get any rewards for nothing ever going wrong and you don’t get many rewards for saying “I’m not sure about this, I’m not sure what the problem is or the answer.” What you get rewards for is getting it put out, sorting out the problem, especially if it’s a crisis. That’s where the kind of heroic stuff is from.
Scarpino: Is there then a disincentive for recognizing problems as wicked problems?
Grint: Yeah, by and large, I think there is both temporal and spatial. So, the temporal thing is it’s often beyond either political cycles or our own lifetimes or our own particular position. So, if you’re in a position in the conventional organization, you’re not going to be there forever; you’re going to be there for a couple years max, and the problem you’re looking at is a five-year problem at least, it’s not in your interest to try to address it, not in your personal interest to try to address it. It’s in your interest to get to a position where someone is just about to have fixed something and then you go in and take the possession and say, “Look what I did, I’ve only been here three weeks and I’ve solved the problem,” because what you’re doing is inheriting the solution that somebody else generated. So, the real trick in personal promotion is to work out where you need to jump and when you need to jump. It’s a bit like, you know, the current arguments about whether the U.S. economy is doing better under Trump than anybody else. If you look historically, on a linear pattern, the difference between Obama’s economy and Trump’s economy is virtually nothing in terms of the progression. So, in some ways, it doesn’t matter who’s in
charge. What matters is that there are some kind of structural economic factors which are so difficult to alter that what they’re doing is what Tolstoy talks about in terms of riding waves. He has this thing about the bow-wave, where the bow-wave is at the front of the ship, but the bow-wave is not pulling the ship, it’s being generated by the ship. There’s an argument that leaders are a bit like that. They’re just the symbolic heads. They’re not doing very much, but of course, they claim a lot because it looks like they made all these decisions, but it may well be that their decision-making is really constrained to a very small proportion of what can actually happen.
Scarpino: From that point of view then, what is the function of the leader?
Grint: Well, there are several different arguments about that. One answer is it’s purely symbolic. It’s just we seem to have this desperate need to attribute decisions and functions and responses to an individual or a small group of individuals, irrespective of whether they do anything. The other argument is no, actually they do play a significant role, not all the time, but sometimes they play a significant role. You have to be able to recognize A) when that role is significant and B) how you control what they’re doing and is there a mechanism for trying to work out how you could constrain – this is the followership stuff – whether the role of the followers is to constrain or facilitate the role of the leader rather than just allow them to do whatever they want and then pick up the pieces and complain to each other about,well, that didn’t work either, and yet never take responsibility there, and if it didn’t work, why didn’t you try putting your hand to the tiller and doing something?
Scarpino: You’ve written, in several places, that as problems move from critical to tame to wicked, the arenas for addressing those problems from command to management to leadership, there’s an increasing requirement for collaborative compliance-type resolution.
Scarpino: Have I correctly interpreted that?
Grint: So, the collaborative bit, yes, I mean collaborative leadership role, yeah.
Scarpino: I would just say for the sake of discussion then, in the world in which we live, it’s not unusual to hear public figures arguing that the more uncertain the solution, the greater need for command.
Grint: Yes. So, I think this is what I call the irony of leadership is that when you need it most, you get it least because we, I don’t know why, but we are desperate seekers of avoidance of anxiety, uncertainty. We don’t like any of those things. I don’t like uncertainty; I like to know what’s going to happen. So, if things are more and more uncertain, this is the point
where, in theory, according to the typology, what you should be doing is engaging the collective, but that means I have to take responsibility too and frankly, I’d rather you did it because then if you screw it up, it’s not my fault, it’s your fault. So, Durkheim, French sociologist at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, he had an argument leadership. He talks about leadership in terms of being a sacred relationship between followers and leaders. He says that we followers attribute extraordinary power to our leaders on the assumption that they are god-like in their ability to address all our problems. And then when they fail, and they will fail because they are not gods, we scapegoat them. Both of those things allow the followers to be completely irresponsible or non-responsible for anything. Durkheim argues we do this all the time. We attribute things to individuals and that enables us not to be responsible. I have a famous case years ago in the U.K. So, I’m teaching an MBA class in Oxford…
Scarpino: That uses a case study method?
Grint: … well, I, I tend not to use case studies, but…
Scarpino: Okay, alright.
Grint: … a lot of MBAs do, but I don’t, mainly because the case study has an answer, by and large, and I’m not interested in conventional answers because that’s a tame problem; that’s fine; I’m interested in the wicked bit. So, anyway, so I’m giving this leadership class to an MBA group in Oxford, and it’s the day after England have beaten Argentina in the soccer World Cup. Now, this is a historic day because we’re not very good at soccer; haven’t been for a long time, but we beat Argentina. So, the next day I come into the class and I said to the class, “So, what do you think about Sven-Göran Eriksson?” – at that time he was the manager of the English team; Swedish – and “what do you think about him because we beat Argentina yesterday?” And the only English student in the entire group said, “Sven is a god; when he takes us to win the Cup, not if, but when, we will make him an honorary Englishman; that’s how close he is to God.” I thought that was really interesting given that nobody else in room believed any of that stuff. I was interested because what we’re doing, so our next game is against Brazil, who are the best team – usually speaking, Brazil and Germany are the best teams – so Brazil, at this time, was the best team. We’re playing Brazil next; what happens if we lose against Brazil? And the same English student said, “We will crucify him.” And that’s exactly what Durkheim would predict. We’d put them up on a pedestal, we treat them as gods, and then they fail us, and we crucify them, and that allows us not to be responsible for what’s happening. And this is reproduced in historical terms in all kinds of ways. If you’re ever awarded a triumph in Roman history, so a triumph in Roman history, historically you could not take your army through Rome. It was a forbidden zone for generals, but you could take it though Rome if you’re awarded a triumph
by the senate, which was a significant honor and only given out if you’ve beaten a significant enemy. So, if you’ve beaten a slave army, that didn’t count. If you beat an opponent army, you can be given a triumph, so for that day, you could take your entire army through Rome and at the front of this parade, you, the general, would then be taken on a gold leafed chariot drawn by four white horses and you would be painted red, which is the color of gods in those days. So, for one day only, you would be God and you would be dragged through Rome at the front of this glorious army and right behind you on the chariot would be a slave, the lowest of the low beneath the God, and the slave would whisper into the general’s ear, the whole way, “Remember, you’re just a man; remember, you’re just a man,” because the Romans were absolutely adamant that if you allowed people to think they were gods, they became gods. So, Durkheim’s argument about our sacred relationship to leaders, I think, is reproduced historically and still the same today, that if you believe the person who is your leader has got this god-like ability, then nothing they do can be wrong. You can see that a lot in Trump supporters, for example. There’s nothing that he would do that would enable them to say, “no, actually, on reflection, that was probably not a good idea.”
Scarpino: We’ve been talking about followership and National Health Service basically as a way to talk about your typology. You wrote about the National Health Service, but you’re really arguing recognizing that it’s a typology that this applies to the larger world…
Scarpino: … okay. So, one more question about that typology that you adapted from the work of Rittel and Webber significantly change. It seems to me that the categories themselves – critical, tame, wicked – are all social constructions…
Scarpino: … and if that’s correct, it’s also possible that a good leader or maybe an unscrupulous or opportunistic leader could suggest or deliberately manipulate public perception as to the nature of the problems faced.
Scarpino: Is that a risk in the world of leaders and followers?
Grint: Yeah, no, I think this in some ways is a reflection of the Hitler problem we talked about before in the sense that all these things are devices or technologies that are available for good or bad use, depending on how you define good or bad. So, yeah, I think there are arguments that leaders have used, notions of crisis in particular, to persuade people to do things that they perhaps shouldn’t be doing. In terms of leaders using it as
a wicked problem, I think they’ve used that in a slightly different way in the sense that they say things like, okay, so we have, we have a big problem on knife crime, for example, or something like that, but what we don’t want to do is make a decision about this because that might lose me some support; so what we’ll do is we’ll organize a royal investigation or some kind of investigation that will take three years to come to a conclusion, by which time I’ll have finished my office anyway. So, what you’re doing is you’re procrastinating and you’re pushing the decision into the future so it doesn’t affect you. So, in some ways, they would use the wicked problem, but for the opposite reason that I’m talking about; is that it’s not about the collective, it’s about distancing the problem.
Scarpino: You’ve written, in a number of cases, on the military. We talked about Beyond Command, a more recent piece, “Mindful Organization the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams: Sustaining Mindfulness in High-Reliability Organizations,” which came out in Management Review Discoveriesin 2017. You coedited it with Amy Frayer?
Grint: Yep. Frayer, yep.
Scarpino: …Frayer, okay, “Agonistic Governance: The Antimonies of Decision-making in US Navy SEALs,” and I note that she is presently at University of Birmingham…?
Scarpino: … is that right? Business School, Senior Lecturer of the Department of Organization, Work and Employment. Your other coauthor, Layla Branicki…?
Scarpino: … Layla Branicki, is a lecturer at Marquis University, Department of Marketing and Management in Australia. Okay, I’m sure I mispronounced that, but… Part of the research that you did on Navy SEALs consisted of what you described as semi-structured interviews with SEALs and their families and observation of training and graduation, and two themes emerged – comfort with uncertainty and positive orientation toward failures. You said in your concluding remarks, you and your coauthors, “Mindfulness is an important phenomenon to study because a wide range of organizations today must navigate complex, unpredictable environments that pose a significant risk to their survival.”
In order so that we can talk about this and people who use this interview will get it, can you briefly explain what you mean by mindfulness?
Grint: Well, so I should just say that the empirical data was taken by Amy. So, Amy is American and she has a military background. She had worked with the Navy SEALs for quite a while and so she had access to…
Scarpino: Can I just hit pause for a minute? Now, how did you ever become professionally linked up with somebody who was an American and had been researching Navy SEALs? And then I’ll come back, but this…
Grint: … it came through a third party. So, I’ve written on the military for a while. I wrote a book on D-Day using the same typology. And then a colleague of mine was working with Amy at Bath University, and he said, “This is not really my field, but Keith has a military background. He might be able to help you with the data more than I can help.” So, that’s basically where the connection came from. It’s really the work, and what’s interesting about economy paper is that you can get all the video data on the training. You can get that from the website. Amy interviewed people and then looked at all the training videos along with a colleague, and the mindfulness is trying to get people to reflect on the situation that they face and how we respond to the situation. The kind of typologies that we developed on the basis of that was most of the time, most of us are risk avoidant -- involved risk avoidance and avoidance of errors. The Navy SEAL training sessions that we looked at were much more to do with: You are going to fail, by definition, given what we’re going to do with you, so we’re not that concerned about failure; what we’re concerned about is how you respond to failure. So, they encourage them to fail in the training because if you fail in the field, that’s probably terminal for what you’re about to do. So, it’s an issue about reflecting on failure and also reflecting on risk-taking. When we looked at what was going on, the Navy SEALs, in particular, were interested in very high risk situations which had very high levels of anxiety and, ironically, that that was the area where they were most likely to be most successful. So, most of us are avoiding high risk, high uncertainty areas, and we know that the Navy SEALs are more likely to be successful if they seek those out, knowing that their opponents will probably be low risk -- risk avoidance and low uncertainty. So, what you’re doing is you’re finding people in a place where they are most uncomfortable, where you are most comfortable. So, your ability to operate in this high level of uncertainty is based upon your kind of understanding, your mindfulness, of where your opponent is lease likely to be effective. I mean, the equivalent would be if you want to be – you’ll see this if you read the paper – if you want to be a very good deep sea fisherman, the best thing to do is go to the seas where nobody else is because that’s very high risk, but that’s where the big fish are. So, you have to be able to take the risk to achieve success. The Navy SEALs that we looked at, their training mechanisms were also based upon this. You’re getting people to be quite comfortable in areas of high anxiety and high risk. For example, one of them was involved in the rescue of a kidnapped Captain from the ship – remember this from a few years ago?
Scarpino: Captain Phillips.
Grint: Captain Phillips, that’s right. And their mission orders are basically: Go rescue the Captain. That was basically it. It wasn’t: You are to proceed in this direction for so many miles and then you must do this and that; there was almost no direction. So, their training is sufficiently adaptive enough to be able to say, well, you know what to do and you know what you’re good at, go rescue him.
Scarpino: Is there a connection between that kind of mindfulness and leadership?
Grint: I think in the sense of reflection on the situation that you’re in is an important part of the typology stuff, that you have to be able to step back from where you are and think about what kind of situation am I now in and what should I be doing and what is the requirement of me? And if you’re not, if you just operate on the basis of a kind of unconscious response to situations, you end up not being successful because you’re not taking the appropriate action. I think many of us who are not trained for that kind of stuff, the last thing I want to do is get involved in some high risk area. I’m an academic, you know, it’s risk enough crossing the road outside the hotel for me.
Scarpino: Well, you were a martial arts (INAUDIBLE) younger man, so.
Grint: Well, I think even that is about, it’s about recognizing where the risk lies and recognizing how to reduce the risk, which might even be to take your opponent, your attacker, to a position where they get so uncomfortable and you’re quite happy with this level of anxiety if you’ve been trained enough. I know that in martial arts, for example, that the most difficult thing in any kind of street fight is the level of adrenalin that dumps upon you, which basically means you’re immobilized by the adrenalin. So, if you do enough training fighting, then you can begin to control the adrenalin. But even in the martial arts system, you know, you’re in a dojo with control, it’s not the same as being on the street.
Scarpino: That’s true.
Grint: So, there is something about that. So, how do you make that more realistic? I can remember years ago when I used to train children, trained them for a couple of years, and then one of our karateka, one of our kids got attacked in the street. He was about 10 or 11, and I remember saying to him, “You’ve been training with me for about three or four years, how come you got yourself attacked? Was it a big load of kids, or what?” He said, “No, there were just two of them.” I said, “Well, how come you got so badly beaten?” He said, “They were shouting and swearing at me and they were about five years older and I haven’t been used to that.” And yet, that was interesting; it was the noise and the abuse that immobilized
him. It wasn’t the physical bit. So, then you have a problem because in karate training, you’re not allowed to swear in the dojo. So, we’re training people for the wrong kind of mission. If it’s about self-defense, then it’s not working. If it’s about how to get your belts passed and how you get in competition, then that’s fine, but that isn’t the same thing. So, it’s that kind of mindfulness of thinking about what actually would work in the situation.
Scarpino: When we consider effective leadership or good leadership, how much do you think is attributable to the talent with which a person is born and how much is based on education and training and experience?
Grint: I don’t know that I can answer that question. I think people always want to know the answer…
Scarpino: I’m not asking you to quantify it.
Grint: Yeah, no, I don’t know that it’s possible to answer. I think it’s only possible to answer to say that we’re all given different kinds of qualities, but then the question is: What do you do with those qualities that you’ve given? Do you ignore them, hone them, train them, or whatever? So, let’s go back to the karate, there’s a good example of this. Some of my students or students that were in my group ended up in the England Karate Team. One of them only ended up in the Karate Team for about a week and then left. He is an extraordinarily talented individual, but couldn’t be bothered to train properly. The one that did last for a long time wasn’t as talented, but just trained, you know, just all the time. So, there’s something about of course we get different talents; the issue is what do you do with the talent? I think it’s the same with leadership. You can tell at school, some people are really good and some people aren’t, but I, I think what you can do is you can always improve somebody. It’s like any kind of sports skill, you can improve them if you train them. If you train hard enough, you can improve what you’re doing. You may never end up in the United States football team, but you can be pretty good in your local team. So, I think it’s a question of recognizing that we can all do this and, in some senses, we all end up leaders at some point, of your family or the school or whatever it happens to be. So, there are always opportunities, but the issue would be do you practice enough; do you keep this going? Because I think it’s like most physical skills, you have to practice. It’s a bit like negotiating. I taught negotiating for a long time and the students quite often say to me at the end, “So, how am I going to improve myself?” And I say, “You need to go to a car shop. Don’t take any money with you, just go practice negotiating, and because you’re not going to buy anything, then all those concerns that you have are disappearing and you’ll see how good you are and then…”
Scarpino: I bet the car dealers around the university really love you.
Grint: Yeah …”and then go back and buy one properly,” because when you buy a car, you do it once every three or four years, you get no training on how to negotiate for cars. So, do it more often. That’s why they’re so good because they do it all day long.
Scarpino: In doing my background work for this and reading through some of the things that you published and so on, as an American, I was really struck by some of the work you did with Linda Sue Warner…
Grint: Oh, right.
Scarpino: … on American Indians…
Scarpino: … “American Indian Ways of Leading and Knowing” in Leadership, 2006; “The Case of the Noble Savage”; “Sacred Places: Indigenous Perspectives of Leadership.” I looked up Linda Sue Warner and in 2012, at least, she was Special Assistant to the President of Tribal Affairs in Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Miami, Oklahoma. Now, I taught at Oklahoma State University for a year, so I know where this place is, but most people don’t. So, on multiple levels, Oklahoma A&M and Miami, Oklahoma, is a long way from Warwick.
So, number one, how did you ever come to collaborate with this woman? And then I want to ask you some follow up questions.
Grint: Okay, so, I think it was one of the very early leadership conferences. I started a leadership conference up with a colleague of mine, David Collinson, when I was at Oxford. So, that’s an annual conference that runs – not the same as this conference. It’s mainly a European one. It’s very critically focused…
Scarpino: International Studying of Leadership Conference.
Grint: Yeah, we only have about 150 scholars, very critical, not many consultants turn up. Anyway, so one of the early ones, I’m running it – I can’t think, but I think it might be at Lancaster; I can’t remember; anyway, doesn’t make any difference. So, I get an email from Linda Sue saying, “I’d really like to come to this conference and I’ve half-written a paper, but I’m not a leadership scholar. Would you be interested in coming onboard and adding a bit of your leadership talent to this particular paper which is about indigenous communities?” I’ve always been interested in that kind of, so I said sure. So, we wrote bits of the paper and then we ended up delivering it – actually it was at Exeter University where we delivered the paper. So, since then, I’ve been in regular contact with her. We’ve published a few things together. I was just struck by very different understandings of leadership that I had had compared to her background.
So, even things like notions that indigenous populations didn’t really have formal leadership positions until American white society required them to have formal leadership positions. So, if you wanted to be a war leader, your job was to persuade enough people to follow you into the battle, and if you couldn’t persuade them, you weren’t the war leader. It was the same with hunting leaders. So, rather than having a chief, it was just depending on who wants to do what. “Do you want to come and do this, do you want to come on a raiding party with me or not?” So, it’s much more flexible and, and much more decentralized than conventional notions of leadership. So, that struck me as quite interesting. Then she would talk about things about whether all the indigenous groups were patriarchal or matriarchal. There were lots of them that were matriarchal until, again, the U.S. Government insisted on particular kinds of governance systems which required men to represent the population, in which case you undermined the matriarchal nature of the population. So, really, very different understandings of what leadership is and could be compared to what I was doing. So, that’s basically how I became interested in working with her on all these kinds of things. We’d have lots of interesting conversations. I remember driving her up to Lancaster once in the car, in England, and when you go past one of the motorways, there’s a big sign on the side of road about one of the farmers whose land was taken by the government to build this road. It said something like: You’ve stolen my land. She was really upset by this and you would understand why she would be upset compared to where, in Brittan, if the government takes your land, it’s difficult, but they pay you compensation and that’s just the way it goes. But from her background, this wasn’t just about compensation; this was a sacred removal of land and this is not – this should not happen. So, again, a really different understanding of the things that I’ve taken for granted that she didn’t take for granted.
Scarpino: When you worked with her on topics of indigenous leadership, and if one could concede that leadership itself is a cultural construction, what did you learn about leadership from working with her and studying indigenous people?
Grint: I think probably the most interesting thing was the, trying to get around the kind of romanticization of indigenous populations. So, it would be a combination of recognizing from an indigenous perspective how they responded to the white settlers, why that succeeded, and also why, from the other direction, there was a really strong romantic tinge to some white liberals assumptions about indigenous populations, as if indigenous populations are somehow closer to the earth, they’re more protective of the environment. She would say, “You need to come and watch this particular area that I live on and then you think about whether they’re protecting the environment or not, and they’re just the same as everybody else.” So, that kind of de-romanticization is a really important part of my understanding of indigenous populations and the assumptions about it. I
remember watching a documentary on some South American group in the jungle and the over-voice, the documentary was talking about how this particular group was very caring of the jungle and how it treated plants and everything else and never took more than they needed. Then when you looked at the camp that they built, the reason it appeared to be supportive of environmental issues is because it was all made from degradable issues. It was just a coincidence that they didn’t destroy the environment. Then when they got access to plastics and metals, they did the same as everybody else. So, that kind of de- romanticization was a really interesting counter-reflection to the assumptions about what white society had done to indigenous populations. But all the time, you know, I was just – it was just a very different take on the role of education and role of leadership and the role of gender and also the kind of cultural issues – this reflects back into, I spent quite a lot of time, every year I go to Australia or New Zealand and teach in their government schools, about what had happened to indigenous populations both in Australia and in America and why there have been so many difficult social issues in both of those categories. What had happened to them, and how what had happened to them had basically destroyed their cultural links. And sometimes it was impossible to rebuild those communities and it wasn’t – this is a really wicked problem – is about so what could you do about it other than having kind of gaming and casinos and having – ? So the money was no longer a problem, but the cultural issue was still a problem. So what was it? How come they had been basically – their foundations have been destroyed, and what could you do about that? And I don’t think, and I certainly don’t know the answer and I don’t…
Scarpino: That is a wicked problem.
Grint: Yeah, it is. Yeah, and…
Scarpino: I lived in Montana for a while, so I have some familiarity with it.
Grint: Yeah, yeah, and it’s the same in Australia and you think, well, these populations have been going for 50,000 years, quite well before white society turned up and all of a sudden, we seemed to have reduced them to these very strange levels of existence. So, what is it, how did that happen, and what can you do about it?
Scarpino: Do you consider yourself to be a leader?
Grint: In the sense of organizational leader, currently no. I mean, I’ve done my academic roles; I’ve played my part, but it’s not something – I think, in my experience, education is full of people who are builders or writers, but seldom both. So, a lot of my colleagues are really good at being the dean or the vice chancellor of building up institutions, and I’m not.
Scarpino: Are you a thought leader?
Grint: I’ve never really considered myself to be that. I just write things that I’m interested in and, if anybody else is interested in, that’s fine; if they’re not, that’s also fine. So, I’ve never gone out of my way to be a thought leader, and to be honest, I’m kind of surprised I’m here doing this.
Scarpino: Well, I’m glad. Are you a leader in the classroom?
Grint: I think I probably would be, in the sense of getting people to do what I want. One of the particular things that I’ve done historically, and this is a manifestation of power, is get people to do press-ups.
Scarpino: I don’t know what a press-up is.
Scarpino: Oh, alright, I know what that is.
Grint: To get people in the group to do push-ups. I usually start out with getting them to do a Mexican wave, football wave, and then say, “Okay, so how did that happen?” And they said, “Well, you told us to do it, Keith, so you have the power.” I said, “Correct, I’m the one with the power in here. Now we’re going to do push-ups,” and I give them a number and say, “right, you’re on five push-ups.” And most of the time, if I choose correctly, you can get the first person to do five and then maybe ten and then it starts to peter out. Then we have a discussion about, “How come you did it and how come it petered out? How come you both did your ten press-ups, push-ups?” And the whole point is about power, is about compliance, and if people don’t comply, then you don’t have any power over them. So, there is something in here about – but for some of my colleagues, it’s quite difficult for them to comprehend how I would do that, but actually, I just do it. And, I think there is something at that sense I’m the leader of the group, but I’ve never really considered myself to be a political leader. There was a point in time, when I was in the Train Union Movement…
Scarpino: We’ll talk about this in our next session, but you were a union organizer.
Grint: I was, and at one point I thought I would shift from that to being a political leader. I thought I would go into politics, but stuff happens and I decided not to and there…
Scarpino: You probably made a good choice.
Grint: Yeah, I think I probably did.
Scarpino: I say that because we have to wrap this up in a few minutes. I want to set up where we’re going to go the next time we sit down.
So, on your curriculum vitae, you list the following document under Official Reports: “Elected Mayors and City Leadership: Summary Report of the Third Warwick Commission,” Warwick University Report, 2012. Just because most people are not going to have any background in this local government’s history in the U.K., conversion to an elected mayoral system is made possible under provision of the Local Government Act of 2000.
Scarpino: The Localism Act of 2011, allowed the secretary of state to require local authorities to hold a referendum on whether there should be an elected mayoral system. Eleven cities were required to hold referendums on May 3, 2012, to decide the issue of whether or not to move to an elected mayoral system of city government. In that context, the purpose of the Warwick Commission was stated as follows in the official report:
“…to empower electorates, as well as local authorities and potential candidates in the eleven cities (which included Liverpool) as well as central government and other interested parties, with an evidence base on the potential effectiveness, otherwise, of adopting a directly elected mayoral model.”
I looked up the “Elected Mayors and City Leadership” report, and you’re listed as one of several commissioners.
Scarpino: The Chair was Professor Wyn Grant, Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and you held the title Director. So, let’s do this. I want to ask you a little bit about this because I’m thinking this really is the interface between your scholarship and the real world,…
Scarpino: … but, so that we don’t have to do this when we sit down the next time, can you briefly explain what the purpose of the Warwick Commission was so that people will have a little bit of context?
Grint: Yeah. So, what we were doing at Warwick is trying to provide an independent review of the data and the arguments for an independently elected mayor. Most local authorities, up until this point in time, were organized on local elections which would provide a political party to be in control of the local authority unless it was a joint thing – sometimes it was – and they would be run by the political head of that political party at the local level. That is perceived by some people to have become moribund and not providing the population with the kind of decision-making and
facilities that they required, so there was a decision to an elected, directly elected mayor so…
Scarpino: So, in effect, they’re electing a leader.
Grint: Yes. So, this is much more like an American model and some of the arguments were we need to think about what the American model is doing and whether that’s a different way of doing it. So, so what we did, we interviewed some American mayors, some Australian, some New Zealand, some Canadian, and then looked at whether they indeed have the level of independence above and beyond what the conventional political models have given us, and then that was fed into the electoral system. In fact, there weren’t very many elected mayors at that point in time, but since then, there have been. The biggest one at the moment is in Manchester, which is a really big area and, for the first time, they’ve got control over all kinds of budgets. So, what happens in Manchester, I think, is a really interesting issue for what might happen in the future of a lot of big cities. So, we have an elected mayor in London, but they don’t have control over many of the budgets, it’s just transport really, but the Manchester mayor has control of the Health Service budget, education budget and all kinds of things. So, it’s a different way of understanding how you might operate the governance system at a local level. That’s basically it.
Scarpino: And the job of the Commission was basically to assess …
Grint: Yes, to assess at that point …
Scarpino: … and provide the kind of information that you said that people often ignore.
Grint: Yes, yes.
Scarpino: In the Introduction to the “Elected Mayors and City Leadership” report, the Chair, Wyn Grant, said the following: “This report represents a timely summary of the Commission’s work, including the international research program led by my colleague Professor Keith Grint and supported by Clare Holt.” Clare Holt was a graduate student, is that right?
Scarpino: And she was the main researcher on this project?
Grint: She did most of the interviews, yeah.
Scarpino: How did your international research program, to which your colleague, Professor Wyn refers, apply to the work of the Commission?
Grint: Basically, I supervised Clare doing all the interviews around the world. So, she went and interviewed about 20, 25 mayors or equivalent around the world. I supervised that and then I wrote the report on the basis of the data that she’d constructed.
Scarpino: In the Introduction of the report, titled “Elected Mayors and City Leadership,” you explained that the Commission set itself the following key question: “What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership?” I think I’ve read enough of your work to know that there’s a fit between the question and your views on leadership and civil society.
Scarpino: So, the question that we’ll wrap up this session with is: What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities, as you understand it?
Grint: I think that what we were trying to argue was that in theory, there could be a significant and radical change if you got the budget under control and if central government did not intervene too much. The U.K. is a really centralized system. So, local authorities have virtually no control over very much at all. The elected mayor system was a way of decentralizing control from London and establishing regional control centers. The difficulty would be many of these regions either didn’t have control over sufficient budgets or the local parties, the local political parties were very antagonistic to this way of thinking about local governance because it would basically take political power away from political parties and put it into an independent person, and they decided that’s not a good idea.
Scarpino: Is this kind of decentralization of leadership that is consistent with the way you view the world?
Grint: I think in theory it would have been a very – I think it probably will be in the future – a better way of organizing it than assuming that people in London know precisely what’s happening in Manchester and, therefore, have the authority and the expertise.
Scarpino: I’m kind of wondering about the pieces of your career and your intellectual interests. On the one hand, we have this project on mayors that decentralizes authority and, in effect, gives to the voters more power than they had because they get to elect the leader. On the other hand, you have this ongoing interest in the military and Navy SEALs and the police. So, how do those fit together in your understanding of leadership?
Grint: Yeah. I think most of us are full of contradictions, so I’m, and I think my…
Scarpino: That’s the easy way out.
Grint: … right, yeah. My military interest is – so, my father was in the Army, I was never going to join the Army. I’ve been too rebellious all my life to ever think about joining the Army, but I’ve always been intrigued by what they do. I’m particularly intrigued by the levels in the military and in the police that are much more successful than other aspects of it. So, we know that the Special Services, for example, in the military, are usually very successful and they’re very decentralized aspects of the organization. So, it’s not that we can’t organize very successful bits, and the same with the police, the scaling up is the problem. So, why can’t we run the British Army in the same way that we run the Special Air Services aspect of the British Army? The answer is, you can’t scale it up because the relationships don’t work and because they’re sitting within a hierarchy which is still too constraining and too risk avoiding.
Scarpino: Is hierarchy the enemy of effective leadership?
Grint: No. Hierarchy is necessary and also a problem at the same time.
Scarpino: So, maybe that contradiction is a good place to wrap this up and we’ll reconvene later?
(END OF RECORDING)
Scarpino: Alright. So, we’re back on and the second session with Professor Keith Grint. When we closed out the first session, we were talking about a report that he authored entitled “Elected Mayors and City Leadership.” There’s some information about that on the tail end of the first session, but I want to follow up on that.
You and your research system, I guess, Dr. Clare Holt, wrote the following in the conclusion of “Public Values and Localism in the U.K.”: you said “…we can best learn to lead by doing leadership when we engage in and contribute to the practices of our community. In effect, if Total Place is about anything, it seems to be about creating a legacy, an increased capacity for local leadership through the provision of opportunities to do something differently, to learn to lead.”
For the benefit of anybody who uses this interview and hasn’t read everything that you wrote, what do you mean by Total Place, and then we’ll go on from there?
Grint: Okay. So, Total Place was a series of experiments in the public sector in England, in certain areas. It was an attempt to measure the delivery of a particular public service in a restricted geographical area, and then work out whether there was better way of delivering the service. So, in Warwick, when we were involved in Total Place, we were looking at how much it cost to get a drunk off the streets of Coventry or Warwick, put them into either a police station or a hospital bed for the night, how much did that cost and was there a better way of delivering this service? We reckoned very crudely it costs about six hundred pounds per person per night. Traditionally, what we do with these people on a Saturday when they’ve sobered up, is say to them, “Thank you very much for your custom, really enjoyed having you overnight, look forward to seeing you next Friday, have a good week.” And we might say, “Here’s the bill; that’ll be six hundred pounds, please.” So, there are several things wrapped up in this. The first thing to worry about is it wouldn’t serve all these people’s problems. There are some people who have significant mental health issues; it wouldn’t solve any of their problems doing this. And there are some very rich alcoholics; it wouldn’t solve their problem either. So, part of the issue with wicked problems, in this case alcoholism, is wicked problems don’t have simple single causes and, therefore, don’t have simple single resolutions. The other point, and frankly the more important point of this, is the symbolic aspect. So, wicked problems, you can’t solve other people’s wicked problems. You have to give them back to the people with the problem, which means they have to engage with their own issue. This doesn’t make you popular. What would make you popular is solving their problems, but this is not possible. So, you have to give them back, which makes you unpopular, but it’s the only way for them to learn and to engage in the responsible behavior of actually addressing their own wicked problems. So, basically, the Total Place bit is one aspect of this
that looks at is there a different way of addressing, in this case, alcoholism, on the streets of Coventry or Warwick, which is a kind of small part of the major project which was about elected mayors rather than alcoholism.
Scarpino: Were those two projects, the elected mayors and the problems with people drinking and getting drunk in public, were those related or were they just two separate…?
Grint: I think they were two separate things. I think one ran into the other. So, we did we did the alcohol problem first of all, and that got us into the public sector research realm and that then became an issue with the report. So, the Elected Mayors report, this was designed by the University and the University needed someone to do the project and they didn’t have a lot of time because the election was coming up. So, they asked me if I would supervise the project. I said, “I will do, but we need to get up and running within about two days, and that means we’re not advertising for people, we’re not going through a three-months process; we’re doing it now.” And that’s what we did. Luckily, Clare Holt had worked with me on the police program research that we did before this one, and I said, “We can get Clare to do it.” And so, she turned that project into her PhD. That was the deal.
Scarpino: Let’s see if I can unpack something that you said. You said, “We can best learn to lead by doing leadership when we engage in and contribute to our communities…” Why is that?
Grint: This is an issue about whether you can learn to lead by reading a book or whether you have to do it to learn to lead, and it was that you have to do it stuff. You can learn a lot from the book, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a better leader. It might do, it might things a bit better, but there is still something about the accumulation of practical wisdoms, Aristotle would talk about this, that sometimes you have to do stuff and then reflect on what you just did and learn from the mistakes and the successes. I think leadership has got a lot of that practice aspect to it. You have to do it and the think, well, it looked like something that happened last week, but the response is completely different, so maybe I need to rethink; maybe there isn’t a kind of universal model of stuff in here; maybe I need to be more aware of the particular context and how that operates.
Scarpino: In the rest of the quote, you said “… if Total Place is about anything, it seems to be about creating a legacy, an increased capacity for local leadership through the provision of opportunities to do something differently, to learn to lead.” I hope I didn’t read too much into this, but why is learning to lead doing something different?
Grint: I think because what we try to do in Total Place is get the local communities engaged in the resolution of their own problems and previously it had come down from London. An expert had come down from London and told everybody what to do, and that A) doesn’t usually solve the problem and B) doesn’t engage the community in learning to lead or in accumulating enough social capital to be able to address its own problems. So, the Total Place was, again, part of this decentralized ethic that if you want the communities to operate and run themselves better, they have to learn to lead. It then coincided, or slightly after this, was the financial crash followed by what we would call austerity, which was the cut by about 20% in most public service budgets, which meant that no longer was it an interesting way to think about how you might respond differently at a local level, it was absolutely crucial that you did something, otherwise nothing would happen because you haven’t got any money anymore. So, it kind of coincided with all that place. The Prime Minister at the time, Cameron, talked about this in terms of his Big Society, which was an attempt to decentralize authority. But, of course, what we have done for a long time with politicians is when you got bad news, you decentralize control; when you’ve got good news, you centralize it, and that’s essentially what happened. So, when austerity had stripped out all that investment at a local level, he was kind of hoping people would step into the breach, step into the vacuum and do things for themselves, but they didn’t because they’d never done that before and they didn’t have enough expertise or support or learning mechanisms to be able to help them to do that. So, that was a kind of an opportunity missed, but I don’t think it was ever going to work because it was just an excuse to take money out of the public sector. It wasn’t designed as a learning opportunity; it was designed as, well, you haven’t got any money now, so you better do something about yourself.
Scarpino: Do you think that the project that you did and that produced the “Public Values and Localism in the U.K.”, that that had any impact?
Grint: Not really. I mean, it might have been; we did a lot of work on radio and before the election, but I think most people’s minds were set already, as I’ve already discussed. I was giving a little bit of an academic spin here. I mean, there’s no evidence one way or the other way that it made any difference, but I don’t know that it made much difference. There were a couple of elected mayors, but most of them rejected the thing on principle and kept it with their party political system. But since then, there has been a shift, so there have been moves, and I said before about Manchester – that is a big experiment…
Grint: … and that is the one that, if that doesn’t work, then we’ll go back to the centralized system, but I think it might.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you one more question about that report mostly because it just appealed to my interest. You note in the report that the poet Keats reflected shortly before he died that his name might disappear after his death, and then you note, of course, that he was wrong. The thing that struck me is that I don’t normally read too many reports prepared for government that quote Keats. So, it kept me interested, but so, you and Clare Holt wrote the follow in the concluding paragraph. You said: “We think that those who have written of localism as a political gimmick to camouflage budget cuts may be equally wrong; the future is not written in Whitehall’s administrative stone but in the contested political waters of hundreds of locales around the country. Into this maelstrom will fall hundreds of local leaders; perhaps that journey might start with a set of questions.”
That seems a little more hopeful than what you just told me.
Grint: Yeah, yeah. No, and I think that kind of Manchester thing is an example of the hope, but I don’t think the Manchester thing came out of what we’d written. I think the Manchester thing is part of this idea that the system that we have at the moment doesn’t work properly. There isn’t enough resource at the local level and the local mayor is the only practical way for cutting out some of the bureaucracy and getting the sources of capital into the extreme; and also realizing that these problems that we’ve talked about before, they go across so many different silos that you can’t address it in your particular department, but a mayor has got much better access to all of the departments that might be responsible. So, not only is the funding different and better, but the political control, in theory, is better because you have more access to more leaders.
Scarpino: Is localism an important part of your understanding of leadership, or did it just happen to be a part of this project that you worked on?
Grint: That’s a good question. Most of my work has not necessarily been with local political governance systems. I’ve not really focused on that until I did the report. As a consequence of the report, I think I began to see that actually localism is a better way of understanding how we deal with these issues, but it was never a fundamental part of my approach to leadership. It was a consequence of that rather than the cause of it, I think.
Scarpino: Okay. I’m going to ask you a question. I ask everybody this question and it’ll either work or it won’t. In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview Edgar Schein, who was also a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from ILA. If you google him, you’ll see that many places, there’s a quote that comes up over and over again, and this is what Edgar Schein said. He said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture.” And by culture he meant institutional culture.
So, if I read that quote back to you and say, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is…” and then leave the is blank, what would you say?
Grint: I think I would change it from the cultural stuff to a permission-giving approach. There is something about leadership that is important in giving people permission to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do, which might be make mistakes, own up to errors, take a risk, not worry too much about X or Y. And in the absence of permission-giving, people don’t do very much because I’m not sure Schein is right about the cultural aspect. I don’t think leaders do construct cultures. I mean, they have some impact clearly, an asymmetric level of impact on the culture, but I think part of that runs back into an argument about what culture is anyway. So, if you take most – let’s go into the cultural bit for a second – if you take most assumptions about culture, they have this notion that the difference between an artifact and then some kind of set of values at deeper and deeper level. This is one of the arguments conventionally thought: that the reason that we find cultural change so difficult is that all we can do is change the artifacts; we can’t change the values because the artifacts are a reflection of the values. I’m not sure that’s absolutely correct. I think it might actually be the other way around. I think it might be that the artifacts, and I’m thinking the practices at this point, artifacts and practices are the things that create the cultural values, not the other way around, which it means you can change what we call culture, if you change the practices rather than worrying too much about the values. So, the example that I think would reflect this best is at Oxford University, you have to wear something called sub-fusc is you take an exam. So, sub-fusc for men – it’s a uniform, Latin term – for men it would be a black suit, white shirt, white bowtie, black cap, black gown, black socks, black shoes, and the equivalent for women. So, if I was in Oxford during exam week and some of my undergraduates were wearing sub-fusc, I would frequently stop them and say, “Why are you all dressed like penguins?” And somebody would say, “Well, it’s exam week, Keith; you have to wear sub-fusc.” And I’d say, “Where does it say you have to wear sub-fusc?” “Oh, it’s in the exam regulations.” “Well, what happens if you don’t wear sub-fusc then?” I would say. And they would say, “Oh, you can’t take your exam and then you’d fail.” I said, “Do you think the University would fail you if you’ve got a gray sock on because you haven’t complied with sub-fusc?” Then we’d have a big dispute about this, and it’s always surprised me how many students where one gray sock because the great rebels of the world are being born in Oxford. So, then I say, “Does anybody know what happens to you if you don’t wear sub-fusc?” They said, “Oh, yeah, you know, in 1648 someone turned up in armor and they were turned away.” I said, “No, nobody ever knows what happens because nobody ever does it. So, I’ll tell you what happens because I’ve been an invigilator and the rule book says if you turn up outside exam schools not wearing sub-fusc, your name goes down in the book. And if you do this twice, your
name goes down twice. Ooh, scary. So, I’m going to ask you again, why are you wearing sub-fusc?” What I want them to think about is they wear sub-fusc, not because they have to and somebody is making them, but because they want to. And because they do this practice, the whole thing continues, and what the sub-fusc actually represents is a kind of an elite distinction between the students and the rest of the City of Oxford. It’s a marker; it’s a status mark that says I’m in the University and you’re not. That’s what that marker does. But they proclaim to me their vocabularies of motive, as C. Wright Mills would talk about, their proclamation is, “We have no choice in this; they make us,” and there is nobody to make them. If they stop doing it, nothing would happen. So, this notion about the cultural values and where – so, in theory, what happens is the conventional approach to culture would be the deeply held cultural implications of the University, i.e., it’s kind of elite status, is manifest in this sub-fusc uniform, it differentiates them from the rest of the world, and therefore you can’t change it. Even if you stop people wearing sub-fusc, it wouldn’t change the cultural aspirations of the University, but I think it would if you stop people wearing this, if you made all male students wear dresses, you would change the culture significantly. So, I think, it goes back to the question about is the role of the leader to change the culture or to construct the culture? I think the answer is yes and no to some extent, but it’s also trying to recognize that the role of the leader is to change artifacts or challenge artifacts, or challenge things because I think quite often we have an assumption in our head that the role of the leader is to recognize the culture and work with it, but actually I think it’s to challenge it, to say, “This is wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this with people. We shouldn’t be doing that or allowing that to occur and there’s a way of challenging this.” The whole thing about language and P.C., what you can and you can’t say, is a challenge to assumptions about no, you can’t do anything about this. You can, you can just say you’re not allowed to use that offensive word in public, and if you do, we’ll penalize you. Then the assumption is, over a period of time, people just stop using the word and it falls out of the lexicon and then you’ve changed the culture, as opposed to just because you’re stopping people using the word doesn’t mean they’re going to change. Well, I don’t know. I think, actually, if you look at examples – like Brexit is a really good example in the U.K. On the day the Brexit referendum was announced, there was a massive upsurge in levels of overt racism against immigrants in the U.K. because all of a sudden, you know, it’s okay, you’re now legitimately to say, “We are British and we’re not foreign.” So, there is something really interesting about how the culture can be challenged rather than just accepted because that’s just the way we are. That’s a very long answer to a completely different question.
Scarpino: No, no, that’s a very interesting answer. It’s also very interesting how different people respond. I mean, one person said to me, “Are you giving me a test?” but most people pick it up and run with it. I actually talked to several people about your career…
Scarpino: … and at least three of them had been your students. You seem to have a knack for picking out and taking on doctoral students with unconventional backgrounds. Now, if I’m reading too much into this, this is going to be a short question, or a short answer, but Owain Smolovic told me he had worked for a union, Clare Holt had been an air traffic controller before she became an event planner at Warwick University, Mihaela Kelemen was a Romanian foreign student from a communist country who originally had not intended to stay in the U.K. – a very interesting story there, as I’m sure you know – and you also, yourself, have come from a somewhat nontraditional background for an academic…
Grint: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: … having worked a variety of jobs, that we’ll talk a little bit more about in a minute before you attended graduate school. So, do you consciously seek out students with talent who don’t fit the traditional mold or is this an accident?
Grint: You know what? I’ve never thought about it like that.
Scarpino: I mean, you obviously have more students than the three I talked to…
Grint: Yeah, yeah. What I have done is I have tried to avoid – I think I’ve tried – there’s an episode in the Karate Kid, the Karate Kid One…
Scarpino: I’ve seen it, yes.
Grint: … where he’s doing stuff that seems completely irrelevant and it’s really a test of his ability to persevere under harsh circumstances. I think what I’ve tried to look at is, is the person that I’m going to take on, do they have the perseverance, because this is a horrible marathon for many people? If you’re not dedicated and keen and resilient, there’s no point in me taking you on because it’ll end up me doing all the work and I’ve got enough to do without doing somebody else’s PhD. So I’ve tried to work with people, I’ve tried to select them really carefully, to think about: first of all, I need to know you and I need to know whether in fact your background tells me you can do something like this. And quite often when you get younger students that don’t have that kind of background, you don’t know whether they’re – I mean, they’re intellectually capable, but PhD is way more than just intellectual capability. It’s about resilience…
Scarpino: There are plenty of people in the world with high grade point averages…
Scarpino: … and high IQs.
Grint: …who couldn’t or don’t want to do a PhD. So, , I don’t think I’ve done it in a conscious fashion like the way that you just said it, but maybe unconsciously that’s what I’m looking for. I’ve also tried to avoid taking students on that I don’t know. So, somebody writes me and says, “Oh, I’ve got these grade point averages and I’ve got all this stuff, will you take me on?” And my answer is usually no because I need to know what you are like before I’m going to – because this is a massive investment on my part. I’ve known lots of my colleagues that are keener than I am to take any kind of PhD student and then end up with a really interesting backlog of people that are floundering because they haven’t spent enough effort in trying to work out are you going to be able to do this. So, I’ve actually only had a relatively small number of PhD students. A lot of my colleagues would take about, I don’t know, three or four a year and I take one or two a year at most because I know how hard it is for me, as well as it is for – now, this is also a selfish thing. I’m thinking, I don’t need this. I don’t need to spend my time making you work because if you’re not interested in doing it yourself, I’m not interested in making you do it either.
Scarpino: So, you’re looking for certain qualities, other than just a high grade point average and a high IQ.
Grint: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a kind of – my assumption is if you’re good enough, that’s just getting you in the door, but that’s not enough. In some ways, it’s a bit like the kind of application to get into Oxford at an undergraduate level. These are really smart kids; that’s not what differentiates them. What differentiates them is, is there something about you which is unusual or interesting or you clearly have some goals? Or are you just a kid that spent the entire time swotting up and you’ve done nothing else in your life? So, it’s that kind of approach.
Scarpino: Do you think of yourself as a mentor?
Grint: Not consciously, no. I don’t, I mean, I think I’ve – so here’s the thing, when I did my politics degree and then I thought – my original intention was to be a teacher at a school and then one of my supervisors at York University, David Held, he said, “Oh no, I think you should be thinking about more than a school teacher. You should think about doing a PhD.” So, that was kind of a surprise to me. I didn’t think I was good enough to do that. And I said, “Oh, I’ll go ahead and think about it,” and I thought about it and there was somebody at York University who could’ve supervised me, and then this person moved to Leeds University, about 30 miles down the road, but there was a scholarship that went with that and I could go on the train in the morning, I could stay in my house because I’ve got two kids by then. I didn’t have much money so this would be a lot cheaper for me and it’ll be funded, and that’s great. Then David said, “You should think about going to Oxford, as well as, you know, applying to Leeds.” I thought, well, this is way of my league, but I’m doing what I’m
told. I thought alright, I’ll apply just to keep him quiet. So, I applied and I get an interview and then eventually I get offered the place. So, now I’ve got a dilemma because I can stay where I am in York and live comfortably and the supervisor who I would get I’d know, and it’d be fine; or I can go to Oxford and be supervised by a man that I’ve already had two arguments with in both interviews. So, you know, it’s not all clear-cut that I should be going to Oxford at this point. So, I go to see my politics – but a different politics professor at York and I said, “What do you think I should do? Should I go to Oxford or go to Leeds?” He said, “Do you want a job afterwards or do you want supervision?” I said, “I need the job.” He said, “You have to go to Oxford. You won’t get supervision because they’d be far to arrogant to worry about you, but at least you’ll get a job afterwards.” So, that’s why I went to Oxford.
Scarpino: But the professor that you argued with twice during interviews must have had a vote on your admission.
Grint: Yeah, he was. Now, this is the really weird thing. So, I end up going to Oxford and when I get accepted, I go to see Eric Batstone, and I said to Eric, “Okay, so I’m coming next term, but I want to clear a few things up.” I said, “So in both my interviews,” – because you have an interview for College and an interview for the University – “in both my interviews, you were the most aggressive questioner amongst the group of five, so that’s why I’m a bit concerned about what we’re about to do.” And he said, “Yeah, you don’t understand what’s going on, Keith.” And I said, “Well, maybe you can explain it to me.” He said, “I have got to demonstrate that you’re tough enough and better than the other people in front of these people. That was all that was about.” After that, he was as nice as pie and he was a fantastic supervisor and then, so I thought this is fantastic. Not only do I get an Oxford degree, but I get good supervision, which is contrary to my professor’s advice. Anyway, then I get to my viva, I do the viva, I’m successful, we go out for the night and I turned to Eric and I said, “So Eric, first of all, thanks very much for you’re help and the supervision; it was fantastic. Got this viva done and so, how, where am I on your list of students? How many students have you had so far?” And he said, “Oh, you’re the first.” I said, “Oh, you don’t know how to supervise, do you?” And that was the point that he’d never been told, “don’t bother about students, just get on with your own work.” So, luckily, I got him at the very beginning of his career when he was naive enough to think one of his jobs was to supervise people and it was. And I got fantastic supervision and then just after I finished, he died unfortunately. So, he never had more than a couple of students, which is a great shame, but I think, I think I learned a lot from him about – so I don’t know, back to your question about mentorship, I don’t know that I’ve consciously thought about being a mentor, but I have tried to reproduce what I thought was a really strong, good but critical relationship with a student that you tell them when they’re going wrong and you help them and you support them, but it’s them. It’s
their PhD, it’s not your PhD and a lot of, I often get – I don’t anymore because I’m retired – but I would get students saying, “I’ve got this fantastic undergraduate award blah, blah, blah, I’d like to do a PhD in whatever area you choose.” I’m thinking that’s a good reason for me not to choose you…
Scarpino: Not to take you, yes.
Grint: … yeah – that’s it, finished, we’re not doing it because if you’re not interested in this, I’m not interested in taking you because it’s – I keep saying to the students I have, “This is your PhD. So, if you’re confused about whether you should do what I’m advising you to do or do what you think you ought to do, do what you think your ought to do. Don’t listen to me if you think it’s wrong because it’s your PhD; it’s not mine.”
Scarpino: Do you think you’re good at picking talent? Can you can find the shiny noses in the litter?
Grint: Interesting. Yeah, I don’t know about that. I mean, all my students have been successful. I’ve never had a dropout or a fail. So, in that sense, I’m able to pick talent and I think probably what I’m good at is that I I don’t have a universal model of supervision. I don’t say, okay, so every third Monday, this is what we do and you need to give me this. I just let them run with it. Some people needs lots of help and some people don’t need very much help at all. I think I’ve tried to work out whether this is a very independent person that would just benefit from an occasional intervention or this person needs a lot of help at this point in time. But that’s, yeah, I don’t know that I’ve kind of consciously adopted that, it’s just something which has emerged.
Scarpino: Do you think that the ability to identify talent is the mark of an effective leader?
Grint: I think it probably is. I think this is – one of the main problems is the longevity of leadership. You know you’re not long here or anywhere, under any circumstance, and part of the role is to bring up the talent and to make sure that you’re going to be replaced by somebody who is hopefully better than you are. I don’t think we’re very good at that. I think what we do is we’re good at picking people that look like us and sound like us and that may not be what’s required at this point in time.
Scarpino: Are there leaders that you admire or that inspire you?
Grint: Generally speaking?
Grint: Yeah, so, historically, I would admire people like Martin Luther King or Obama. There are some aspects of Churchill’s career, some I don’t admire at all, some aspects I do. There are lots of aspects of individual leaders. So, people like Joan of Arc, for example, I admire some of her resilience, I mean, some of it was clearly bonkers, but some of it is really fantastic and how she was able to marshal the French against the English. There’s an extraordinary level of talent there. So, there are always examples that are good and there are always examples, like Roosevelt has got some very interesting aspects…
Scarpino: President Roosevelt? Franklin Roosevelt?
Grint: … Franklin, yeah, sorry, Franklin Roosevelt – some very interesting aspects of his ability. And there are some kind of, I mean, there are some military leaders that I’ve always admired and some I don’t. I mean, for example, Patton was extraordinarily effective, but not as an international leader, just as a leader of combat troops, and I think that’s the difference kind of between him and Eisenhower. Eisenhower was never really a combat commander, but politically astute in a way that Patton never was, could never be. So, you can see the kind of Trump line with the Patton stuff about going in one direction and ignoring everything and, to some extent, being successful, but you would never put Patton in charge of D-Day. That was never going to happen. He was just, you know – nor would you put Montgomery. He’s just as bad from a different direction. So, Eisenhower, I think, was a brilliant choice, being able to say I know, “I know he’s not had combat experience, but trust me, this is the diplomat and this is what we need.”
Scarpino: I’m going to switch directions here in a minute, but as we’ve already established, you’re a prolific scholar, teacher, graduate advisor, community-engaged academic, a husband, a father, a grandfather, which I think I read somewhere; how do you balance all those things? Well, you retired in 2018, so it’s a recent act, but how do you keep all the balls in the air?
Grint: Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that question. I think I’m probably quite energetic, so I don’t have a lot of down-time. I think I can probably – and I write quite quickly. I think that also helps. I don’t have trouble writing. So, one of the big jobs of an academic is to write and a lot of my colleagues really struggle over writing. I’ve never struggled over writing. I’ve always been able to write quite quickly and relatively well. So, that bit has never been a problem for me. The problem that I’ve always had is the other aspect, so kind of the management or the meetings, the organizational, the admin – that stuff has never interested me. I used to do that when I was in the post office and I was the union man. And I’m thinking: Don’t waste time with that; I don’t want to do any more of that. So, that’s always
distracted me from what I think are my major occupation, which is writing, teaching, and then keeping the family afloat.
Scarpino: Speaking of writing, in the past 30 years or so, the volume of literature in leadership study has I think exploded, would not be an unfair word. So, if somebody were to come to you and say, “I’m kind of interested in this subject,” what three or four things are must-reads to get started?
Grint: I suppose that depends upon what it is you’re looking for. If you’re looking for what is probably the most comprehensive and sensible undergraduate text, it would probably be Peter Northouse’s here. It’s his book seems to me to be a sane approach and…
Scarpino: Yeah, yeah.
Grint: If you’re looking for something which is not really undergraduate focus, but want to give you a flavor of the different kind of things, I would say that the two quickest ways into it are my VSI book, a Very Short Introduction, and Brad Jackson’s book which is called a short, fairly Interesting, not too boring, whatever it’s called [A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Leadership], which is a kind of similar length, but a different approach, but both of those cover a very large amount of material quite quickly and in a relatively interesting way. So, if you’re not bothered about, I need to pass an exam but I’m quite interested in where we’ve come from all this, I would go for one of those or both of those books.
Scarpino: Okay. So, I’m going to shift way from those general type questions and put some information about you in the record here. When and where were you born?
Grint: I was born in Bermuda in 1952 because my father was in the Army. He was posted to Bermuda in 1950, I think. That was a time when Britain still had rationing, war rationing. He ends up in Bermuda. I mean, how lucky is that? He gets to see his first banana and his first lobster in the first week and it’s just, yeah…
Scarpino: Did you live there very long?
Grint: I don’t remember anything about it. We lived there for 18 months and then we went to Jamaica for a year. I don’t remember anything about that either, and then we went to Manchester, a really run-down part of Manchester called Ashton-under-Lyne. So, I went from the sun of Jamaica and Bermuda to the rain of Manchester. My first memory is in
Ashton-under-Lyne. I was about three, my first memory is being shot at by the gang over the canal. I was in a gang of about three or four and we stood on the Army side of the canal because there’s an Army camp on this side and there’s a council, public housing on the other side. There’s a gang of three or four boys about the same age, a bit older than me, probably four, five, six, or something, and one of them had an air rifle and he was shooting at us. So, the first thing to do is we start throwing bricks at them and then I remember my dad has got his rifle at home. He’s on exercise somewhere, so he’s brought his rifle. So, “I say I’ll go home and get the real rifle,” which is the Lee–Enfield 303…
Grint: So, I go home. So, I’m about three and a half by this time, and his rifle is there. I don’t know whether there’s any ammunition in it, I’ve no idea how it works, but I pick it up and it’s too heavy, so I don’t take it back.
Scarpino: Probably a good thing for you it was too heavy.
Grint: That’s my first memory is being shot at.
Scarpino: Did you spend most of your youth in Manchester?
Grint: No, we were there for a few years and then we went to live in Devizes, which is in Wiltshire, in a kind of central area. Then from Devizes, we went to Singapore for three years. So, I went to Singapore when I was eight to 11, which was fantastic. I mean, we only had school between eight and one o’clock in the morning; and then from, I don’t know, one until five, the local population had the same school. So, we shared the school facilities. So, I only got half education which was fantastic. We had all this sun and we had swimming pools, a (inaudible), it was just absolute heaven for three years, and it was a time when Singapore was not all built up. There were still some really undeveloped areas. And then from Singapore, my father went – I think he went to Germany or somewhere, but wherever he went, there wasn’t a school, so I had to go with my other brother. We had to go to a boarding school in England. We went to Lancaster Grammar School, a boarding section of the grammar school, and I was there until I was 18.
Scarpino: So, from about 11 to 18?
Grint: Yeah, that’s when I got expelled.
Scarpino: You mentioned your brother, any other brothers and sisters?
Grint: Yeah, I’ve got an older brother who’s two and a half years older than me, a younger one who’s 10 years younger than me, and a sister who’s five years younger than me.
Scarpino: So, your father was in the military?
Scarpino: Enlisted or officer?
Grint: Both. So, he started out enlisted, so he joined the Army in July 1945, so just after the European war, before the Japanese war had finished. So, if he lives long enough, he’s 92 now or something, if he lives long enough, he’d be one of the people that are actually the last serving member of the British Army in the Second World War, though he never saw any combat, not in that war. And then so, yeah, he joined as a private and then he got commissioned when I was about 11. So, when I went to Lancaster Grammar School, he became an officer, although he always regarded himself and was regarded as quote “not a proper officer.” So, if you went through the ranks, you were never a proper officer. You were always something slightly different and I think that’s probably still the case. So, there’s a really interesting social status issue about what counts as a proper officer.
Scarpino: Who was your mother?
Grint: So, my mother, she’s still alive. She was born in – she came from Fleetwood, which is a town in Lancashire. Her father had a fruit and vegetable shop through the war, so she worked in that, I think, for most of the time, and then she got married to my father and that was it and then they disappeared. My father’s family are fishermen by trade. They come from the Eastside of England, not the Westside of England.
Scarpino: Was your father a fisherman as a young man?
Grint: He was going to be, but his mother said, “You’re not going to be a fisherman, it’s a very dangerous occupation, way more dangerous than being a soldier.” So, he was, he was forbidden from doing this and he ended up, first of all, working in the fish mongers. So, they’re a kind of place where you’d sell wholesale fish, and then the war broke out and he then joined up. So, that didn’t last that long.
Scarpino: As you look back on your childhood, including moving all over the world, how do you assess the impact of your parents on the adult you became?
Grint: That’s an interesting question. So, partly it’s, I think my interest in leadership and dissent and rebellion is partly rooted in response to my father being a military man. I was never going to join the Army…
Scarpino: I was going to say, was it your rebellion against his life?
Grint: Yeah, I think so. I think it was about against him as much as against – I mean, he was never coercive or, you know, never engaged in any kind of activities that I would rebel physically against, but I just thought this is not for me. All this obeying and wearing a uniform and saluting, it’s just not my deal. I think he tried at some point to try to run the family a bit like that and that was – I’m not having any of that. So, it was partly about that and then partly about what happened at school is where I became – so, I think I was probably born with a kind of dissenting – I’m the second in line. My elder brother is Mr. Conservative with a small C. So, you know, you can just see those conventional assumptions about the second in line is always the troublesome one. It was the same with me.
Scarpino: It turned out to be true.
Grint: Yeah, it turned out to be true.
Scarpino: Well, but your parents were moving all over the place with a bunch of children…
Scarpino: … I mean, that must have been a challenge.
Grint: Yeah. So, I think that rubs off on me in the sense that I don’t have any close friends from my childhood of any kind, any description. I make friends quite easily. I have a lot of surface relationships with people. I’m quite gregarious in that sense, but unlike my children who have got friends from school that they see most months, I don’t have anybody in my background. I don’t miss that. I never had a hometown because I’ve never been there anywhere long enough to call it a hometown, so I’m much more like a kind of traveling gypsy than I am anything else.
Scarpino: Boarding school was a little bit like your hometown, wasn’t it?
Grint: Yeah, to some extent it was. And I can remember on the first day, the, the head teacher coming around saying, “So, what do you think you’ll learn about life by being at this school for the next seven years?” And I said, I remember saying, “I will learn to be independent,” and actually the opposite is the case. I learned to be dependent on the school because they did everything for you. So, I had no freedom, no independence, everything was completely controlled – it was like a military institution. I think that also generated a level of dissent on my part about I just left one of these places and now I’m in another one.
Scarpino: Was it a military academy?
Grint: No, it wasn’t. No, it was a conventional grammar school, a selective school, but they have quite a big boarding section and some of those kids
were military kids, not all of them. I mean, there are some schools which are primarily military boarding schools. My younger brother went to one, but not me. So, most of my boarding colleagues weren’t military.
Scarpino: I looked up the school. It’s still there…
Grint: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: … as you well know. When you were growing up, from first memories to 18 or 19, were there adults other than your parents who had a significant influence on the adult that you became?
Grint: Not on a social level I don’t think because we moved around so much and because the job that my father had meant that you didn’t really see them, you didn’t see the men very much. They were always on operations or on exercises. So, it was really a female-dominated environment for a lot of the time. I don’t know that there are any, and I never stayed long enough to be influenced by any particular individual. I mean, there were individuals at school, individual teachers at school that I thought were either good or very bad. So, I suppose they had some influence over me, I don’t remember thinking – I don’t recall anybody that would fit that situation.
Scarpino: The grammar school you attended was Lancaster Royal Grammar School?
Scarpino: ‘63 to ‘70?
Scarpino: I looked it up and they characterize themselves as a selective boys’ state school…
Scarpino: … for boys aged 11 to 18, at which I would guess would the rough equivalent in the United States of middle school and high school…
Grint: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: … just for point of reference.
Grint: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: Their current website says that they have about 1100 students, somewhat less than 200 are boarders, and as a state school, education is free, so, except for boarding part.
Scarpino: One of the things that they state on their website is they claim they’re one of the strongest state schools in England with more than 90% of their graduates going on to college, many gaining places at Cambridge and Oxford, and they celebrated their quincentenary in 1969, while you were there. So, I don’t know if that was an event that you remember or…
Grint: It was, I do remember it…
Scarpino: … yeah, yeah.
Grint: … because we all required to – the school is built on a hill. It’s about probably half a mile long from one building to the other building on this long hill and we were – the Queen was coming to unveil some plaque. So, we were all required to line up in our best uniforms for at least two hours before she arrived. I don’t remember if it was cold or not, but I do remember waiting. Everyone’s looking down the hill because she’s coming up from the station. All of a sudden, there’s some movement from the top of the hill – I’m at about half-way down – and then someone said, “They’re coming from the other end, they’re coming from the other end!” So, everyone looks to the right-hand side and coming down the hill on a motorbike and a sidecar is two students dressed as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and they came past waving, and it was just fantastic. That was way more important than the actual visit.
Scarpino: Well, you’ve had a little bit of experience of what it’s like to be in the military. They made you line up and wait there for two hours before the event started. So, you did board there?
Scarpino: You lived there.
Grint: I did.
Scarpino: How would you rate the education you got there?
Grint: Educationally, very good. It was a very good school then and it’s a very good school now, in terms of those things that it’s gets a lot – most students go to university, large proportions go to Oxford or Cambridge. I was never in the Oxford/Cambridge stream. I think that partly reflected my military education because, as I said, in Singapore, we only had half a day’s worth of education. So, I think it took me a little while to catch up
with some of the kids, especially in terms of mathematics because – just to take you back a bit – each military school that I’d attended was different, there was no national curriculum. They did whatever the hell they liked. I remember going from Devizes, where we just started to learn about fractions, to Singapore, where they just finished learning about fractions and I never got fractions. So, there was no system for saying okay, since you’d not done it, we’ll help you. No, you were on your own. So, lots of those, there’s lots of gaps in my educational background that I had to backfill myself and I think that was a bit of a problem. But apart from that, no, it’s a very good school in many ways in terms of education and sports facilities and all those things. I just disliked intensely the constraints on me about what I could and couldn’t do. So, because my parents were always abroad, I never had any – I was at school for six weeks at a time and then there’d be a kind of week off in the middle when I’d go and live with my grandmother or one of my grandmothers for a week and then come back for six weeks. And then I might not see my parents for six months because they were somewhere where there wasn’t a place to go see them. So, I kind of lost contact, I think, with my parents for a large proportion of that time. I don’t remember it particularly bothering me apart from the first few weeks. I don’t remember thinking: wouldn’t be nice to see my parents? That was just what happened. That’s just the way it was.
Scarpino: What kind of an impact do you think being involved in that type of an educational experience for seven years had on the adult that you became?
Grint: So, I think it probably did give me a good foundation for what I eventually became, in terms of, you know, the ability to – I mean the scholarship and their assumptions about what you could do and their assumptions about you will go to university so you do need to work hard, all those kinds of things. I didn’t in the end, but that was a different issue. So, I think it gave me a good grounding in that. In terms of the social skills, I don’t think it gave me a lot of social skills in terms of this is how the world works, because I never saw the world. I was under constant supervision. So, my day boy colleagues, the guys who’d just come for the day, I mean, I used to dread Mondays because they’d come in and they’d say, “You’ll never guess what we did over the weekend.” I said, “I don’t want to hear about it.” “Oh, that’s a shame; I’m going to tell you.” So, that was really aggravating. But, so, I think I kind of lacked a lot of social awareness about the way the world worked, but educationally, in strict educational terms, it was very good.
Scarpino: Any relationship between that type of a boarding school experience, highly regimented, carefully controlled and the way you understand leadership?
Grint: I think it’s part of this issue about the notion of, you know, where power lies and the role of dissent and the complete misunderstanding and how easy it is to misunderstand what followers are thinking. So, because of this Vietnam problem that I talked about before, one of the…
Scarpino: Basically, it was some kind of a protest leaflet somebody handed you…
Grint: Yes, it was, it was a protest leaflet.
Scarpino: … and you just stuck it in your pocket without reading it.
Grint: That’s right; I never read it and didn’t know where Vietnam was, but I soon found out. Because of those of kinds of things, lots of things happened at school so that I should have been – despite the fact that I’m very small, I should have probably been the captain of the house rugby team because I was the only person in the first 50, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t even in the house team because the teacher decided that I need to be penalized for my clear political views, even though I didn’t have any political views. Lots of those things began to accumulate, so I was the only person in my entire year not to be made school prefect. So, lots of things started to happen which constrained what I could and what I couldn’t do. So, lots of privileges were removed from me. And towards the end of – so, in my last year, so I’m now labeled as this terrible rebel. I remember the House Master at one point sending for me to come to his office and all the guys in my boarding house, they all gathered around and said, “Oh, Keith, he’s going to make you house prefect because two of them have gone ill and they’re off for weeks, so we’ve got a big gap and he’s bound to make you a prefect.” And I said, “I’m not going to be a prefect. He had a chance for a year to make me that and he’s told me I’m not good enough to be a prefect, so why would I do it now?” So, we have the big debate about how he’s going to persuade me. Then when I get there, I can still remember he’s in his office and he’s got his feet on the desk and he’s about to light a cigarette, as I walk in, and he said, “Ah, Grint, now, I think you’ve become mature enough to accept the responsibility of a prefect, so I’m going to make you a prefect.” And he just lit his cigarette as he said the last word and I said, “I don’t want to be a prefect,” and he choked on the cigarette and his feet fell off the desk and I thought at last, I have won something against you and I wasn’t and that absolutely confirmed in his head that I was some kind of terrible revolutionary and therefore had to be absolutely controlled. So, that in some ways made it worse for me, but I had a couple of minutes of pleasure out of this relationship.
Scarpino: A prefect was like a resident hall supervisor or something?
Grint: Yeah, like a supervisor of other boys. Yeah, so all those in the final year would supervise all those in the first year.
Scarpino: So, you turned down one of the first opportunities of leadership that came your way.
Grint: I did. Absolutely. I would rather be a rebel without power than in the system.
Scarpino: You finished there in 1970, but did you graduate?
Grint: No. Well, depends on what you mean by graduation.
Scarpino: You were thrown out, is what I meant.
Grint: Yeah, I was thrown out, but I’d actually completed all my exams, but I still had a few weeks to go before they – but they threw me out a bit early. I think the consequence of all these things is that when it came to my A levels and my A level English is a good example of this. So, as I said before, I’ve actually found writing quite easy…
Scarpino: And A levels are your senior exams?
Grint: Yeah, 18-year old exams. I’ve always found writing quite easy, so I’ve also been in the top two or three every year exam from the year 11 in the English exams, you know. That’s just one of the, one of the few times I’ve got, because I could write. So, I’ve always been pretty good at that, but as a consequence of all these other political things that were happening, I became interested in two different ways of thinking about the world. One was Freud and a psychological approach to life, and the other one was Marx that I thought these people, these teachers are accusing me of being something called a Marxist; I better go and find out what a Marxist is. So, I read up about Marx; it didn’t particularly appeal to me, but I thought it was interesting way of thinking about the world, and Freudian is also the same. So, when it came to my English A level paper, I had to write a paper on Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock and I had to write a paper on William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. So, I thought let’s not be boring, Keith; let’s do something really interesting in this exam. So, I wrote a Freudian interpretation of Brighton Rock and a Marxist interpretation of Coriolanus, and I failed the paper. So, I’d been first or second every year and I got the lowest mark it was possible to have, as a consequence of being too clever for my own good. So, not only am I thrown out of school, but I don’t get the exams that I require to get to university. So, now I’m 18, I’ve got no exams worth having and I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know where I’m going. So, I just drifted. I lived in Berlin for a long time. I went around Europe. I got all kinds of crazy jobs. I worked on a farm, I worked on a watercress farm, I worked as a removals assistant, I worked in a deep freeze plant. I did all kinds of stuff.
Scarpino: What is a removals assistant?
Grint: Just helping people move house.
Scarpino: Oh, okay.
Grint: I don’t know what you would call them.
Scarpino: No, I was thinking that it had something to do with garbage or sewage.
Grint: Ah, no, not…
Scarpino: I wanted to clarify the term.
Grint: No, I never got to garbage. It was just moving peoples’ belongings from one house to the…
Scarpino: I want to ask you a question because it just struck me when you said it and I let it go. So, your teachers, among other things, or at last one of your teachers, was accusing you of being a Marxist. So, you thought, maybe I ought to know something about this. So, you read some Marx.
Grint: I don’t remember what I read, I just remember reading something about Marx.
Scarpino: Well, I mean, in a sense, it probably doesn’t matter, but did it ever occur to you how unusual it is for somebody to respond that way? I’ll show you; I’ll read Marx.
Grint: No, I don’t remember thinking about that. I just remember thinking about if I’m guilty of this, I better find out what I’m guilty of, so I’ll go and read a couple of books. One was about Freud and one was about Marx, and I never became either a Freudian or a Marxist. I just remember thinking this was a really interesting different way. I’d never come across these two totally different ways of understanding people and societies. It was just so - because, you know, at school, you just do kind of stuff and stuff and then stuff, as opposed to different theories of why stuff happens. So, I was intrigued by the way of completely different understanding of the way the world works. So, then I left university and I think I was then into a kind of rebellious meltdown. I didn’t cut my hair for two years, I didn’t read a book for two years, I just worked and went to the bar for two years.
Scarpino: This 1970s, so you could have passed…
Grint: 1970s, yeah.
Scarpino: … off for a hippie here.
Grint: Absolutely. This is exactly the right time.
Scarpino: Common culture child.
Grint: Absolutely the right time, and, of course, I’m living at home with my military family. I remember coming home once – I don’t even know where I’d been – I’m walking up the village to where my house is and my father was going back to work in his car, in uniform, and he stopped and said, winded the window down, and said, “Get in the car” – I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks – he said, “Get in the car.” I said, “No, it’s okay, it’s only a mile, I’ll just walk on.” He said, “Get in the car.” I’m assuming something has gone wrong. So, I got in the car, I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “Your hair is what’s wrong.” (LAUGHING) My hair was really long; he was embarrassed to see me walking past all the other houses with very long hair, and I thought there was something dreadful that happened in the family. So, that was an interesting time.
Scarpino: Well, maybe in his eyes some dreadful had happened.
Scarpino: So, you were in Berlin, you worked on a farm, you worked for the post office…
Grint: I did.
Scarpino: … and you were behind the counter, but you were also a union rep.
Grint: Yeah, I was a postman first of all. I did deliveries for about a year and then I went on to the counter. At that point, there was a vacancy for a trade union rep to represent the counter staff in the post office in Winchester. Nobody else would do it and I thought, well, I’ve got nothing else; I wasn’t married, I didn’t have girlfriend and thought I’ll do it, I’ve got more time that you lot have had. So, I did it and that became quite interesting and then I kind of moved up the union hierarchy. I thought, at one point, I would make my way to the top of the union and then I thought no, I won’t, that’s too boring. Maybe what I’ll do is I’ll go into politics. I thought about that for a long time and I thought no, that’s too boring too. At that point, A) I got married and B) I came across the Open University. So, that kind of - you know, I’m compressing a few years into this time.
Scarpino: Did you learn anything about leadership as a union rep?
Grint: Yes, I think I did. I think I learned a lot about how ungrateful followers can be, irrespective of what you do for them, and how what they’re looking for is for someone to take responsibility off them. That, I think, was quite a shock, or I think I was clearly very naïve about this, but I remember being abused by several of my union fellows for not doing what they thought I should be doing and thinking actually it doesn’t really matter what I do, I’m not going to get a lot of - there’s not a lot of gratitude coming my way. The
more I thought about that and the more it happened, the more I thought no, I don’t need this. There’s got to be a different way of thinking about life than doing this.
Scarpino: What did you learn about negotiating as a union rep?
Grint: Oh, I think I learned a lot in terms of trying to understand both the limits and the power of logic and data and arguments, and also about recognizing when you’re in a very weak position and when they were in a weak position and not taking too much advantage of their weak position because they’d come and get you the following week. And also, I think it’s something about building the relationships up with, in my case, the management. So, there’s one case that I learned a lot from. I was in Winchester post office. I think I was the secretary of the union at this point. So, we have a new head postmaster and I’d already worked under two previous head postmasters. That only lasted a year and, on both occasions, they’d done something really strange on the first day to say: new boss is in town; look out. So, I’m expecting this from the third one. Sure enough, on the second day, he calls all the union reps into his office and said, “I’m the new head postmaster. I came in yesterday to watch the earlies sign on. You know we have 60 earlies.” Earlies are people that deliver the post. “They are supposed to sign the book at six o’clock, you know this. I have to tell you, I watched some of them who weren’t signing the book until 10 past six. This is an outrage and it will stop as of tomorrow – do you understand? As of tomorrow, they will sign the book at six o’clock. Am I making myself clear?” So, I said, “Well, welcome to Winchester post office, head postmaster. I’m just a postman here, so you’re going to have to explain this to me. You know, 60 earlies and one book – how are they going to sign it?” And he looked at me and he said, Well, obviously I’m not saying people sign the book at the same time; that would be physically impossible. Clearly, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is everybody has to sign the book by five past six; that’s what I’m saying.” And I said, “I’ll get that done for you boss,” and I did. I wanted to say, “You, Boss, are a pillock, like your predecessor. It is physically impossible to do that and if you’ve got an ounce of intelligence, you’d have realized that, but what do you know.” That’s what I wanted to say, but I didn’t say that because I thought I need this man. And I think I learned from that two things, 1) you have to build up the relationships with people that you don’t necessarily like, but you need them, and 2) the way to do that when you’re getting into a situation like that is to ask them a question, not get into an argument. Ask them a question about so, could you just tell me how that would work, knowing that he can’t answer it because if I get into an argument and I’ve put his back up, he gets aggressive and now he hates me, and like I can’t get what I need out of him. So, I think that was a kind of practical learning laboratory for me. At that point, I hadn’t gone to any negotiating courses. I did afterwards. The union ran lots of them, but at that point, it was just realizing, you know, you have to build up
a relationship with people that you don’t necessarily like and it has to be civil and you need a mechanism for getting them to change their mind that doesn’t involve either physical violence or an argument. But I think I just kind of experimented with that and found out that it worked.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you about university here in just a second, but whenever I have looked up information on you and the nice statement they put together for your lifetime achievement award, it all says that he was a blue-collar worker, and you were. So, here’s what I would like you to talk about. As you look back on that experience, the post office, the factory, the farm, the things that you did, how did that influence the professional Keith Grint or the professional that you became?
Grint: I think…
Scarpino: What did you take away from that?
Grint: Oh, two things. The first thing I would say is that I learned a lot in about six months, and the other nine years I didn’t need to do. So, I did waste a lot of time there. It wasn’t as if I was learning all the time.
Scarpino: Just in the interest of full disclosure, I spent many years working on a dairy farm.
Grint: Once you learn a lesson once, you don’t need to learn it twice, but I learned lots of lessons lots of times. I guess the most important thing is to understand life from the bottom and not from the top. So many of my colleagues that teach business have never been in business, have never worked outside of university. So, I don’t quite know how they understand how the world at work works in the absence of any kind of experience from that. So, I’ve always been able to A) bring in lots of stories that have happened to me to illustrate what I’m talking about, and B) there is something in here about - and I talked about this in one of the talks I gave yesterday, it was about dissent. There’s so much effort built into we need to get all our employees on board here and get a high level of consent and then we’ll be able to do this and that. And actually, in my experience, most people that go to work really don’t care about the work; they go there because you pay them. They’re not that bothered. If somebody next door gives them a higher pay deal, they’ll go next door. They don’t have that loyalty because frankly the job, the work is really, really boring. So, when you look at so much effort is built into building this wonderful consensual utopia about everyone’s going to be so keen on this new strategy we’ve got, no, they’re not. People at the top might be interested; people at the bottom really couldn’t care less. When I left the post office in York and went to York University, one of the first books I read was a book on the kinds of skills you need in the labor market in the U.K. to be successful in the 1980s. The very last line of this huge empirical work was this: “More
people use more skill getting to work than at work,” which I thought was a terrible indictment of what we did to people and I’d suffered from that. I had been to places around thinking oh, my god, it’s only half past nine, I’ve got another eight hours to go, how can I possibly survive this? I have done those kinds of jobs and I think that gives me an understanding of what is it like to be at the bottom because now you’re in the middle or at the top, and it’s a completely different understanding of what’s going on.
Scarpino: Do you think that it would do, I mean, people who are in leadership programs, that they would be in good stead if they understood that?
Grint: I mean there are some organizations that insist on management go and work on the shop line, go and work on the shop floor or the assembly line for a week at a time in a year, and I think that’s a really important point just to remind yourself that most people’s lives are not built around meetings and high-flying jets to places and whatever. They’re built upon drudgery and mundaneness, and the only way they keep going is because they’ve got enough mates around the table to keep them happy, to keep them going. There a paper called “Banana Time” – it’s a very old paper, 1960-something or other – and the paper is really set around a machine workshop in the 1960s. What happens is the researcher goes to join the group in the factory and work on the machine to try to work out the answer to this question: How do they put up with such a boring existence, because life in a factory is as boring as hell? How do these people put up with it? So, he joins the group and within a few weeks, he realizes that what’s going on is these people around on the shop floor have gone insane. That’s how they’ve coped with the boringness of life, they’ve gone insane, and the insanity is represented by the banana time. So, what happens is every day, one of the guys on the shop floor puts a banana on top of his machine, every day. Every day at 10 o’clock, one of the other guys – it’s always the same guy – steals the banana and eats it in front of him and then there’s a row about whose banana it is and what’s going on. This is a manifestation of insanity, as far as the researcher is concerned. Then the long he stays there, the more he realizes this is not insanity, this is a way of coping with the day. So, what you have is banana time, 10 o’clock John puts his banana, Jack eats it. It’s always a laugh, it always goes on, and then throughout the day, there are these periods in the day where the same thing happens. So, you have conversation time, you have Coke time, you have lunch time, you have talk about football time, and it just makes the day pass. So, the whole argument is these people don’t go to work to produce lovely widgets, they go to work because you pay them and they have a bit of fun and that’s what they’re at work for because when you read the paper, there’s almost nothing about work in it. They’re not really interested. So, there is something in that about how we cope with the boredom of life. I think that’s one of the reasons why I had to get out of the post office. I’m thinking I’m going to waste my life like this; I’m going to be selling stamps forever unless I do something about it.
Scarpino: In 1976, if I got this right, you matriculated at Open University…?
Scarpino: … which we talked a little bit about this morning. You earned a B.A. with Honors in Sociology in 1981. We’ll talk about your second degree in a minute, but you mentioned that you picked Open University because it was basically available to a guy who had…
Grint: Yeah, yeah. Not very much.
Scarpino: … who didn’t have the record that he probably would have had…
Grint: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: … under different circumstances.
Grint: Yeah, yeah, yep.
Scarpino: Why did you pick sociology? I mean, I’m kind of imagining, you know, a young man going I think I’ll be a sociologist. I mean, how do you make a choice like that?
Grint: I think it was – I was trying to think back – I think I’d always been interested in society and politics. I can remember having big rows with my – so, my father, when he was an officer, he used to have dinner parties and all his friends would come round, and I would get involved in really vigorous arguments with these officers about life, the role of the Army, anything really. I really wasn’t bothered what it was, as long as I had a good argument is what – but I always found myself unable to provide any kind of evidence or logic for why I was right. So, I remember thinking you need to educate yourself, Keith, if you’re going to ever have good arguments with these people and explain why they’re wrong. I think that drove me to a notion that I need to have some kind of social science stuff here because I’m really interested in the way society works. I still wasn’t – you know, I was never kind of any kind of political radical at that point, but I’m kind of rebel without a cause, but I’m just interested. So, that’s why I chose social science, and then I did politics as a second degree.
Scarpino: So, ’79-’82, 1979 through 1982 you were also enrolled at University of York?
Scarpino: In 1982 you earned a second B.A. with Honors in Politics, which I assume was political science. Did it ever occur to you that it was a little unusual for somebody to be working on two bachelor’s degrees?
Grint: Yeah, I thought that a bit crazy, but I think by the time I went to York University, I was half way through my Open University degree and you couldn’t take the credits and put them into the other degree. They were totally separate. So, either I’m thinking I just wasted half a degree or I can continue it. So, I thought, you know what, as an undergraduate at York University, I get quite a long period of holiday between the terms, maybe I could squeeze all my Open University into the holidays between the terms. So, that’s what I did. So, I just basically became a full-time student and never took any holiday. I don’t think my wife was all that happy about it.
Scarpino: Were you still working while you were doing this?
Grint: No, no. I was a full-time student at this point in time. So, but because there was enough time between the terms, I could keep up with my Open University, so I did two at the same time.
Scarpino: You finished Open University in 1981 and University of York in 1982. As you’re wrapping up both of your degrees, where did you hope or imagine your life was headed?
Grint: Well, I still think I was going to be a teacher. I thought I’d, you know, and then when I – so, my Open University degree, I got a First-Class Degree in that one and I thought, well, maybe I could do more than a teacher; Maybe I could teach in further education, so adult students. So, I made an application to a local college to do that and they accepted me. It was only at that point when I was talking to my university supervisor, David Held, and he said, “You don’t need to be doing further education; you need to go get a doctorate and then you can teach in university.” I never thought I was good enough to do anything like that, but he persuaded me to apply and so I applied and got in.
Scarpino: We talked a little bit about that this morning, but you earned your Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford. What was the topic your dissertation?
Grint: It was really about industrial relations in the post office between the wars. So, 1919-1939; it was a historical review. So, I went through all the data, all the meetings, both at the post office management and the post office unions because there was three or four unions, and just looked at the ebb and flow of power across that time because 1919 is really industrial militancy. So, it’s the end of the war, very large numbers of troops being demobilized, and there is a huge pent up frustration about pay, conditions and lots of trade union activity in 1919 that is basically crushed by the beginnings of the first Depression. It doesn’t last that long, but that’s the point at which many of the unions started. So, I was quite intrigued by where they’d started, where they’d gone to, and then throughout the 1930s, they’re just kind of hanging on. And kind of interestingly enough,
the post office is a place where they try some quite radical alternatives. So, at the end of the war, there’s a thing called the Whitley Committee. So, the government is very concerned; you’ve got all these soldiers coming back from the war and there’s a lot of militancy. There are actually a lot of mutinies in 1919, a very high period of unrest. The government is concerned that when all the soldiers come back and reenlist in work, there will be a lot of labor unrest. So, the way they approached this is they said, “Well, what we need is to think about is getting representatives from the trade unions from across the piece onto the boards of either private or public companies. That will subdue the militancy and enable them to work with management, rather than against management.” But what happens is when the Whitley Committee, which develops all these ideas, private industry is not interested in any of those ideas, but the government has now passed the legislation, so it forces itself to put the trade unions and public sector onto the boards. So, the post office becomes quite an interesting radical innovation in how to run the post office using lots of trade unionists on boards and also encouraging trade unionism. So, I was always quite interested in that governance section about how you run public industries. That goes through until 1939, when the war breaks out and the whole thing collapses, but that is also one of the reasons why the post office was involved just before I went to Oxford in the industrial democracy experiment because, at this point, the old Labour government, before Thatcher, says that we have lots of industrial militancy in the 1970s. One way to prevent it or crush it or control it is to put some trade union officials on the board again so they control the unions. They said, “That’s a good idea. Let’s call it an industrial democracy experiment,” and they start to do it and this is the time when I’m just leaving the post office, but I’m slightly involved in the process. I’m thinking this would be a really interesting PhD project to follow these industrial democracy experiments. So, I get to Oxford with this project under my belt, and within the first few days of getting to Oxford, Mrs. Thatcher stops the experiment. So, I’m now at Oxford and I haven’t got a project. This is why I ended up doing the history stuff because it’s the same area, but it’s just the origins of it rather than the contemporary aspect.
Scarpino: We’re going to talk some about your work and publications after you earned your PhD. So, information for the benefit of users between 1992 and 2004 you were at Oxford University.
Scarpino: By the late 1990s, you’re regularly publishing on leadership. In 1995, your doctoral student, Mihaela Kelemen, defended her dissertation, “The Role of Leadership in Achieving Total Quality Management in the U.K. Service Sector: A Multi Paradigm Program Perspective,” and I believe she was your first doctoral student?
Grint: No, I had two PhD students in…
Scarpino: In leadership, she was your first doctoral student in leadership?
Grint: Yes, that would probably be the case. Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: You held a number of positions at Oxford between ’92 and 2004, they’re on your resume, but everybody won’t have your resume, so you were a Fellow at Templeton College from 1992 to 2004; 1992 through ’98, you were University Lecturer in Organizational Behavior in the School of Management which later became the Saïd Business School; 1998-2004, University Reader in Organizational Behavior in the Business School; in 2002-2003, Director of Research, the Saïd Business School, and Director of Masters of Science in the same business school.
Here’s the question, did any of the positions that you held at Oxford have anything to do with leadership? Were you teaching leadership, training leaders?
Grint: I was teaching leadership, but they were formally in organizational behavior, one aspect of which is leadership. So, there weren’t any positions in leadership at that point in time. It was just organizational behavior. So, the answer to your question is yes and no. Yes, I was teaching leadership; no, they weren’t formally lectureships in leadership.
Scarpino: So, I mean, it wasn’t really offered at Oxford; you were teaching it as part of another ...
Grint: Yes. No, it wasn’t offered. It was actually regarded as a – so, Oxford is a, let’s take this back a bit. Oxford has always had a strange relationship to certain topics. So, historically, the most important and the most difficult degree to get into has been something like great classics, and the easiest to get into, in the kind of 19th Century, it was engineering because engineering wasn’t really a topic that people at Oxford should be taking. It was the thing that you got your hands dirty with. So, first of all, there’s a problem with actually getting engineering at all on the curriculum, and secondly, the engineering degree that they give has got nothing to do with practical engineering. It’s entirely theoretical. That enables the University to say we’re not involved in the same kinds of things that those people are involved with; it’s completely different from mechanics; it’s just theoretical. And the same thing happens when you get to business. So, business degrees, management degrees only really come into effect at that same period. And first of all, it’s the easiest degree to get onto because management isn’t really a topic, it’s the equivalent of engineering in the 19th Century, it’s just not a proper topic that gentlemen should be studying. Now, it’s one of the hardest degrees to get onto because it’s so well thought of, but at that time, it was the opposite of that. So, there’s
something in there also about leadership being the equivalent within management. If management is dodgy, leadership is totally irrelevant. So, I’m teaching stuff which is totally irrelevant in a topic which is dodgy in a place which thinks the most important thing is Latin and classics. So, there’s a kind of interesting issue here about how you manage to get these things under the curriculum radar.
Scarpino: And that’s what you were doing with flying under the radar?
Grint: Well, I think lots of things I talked about were organizational behavior, organizational sociology, management, but actually a lot of it was about leadership.
Scarpino: In 2002, you and David Collinson organized the leadership conference at Oxford. According to David Collinson, among other things, you were interested in finding out if there was anybody else interested in leadership studies besides the two of you.
Scarpino: What he told me is that you wanted to know if there’s anybody else out there, and he said about a hundred people showed up.
Grint: Yeah. So, when we first mooted this, David and I – I’d been onto a couple of management projects – conferences, but there weren’t any leadership ones. And David and I were having a conversation and I said, “Well, maybe we should try a conference one,” I said, “Well, a leadership one.” “There aren’t going to be enough people.” I said, “Okay, but there’s probably enough for a seminar. So, what we’ll do is I’ll book a room, I’ll book a room for eight people and then we’ll see who turns up.” So, I booked a room for eight people, put the adverts out and 110 people, or something, turned up. So, it was such a shock. We hadn’t even booked a restaurant for the meal. It was just, all of a sudden, these people turned up. So, I was scrabbling about with the program about the day beforehand trying to work the program out, and then we rapidly book this restaurant across the road. The restaurant said, “So, are they paying individually?” And first of all, we said yeah because there was only going to be 10 of us. Then it turned out to be 110, and he said, “Well, how are you paying for it?” I said, “Well, to be frank, it depends upon how many people come up and pay their money. If they all pay their money, we can pay you and, if they don’t, then you’ll have to pay it.” So, it was really flying by the seat of your pants, but that started it. Then, as a consequence of that, we had so many papers because originally we were just going to get an edited book out of it. David and I said, “Well, maybe we should start a journal.”
Scarpino: So, the genesis of the journal was in the number and quality of papers you got at that first conference you called.
Grint: Yeah, we had no intention of getting the journal going until we decided that we’ve got all these papers and we couldn’t fit them into one book. So, let’s…
Scarpino: Part of the significance of that first conference was that it not only became an edited book, but it also was the genesis of the journal Leadership.
Grint: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: Okay. In 2003, you and David Collinson organized a second leadership conference and this time it was at Lancaster University. According to the website of the International Studying Leadership Conference, that 2003 meeting at Lancaster University is the first one that carried the name “International Studying Leadership Conference.”
Grint: Yeah, probably. I can’t remember that.
Scarpino: Why did you two decide to invest time and energy in organizing a second conference?
Grint: I think it was partly because the first one had been so successful and partly because we wanted to generate a community because we realized it’s really hard to do it on your own. So, what we want is a community, so let’s just keep this going and see whether we can build up this community which will be A) self-supporting and B) it would be critical because that’s the kind of stuff we’re interested in, but it would be supportive. So, it wouldn’t be hacking pieces out of each other; it would be let’s try and get everybody to work together and think about a different way of understanding leadership stuff because at the time, most of the leadership material came out of the U.S. and it was very business-oriented, very psychological-oriented, and not very critical. So, we wanted to start something which was different…
Scarpino: And very quantitative.
Grint: … and very quantitative. It was very different from all of those aspects of it. So, I think it was kind of incremental. We just decided it would be a waste to have invested that much money and effort in the first one and not keep it going. But originally – so I had a dispute with my Dean at Oxford about this, he said first of all he supported the first one, and I said, “Alright, so the second one we’re going to take it to Lancaster.” He said, “No, no, no, no it needs to be at Oxford; it needs to be The Oxford Conference on Leadership every year.” I said, “No, this is not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build a community up here, not trying to put Oxford on the map as the leadership center. So, for that effect, we need to get it moving
around the country.” He and I fell out over that and many other things, but that was one of the things we fell out on, this notion that actually it should move around the country and build up the community. It wasn’t about Oxford; it was about leadership.
Scarpino: Where did that idea come from? So, you did the first conference, you discovered there was more than the two of you…
Scarpino: … a hundred people showed up, you had to find a restaurant and all the other things you needed to do to satisfy these people, but where did this idea come from to form the International Studying Leadership Conference and make it an annual event? I mean, it’s a fairly big jump from let’s do this one time and maybe 10 people will show up to let’s do this every year.
Grint: Yeah. I don’t know the conversation. I can’t remember how the logic went. I just think we kind of assumed if the second went well, we might as well keep it going. I don’t think there was ever – and I think at that point, we’re also talking about the journal. And we got involved in conversations with Sage about whether they would be interested in the journal. And because they were interested, it then became clear that you needed to keep the conference going to support the journal. So, it became kind of self-supportive, but I don’t remember. Everything was really, in those days, it was just Dave and I would go out for a drink and come up with some weird and wacky ideas and then we’d just see whether they floated or not. We didn’t have a Board or anything like that.
Scarpino: An exciting way to do things, isn’t it?
Grint: Yeah, and it actually worked and we got stuff done really quickly because there was just me and him.
Scarpino: So, just for the benefit of anybody who’s using this, in December 2018, the International Studying Leadership Conference will be meeting for the 17th time.
Scarpino: You and David Collinson then decided to have found and co-publish a new journal on leadership which came to fruition. It’s called Leadership. Were you still at Oxford when you started the publication?
Grint: At the very beginning I was and then I moved to Lancaster.
Scarpino: On the one hand, more people showed up at that first conference than you expected, you had a surplus of good papers, you thought well, maybe if we had a journal, we could publish them. But was there anything else that
you had in mind when you decided to co-found this journal? I mean, I’ve had some experience with editing. It’s a lot of work.
Scarpino: So, what were you hoping to accomplish now that you had both a journal and a conference launched?
Grint: Well, this is deeply ironic, I think what we both wanted was to find a place where we could publish our work, and we ended up with a journal that we couldn’t we publish our own work in. That’s not a really smart move, Dave, because we’re doing all the work and getting none of the contribution back. So, we still ended up not publishing in our own, I mean, we did the first forward or something. Since then, he and I have done separate things for the journal, but it never became the focus for our own work because you couldn’t just publish your own stuff.
Scarpino: The two of you co-edited for the first 10 years, is that right?
Grint: Yeah, I think probably about that, yeah.
Scarpino: So, you’re going to decide to co-found a journal that was separate from Leadership Quarterly that was already being published in the United States.
Scarpino: Why did you think there was room in this nascent field for another journal?
Grint: I think for the same reason that we just mentioned, that actually Leadership Quarterly then was really quantitative American business psychological, nonhistorical, noncritical, all the things we wanted to put in. So, that’s where the market was and that market is much more buoyant in Europe than it’s ever been in America. So, it made sense to launch it as different from and, not opposed to because he’s published stuff in LQ before. So, it wasn’t as if we were enemies. We were in different territories. Now there are four or five different journals, but there was space even then to be able to generate two different journals in two different areas.
Scarpino: So, Leadership obviously became a reality. I think they’re up to volume 14 now. I looked on their website, published in October 2018. What do you believe that you and David Collinson accomplished in the 10 years or so that you co-edited that journal?
Grint: I think we created something which is the home for lots of leadership scholars in Europe, not so much – I mean, there are Americans, now and again, but mainly Europeans. I think that also generated the community
that kept the conference going and enabled people to see, and I think, over time, it became more important to a lot of kind of Australians and New Zealanders and Canadians, and some critical American scholars were interested in doing that. So, I think it was kind of building up a community, which is what we wanted in the first place is just to build up a community. It never provided us with a solution for our own publishing problems, but that’s a separate issue.
Scarpino: Well, I have a feeling that it wasn’t very long before people were standing in line to take your publications, but you know.
Grint: Yeah, so, anyway, but I think when I started, I never thought about, you know, you’ll end up doing the journal and doing a conference and blah, blah, blah; it just kind of happened and it made sense at the time to do it. And because it was just me and Dave, we can just decide on a Friday afternoon, let’s try it and see whether it works.
Scarpino: So, no editorial board or…
Grint: No, no nothing, no. All that came afterwards, otherwise we would never have got it done. We’d have been still arguing about the color. I can still remember going into Sage and they said, “Okay, we can set it up, what about the color of the journal, of the, you know, of the page?” I looked at David and said, “I hadn’t thought about that.” And we’re both Black Bull Football Club supporters and the football team is orange and Dave said, “Well, what about orange?” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding; you can’t have a journal that’s orange. So, what about purple? Purple is the imperial color of leadership. Let’s go for purple.” Dave said, “Yeah, okay; purple it is,” and that was it, done. You know, took us about a minute and that’s what we could do in those days.
Scarpino: So, 2004, you left Oxford, became Professor of Leadership Studies and Director of the Lancaster Leadership Center, Lancaster University School of Management, where you remained until 2006. Why did you decide to move from Oxford to Lancaster?
Grint: Oh, a whole series of things. One is because of the journal thing and it was just easier to go work with Dave. One, I was having trouble at Oxford in several different ways. I was Director of Research at this point in Oxford. So, the Saïd School is new, I’m appointed Director of Research and I said to the Dean, “Okay, , we need to have an away day to think about what the faculty want to do with the research that they were going to do because otherwise we have no idea what we’re doing. So, we need a strategy. So, to get the strategy going, let’s have an away day. We’ll get them at little tables, they can work on what they want to do, we’ll come with five or six main areas, we’ll focus on that.” So, the Dean says, “Okay, that’s fine.” So, we had an away day. I took all the notes, I organized it,
facilitated it all. I’m back in my office and I’m writing all this report up about what we’re going to do and everyone’s really interested and keen because we’ve never had this strategy before. And the phone goes and it’s the Dean and he said, “Oh, you need to come to my office, it’s about the research and strategy.” I said, “I haven’t finished the paper yet; I’m still writing it.” He said, “Don’t worry about that, just come to the office.” I go to the office and there’s the Dean and there’s three people and there’s me. The Dean said, “Okay, so this is the research strategy, these are the three things we’re doing which coincides with the interest of these three people.” I said, “Some of those things are on my list of six, but the other one isn’t. Why are we doing these three?” And the Dean said, “Well, that’s where all the money is.” I said, “It’s just a coincidence that these three people have got money; that can’t be a strategy. That’s just a response to money coming in; that’s not a strategy.” The Dean said, “I don’t think you understand the strategy, Keith.” So, I went back to my office, I said to my wife, “You need to come and take me for a drink, otherwise I’m going to resign now.” So, we went out for a drink. Then there were all kinds of similar kinds of problems going on. I remember the guy who was responsible for the MBA suddenly resigned in the middle of term, and then by the end of that term, he got himself a promotion on the basis of just walking out and leaving the students and focusing on his research. I was Chair of one of the exam boards, I think it was the undergraduate exam board. On the final day, so it’s the final exam board, we’re supposed to have six people to be quorate, I’ve got two external examiners, me, and there’s supposed to be three other members of the internal exam section.
Scarpino: Oxford faculty internal?
Grint: Yeah, yeah, and two of them have not turned up so we’re not quorate, and I’ve got these two external examiners who had come from miles away for this. I’ve got 150 students downstairs waiting for the exam results, these two are not here, “Does anyone know where they are? I’ll go ring them.” I said, “You’re supposed to be at the exam board today,” and both of them said, “I don’t think you realize how important my research is.” I said, “I don’t care important your research is, you need to get your ass down here now,” and we had a row about who was in charge of who. I said, “If you don’t come down now, I’ll tell these students why they’re not getting their results,” and they both turned up, we did the exam board and about a week later than that, after this other strategic issue, David Collinson said, “We’ve got a vacancy for a Chair and you can run the Leadership Center. Are you interested?” I said, “You’re damn right I’m interested.” So, that’s basically what happened with that one because I was never going to get a promotion at this point because I’d now rubbed the Dean up several times the wrong way and I needed his support, he wasn’t going to give it.
Scarpino: Oxford was not immune from internal political strife.
Grint: No, and I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with Oxford. The undergraduate students were absolutely fantastic. The quality of undergraduates is better than anywhere else I’ve ever taught. Postgraduates, pretty good, not as good as the undergraduates, but pretty good. The faculty, for some reason, think of themselves as the best in the entire world because the University is one of the best in the world. I’ve worked in five different universities and faculty at Oxford is no different from the faculty at any other university. They just happened to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But because of this extraordinary level of arrogance amongst the individuals, it becomes impossible, so I loved it and hated it at the same time. Then when all this came together, and then Dave said, “We’ve got a job, do you want to come and run the Leadership Center?” “Yes, please.” And also, it coincided with the journal starting.
Scarpino: You left Oxford in 2004. You were at Lancaster University running the Leadership Center. Those years that you spent at Lancaster seem to have been incredibly productive for you and for the field of leadership studies.
Scarpino: You hosted the International Studying Leadership Conference in 2005, the first issue of Leadership was published in February 2005 – we’ve talked about both of those things. In 2006, you left Lancaster University and took up a position as Professor of Defense Leadership and Deputy Principal, Cranfield University, where you remained until 2008. I talked to David, actually, about Cranfield and he helped me understand what was going on there.
Scarpino: Cranfield University is a public postgraduate university, has two campuses…
Scarpino: … the main campus at Cranfield, Bedfordshire…
Scarpino: … and the second, the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom is at Shrivingham…
Grint: Shrivenham, yeah.
Scarpino: … Shrivenham, yeah, he made me pronounce it back to him on the phone. He said, “You can’t screw this up.” (LAUGHTER) Shrivenham, he
said, “Not a long I, get it right.” So, which is where you taught until 2008. Why did you decide to move from Lancaster University to Cranfield’s Defense Academy?
Grint: Yeah, okay. So, this was never my intention to leave Lancaster, but we’d moved, so my wife and I moved to Lancaster. We were going there for good. The kids had left home, they were all independent, and I’ve got this job and I like Lancaster. I never liked the school, but Lancaster is very close to a place called the Lake District, which is fantastic walking ground. So, we decided we would move up. We put the house for sale, we moved to Lancaster, we rented the accommodation, with the intent my wife would get a job as a school teacher in Lancaster, and we’d buy a house in Lancaster. Well, she couldn’t get a job in Lancaster because there weren’t any jobs in Lancaster. We couldn’t sell our house in Oxford and we couldn’t buy a house in Lancaster. In the end, she went back to Oxford to get a job because she didn’t want to sit around knitting all day long, so she went back to Oxford to get a job. So, now I’m commuting up and down to Lancaster, which is a three-hour drive in both directions. Eventually, we decided this is not sustainable in the long-term. At that point, so this was two and a half years in, at that point, a job comes up at Cranfield, which is only about half an hour from where I live in Oxford and it’s in the Defense Academy. I’ve always been interested in the military even though I’m not in the military. So, I thought, you know what, rather than me dying on the M6, the motorway up and down commuting, I’ll just go to Cranfield. So, that’s basically what happened. So, it was never my intention to go to Cranfield other than the fact that I couldn’t stay in Lancaster because I couldn’t…
Scarpino: You were teaching military personnel?
Grint: Yeah, when I got to Shrivenham, all the students are military, some civil servants, but mainly military. I taught there two and half years, students across Army, Navy, Air Force and they’re all officers. So, I didn’t teach any enlisted people. Most of the courses – the course that I still teach on, I teach on the kind of major’s course. So, we get about 220 new majors every year in the British Army and they always come to Cranfield or Shrivenham, and I always teach on them for a couple of sessions and they have a six-months course. Then there are courses, kind of lieutenant colonel level, so your level, and they are purple courses or tri-service courses, and then there’s a course at the very top, the higher course, which is for kind of brigadiers and that kind of level across the services. So, the final course, the advanced course, the brigadiers’ course is really planning for strategic command. The lieutenant colonel courses, this is your first time in the tri-service command. This is what the people in different colored suits look like. They are really human even though you don’t think they are, and the majors’ course is just about you are now in a
position of independent command for the first time, this is what it’s going to be like.
Scarpino: So, you were teaching leadership.
Grint: I was teaching three, yeah, all three courses. Very interesting students, yeah. It’s good.
Scarpino: In 2008, you made one final move. You became Professor of Public Leadership and Management, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick in Coventry, and you remained there until you retired in 2018. I was going to ask you why you moved there, but I think you were probably looking for a way out of Cranfield.
Grint: Yeah, yeah, no, I think, I mean, so I found the students very interesting, but the Cranfield campus was an adjunct campus to the main campus. It was never the center of the universe, as far as the University was concerned. Once you’ve done it for a couple of years, you think, I need to go back to a conventional university at this point. Then Warwick came up and it’s a much better university in terms of all kinds of issues and also when I joined, Warwick had just launched a new program for the police, High Potential Development Scheme, and they wanted me to run that. I thought this is really interesting. So, you get 60 of the best police students every year coming through my hands and most of my teaching would be with the police. Since I’ve done all the military stuff, it wasn’t a big – my daughter, my oldest daughter is in the police anyway, so I didn’t…
Scarpino: David Collinson told that.
Grint: I knew enough about that area to be able to be comfortable with teaching that kind of student, and it just made sense to do it. So, that’s when I went.
Scarpino: I want to ask you, your title is Professor of Public Leadership – what is public leadership?
Grint: It’s really leadership of the public sector. So, it’s military, police, health service, fire and rescue, education, all those things that are not private industry basically. So, it’s not about private industry.
Scarpino: I noticed that while you’re at the University of Warwick, you held the title of Professional Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management.
Scarpino: What did that involve?
Grint: Good question. I haven’t been yet.
Scarpino: Oh, okay.
Grint: I’ve been teaching in a thing called the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, ANZSOG. I’ve taught there every year. For them, it’s a three-week module. They take quite senior people from Australia and New Zealand and sometimes Singapore and a few associate places, and they take them around the area and teach them basically leadership. I’ve taught them a week’s worth of stuff on wicked problems and leadership as far as that’s concerned. I’ve done that for about seven or eight years now, and occasionally I’ve done some work with the Australian police or the New Zealand police. Just this year, somebody who works in the Australian police said, “Would you come out and do a, a couple of lectures for the Australian police on your way over to New Zealand?” because I’m going…
Scarpino: Just on your way by.
Grint: I’m going Monday, actually. I get back to the U.K. Sunday and then Monday, I’m flying to Australia. I’m going to Sydney to talk, give a couple of lectures to the police on the way to Wellington to teach the civil servants about stuff. That’s where that came from.
Scarpino: When you teach police officers, or when you taught military officers, personnel, how do they respond to your idea of wicked problems?
Grint: I think most of them respond quite constructively. I think what it does is it opens up a little space in their heads which says, oh, now I know why I couldn’t ever fix that. And not only have I opened the space up, I’ve legitimated it to be able to say nobody knows how to fix this, including you, and including me. So, that’s okay not to know. I think they’ve been appointed, both police and military, appointed and promoted on the basis of being good at command and doing the necessary tame stuff, the management stuff, but the wicked problem is something that’s always eluded them and something they’ve avoided for the same kind of reasons. And I think what I’ve been trying to do is suggest that there are some things we don’t know about and you a different understanding of it. This is not about command; this is about leadership, is the way that I’m phrasing it. So, I think in both places, what I’ve got is a sufficiently junior and well-educated group. The police, for example, are probably the best students I’ve ever taught as a group because they’ve gone through the police sitting. The selection mechanism is way more robust than our selection mechanism for our students, so we only end up with the top 60 out of several thousands and thousands that apply for the jobs. So, they’re really good and they’re really keen and they’re going places. Historically, the police have not done a lot of leadership development work and we’ve done that for the last 10 years or so at Warwick.
Scarpino: You’re, I will say, the first person that I have ever met who has worked with the police on a regular basis on leadership development.
Grint: Alright, yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t think they’ve had any civilian input on a large scale before. So, this, for them, this was a (INAUDIBLE) experimental approach. Now, the whole program is now been shut down because it locked into the rise of austerity and the attempt by the government to cut the police budgets so they couldn’t afford to do it anymore, and now we’ve got a police force with virtually no leadership development of any kind at any level, which is terrible. But what we’ve got, because I’ve done this for – we’ve had six cohorts of 60 people so we’ve got about almost 250 students who have gone through my sticky hands for the last 10 years and you can just see them now moving into levels of quite senior positions. I quite often see them on television using the kind of language that we’ve taught them and talking about things, and I’m thinking, ahhh, it makes a difference, people do actually understand this and work with it. So, that’s been nice because it’s not just the odd individual, it’s the whole cohort that are, you know, moving it. So, one of the most pleasing things I think of the last 10 years is to just watch the news and see my students come on and saying, “Ah, well no, it’s not that easy.”
Scarpino: I’m going to head toward wrapping this up, but before I do that, I want to ask you a few more open-ended questions. What I want to do is to get you to just talk a little bit about some issues that are in the news now, current trends. The first current trend that comes to mind is the rise of populism. You probably know this better than I do, but the journal that you co-founded, Leadership, Volume 14, Issue 5, published in October 2018, is a special issue on populism and dissent. I assume you’ve looked at it and so on and so forth. The two co-editors in their introduction note that between 2013 and 2018, a worldwide growth in populist movements “marked a notable rise in discontent” and so on and so forth, and they argue, “At the center of these populist movements (successful and failed) are questions of leadership and followership.”
Here’s the question: How do you assess the rise of populist movements through the lens of your own understanding of leadership?
Grint: I think this is something to do with – well, it’s partly to do with the kind of 2008 financial crisis and about who got left behind by that, partly to do with a desperate attempt to look backwards by lots of groups. So, Make America Great Again is a looking backwards, a retrospective perspective, and I think Brexit is fueled by the same looking backwards in the U.K. case. The vast majority of voters to leave the E.U. were older and less educated. So, there is something in there about a kind of romantic reflection on what used to be great in the same way that the current trend in the U.S. is a romantic reflection on what used to be great and the
attempt to retrieve that. The kind of irony of it is that both movements are led by extraordinarily wealthy elite groups that pretend to be the framers of and supporters of those that have been left behind. So, you get a kind of really interesting movement of those that feel they have nothing left to lose and those that think I’ve got a lot to gain from this. I think that combination makes it very difficult to halt. So, in the sense of the rise of Brexit as a populist movement in the U.K., the big failure of the Remain Campaign was to focus only on economics. There wasn’t a narrative and there wasn’t a political narrative about, you know, one of the reasons we’ve not had a war in Europe for the last 70 years is because of the E.U. That’s why we don’t fight the Germans or the French anymore, and all of that was missing. Even the things like, there was a lot in the campaign on the Brexit side about, you know, my grandfather fought to keep Britain great and keep it independent and that’s why we should be independent, as opposed to my grandfather died to prevent us killing each other all the time, that’s why we need to stay in. So, all of that was missing from the Remain Campaign. The Brexit campaigners focused on the political argument, the narrative about being great again and how it would be wonderful in the new sunny uplands. So, it’s a really interesting, for me, reflection on the poverty of the Remainers in trying to understand how do you motivate people that don’t have a lot left to gain from what we currently are because I think they’ve been left behind.
Scarpino: Maybe that also accounts for the rise of populism.
Grint: Yeah, no, I think it’s the same thing.
Scarpino: Yeah, yeah.
Grint: Yeah. So, I think that notion is that they saw and they say in the U.S., I think it’s the same kind of movement and in Southern America, the same kind of movement, that what we want, we want a strong man back to be able to sort this problem out because now it’s gone on for so long, only a strong man can do it, and a strong man who is popular enough and confident enough to be able to say, no, I can fix it. It goes back to Durkheim’s arguments about sacred nation leadership. People want a god.
Scarpino: The second current trend that I want to run by you is the explosive development of artificial intelligence. Sage Publications, of which you’re familiar, actually hosts what they call a microsite on artificial intelligence, and I just copied a couple of lines off of there. It says the AI industry could top $1 trillion in 2018, $4 trillion by 2022. As well as being a feat of engineering and computing, there are a significant amount of social and moral implications that need to be considered. It seems to me that one of the things that falls in the gap between mechanical and technical and philosophical and ethical when we talk about AI, is leadership.
So, the question is: What do you think about the place of leaders and leadership in a world that will increasingly rely on artificial intelligence?
Grint: Good question. I don’t know that I know the answer to any of those things. What I think…
Scarpino: I’m not sure there is an answer, but what I’m really interested in is where you go with it.
Grint: Yeah. I think there’s an issue – I’ve heard this articulated several times – that once AI is sufficiently advanced, then many of the problems you’re talking about, Keith, will be fixed because AI will be so fantastic that we’ll be able to solve X, Y and Zed through the growth of AI. And I think my response is that misunderstands the political nature of the debate. It’s not about resources, it’s not about a surfeit of resources that can fix it, it's about political preferences, and political preferences aren’t addressed by artificial intelligence because it’s not about intelligence, it’s about preference. So, even though we can make advances in the technical sphere and some of the things that are now wicked will no longer be wicked because I think we probably can be able to redress them, I think we’re still left with a whole broad brush of stuff about even the role of things like equality. The notion of equality…
Scarpino: There’s a wicked problem.
Grint: … is not something that can be addressed by AI. This is the political preference about do you want more equality or do you want more freedom? And we know that those two are very often antithetical to each other. So, which is it we’re trying to go for? An excess of – this is the same problem with Karl Marx’s arguments about communism, that at some point, we’ll be so productive there won’t be any more politics. This is to misunderstand politics. It’s not about productive resources; it’s about political preferences.
Scarpino: I read an interesting piece in the New Statesman America, August 15, 2018, and it was titled “How the New AI Could Kill Off Democracy.” It made the following statement that I’ve got to run by you and ask you to comment on. It said: “AI will become invaluable in the effort to solve the complicated and tangled challenges society faces – climate change, energy problems, hunger. Smart cities and urban planning will almost certainly be run by algorithm in the future, dramatically reducing traffic congestion. Sophisticated AI cyberattacks in the future will require equally sophisticated AI-powered cyber defenses.”
So, the question is: Climate change, energy problems, hunger, even aspects of urban planning all fall into the category of what you’ve described as wicked problems.
Scarpino: So, what does that view of the future of AI say about wicked problems and their relationship to leaders?
Grint: I think it implies that we can tame all these wicked problems, as I just suggested. I don’t think that’s viable; I don’t think the notion of – the hunger thing, if you take hunger, if you take poverty – is another way of thinking about hunger – so, if poverty is relative rather than absolute, then you can’t resolve poverty. It doesn’t matter how much resources you’ve got. There will always be some level of poverty. So, if you look historically at contemporary inventions, contemporary historical inventions, it would be the rise of electricity or the rise of nuclear power or whatever, people have always said, well, that’s it; we fixed all the problems. But we’ve never been able to fix the problems because they’re not technical problems; they’re political problems. I just think we are unable to get in our heads the notion that levels of anxiety and levels of dispute are permanent. What we have to weigh is think of a system of governance that will enable us to live together without killing each other all time and that’s got nothing to do with the level of resource available to people. It’s not about resource.
Scarpino: I’m going to wrap up by asking you some questions for some kind of quick reflections. As you look back on the field of leadership studies and compare the way the field is now with the way it was when you entered the field, what do you find to be most encouraging?
Grint: Well, I suppose I’ most encouraged by the numbers of people that are interested in the topic academically and the number of academics that are involved and the number of studies trying to make sense of all the patterns. So, that’s the optimist good news. The bad news is I don’t think that made much difference to the way that society’s actually run. So, I think we still have this thing which we call, and we’ve used it in the language, that’s just academic. That in itself I think is a terrible reflection on what academia has become. It’s become an internally reflected zone where the most important thing is for me to write a paper that only you and your friend can read and understand and respond to me, as opposed to doing stuff that makes a big difference.
Scarpino: When you taught those cohorts of police officers that you now see rising through the ranks and on television, does that give you hope?
Grint: Yeah, it does because I think, actually, there are some really smart kids out there who have got a different understanding of the problems and they know it’s not just about command, it’s not just about intelligence. It’s about a different approach to problems.
Scarpino: When you look at leadership studies, what’s way up on your list of what still needs to be done?
Grint: Well, I don’t think we have anywhere as much data as we need on whether we can follow children through, whether there’s something about can you pick talent out, the kind of talent thing. Can you pick talent at a very young age or are the leadership mechanisms of children completely different from the leadership mechanisms of adults? Now, there’s that kind of area. I think the other thing is just to think about whether we have enough leadership reflections in schools generally. So, we still teach just technical topics in schools; we don’t teach philosophy, we don’t teach them to think about what’s a good life. I think we do that to a certain extent in the primary education sector when they’re very young, you know, what you should and shouldn’t do to your next friend and why you shouldn’t hit them and that kind of stuff, but it disappears in the middle bit. So, I mean, there used to be a thing called civics in the U.K. where you would learn about your responsibilities and how democracy works and how does a banking system work. We don’t do that anymore because we’re too busy worrying about whether they’ve got the right numbers of facts in their history exam. I think we have a very narrowly focused curriculum, certainly in the U.K., and it’s nowhere near broad enough to be able to cope with the levels of problems that we’re looking at. If you think about the educational level of most people who vote most of the time in the U.K., it’s really low. So, to ask them to think about: do you think we should leave the E.U., well, what is the framework for asking that? I mean, I don’t know whether we should leave the E.U. and I’m relatively well educated, so why would you expect somebody who’s got no more than one O-Level, basic grade exam, to be able to understand that? I don’t think we do enough of that kind of civic education to think this is the purpose of life.
Scarpino: When you look at your own career, what are you proudest of?
Grint: I think probably the journal more than anything else. I mean, the conference started the journal, but the journal is sort of independent now and probably much more important than the conference. The conference is interesting, but the journal is probably the most important aspect, I think.
Scarpino: Do you have any regrets?
Grint: I have lots of regrets. (LAUGHTER)
Grint: Well, given my belief in the rationalizational powers of people that we don’t regret things, we just explain them to ourselves about learning
opportunities, yeah, there are one or two, but I think overall, given the same choices, I would probably make the same decision.
Scarpino: You retired in 2018, are you still a work in progress?
Grint: Yeah, no, I’m never going to stop working. I couldn’t possibly stop working. There’s a thing in the U.K. where we talk about retired people spend their entire life going from garden center to garden center to think about where they’re going to have lunch next. I’m going to kill myself if it ever comes to that.
Scarpino: You are working on a book on mutiny?
Grint: I am. I’m half-way through it, so this runs out the dissent stuff and I’m trying to work out what drives people to take the decision knowing that there is no way back from this; this is the end of the – if you make this decision, that is it. So, why do some people decide to do it and some people don’t? And how do – what I’m intrigued by is, I mentioned before, C. Wright Mills notions of vocabularies of motive, how people justify what they’re about to do or what they’ve just done? And again, it’s intriguing that they persuade themselves, on whichever side of the mutiny they’re on, this is the right thing to do, as opposed to, no, it’s in your interest to do this, but this isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.
Scarpino: Is there anything that you wanted to say that I haven’t given you the chance to say?
Grint: No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve fixed most of the world’s problems this afternoon.
Scarpino: Alright. So, I’m going to end this on a lighter note, and once I ask you this question, you’re going to know where it came from. You’re at least theoretically retired, so at least theoretically you have more time now than you did when you were employed…
Scarpino: … and not only have you told me, but I understand from talking to one of your colleagues that you’re a serious fan of the Black Bull Football Club. So, with all the time you have now on your hands, if you had a chance to manage or coach the team, what would you have them do differently? They’re not doing too well, are they?
Grint: I would get rid of the owner. The owner is the big problem here. The ownership is so bad that most of the Black Bull fans are now staying away from the game. There’s a protest against the owner. So, when you see the matches on television, the ground is completely empty except for opposing fans. So, it’s a really interesting thing that you – this is a kind of
irony, that you support the team, but you don’t want to go and watch them or give them any money because you know that would support the owner. So, it’s a very strange situation at the moment, but yeah.
Scarpino: Well, your colleague, David, said, “Ask him that and see what he says.”
Scarpino: Alright, I’ll turn these things off.
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