Taking inspiration from coffee

‘Winning at all costs’.

When pressed on their conduct during a campaign, this was the answer from one of our speakers.

While the honesty is admirable, I have to disagree with the sentiment.

Following my time with Future Leaders Connect, I am more convinced than ever that the means really does matter just as much as the ends.

This is primarily because how people are involved in a campaign, in policy development, or in delivering a specific outcome, determines the success and durability of that outcome.

This is especially important for policy development. Far too often we design solutions without understanding people’s real needs, or with little comprehension of how these solutions work in practice.

The current chaos surrounding the roll-out of Universal Credit is a clear cut case of this. Families are destitute because politicians could not comprehend the impact of taking money away from those who are already struggling.

During our time in Cambridge, we ran a ‘Design Thinking’ simulation – a process to design policy solutions based on asking people what they want, crowd-sourcing ideas, and then testing the outcome of these ideas before roll-out.

Far more policymakers could learn from this.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), an independent organisation working to solve poverty, recently took this approach in Leeds, a city in the North of England.

Job Seekers were being penalised for repeatedly missing their JobCentre appointments. The JRF spoke to these Job Seekers to understand why this was happening, and found that it was because local buses were regularly late or cancelled, leaving it impossible to arrive on time.

The solution was a local transport one, not a national Work & Pensions one. This was discovered because the JRF took the radical approach of actually talking to people.

The how also matters as much as the what because of the power of human relationships.

Both trust in your fellow humans and the institutions that govern you, and a belief that you have the power to shape these institutions, are utterly critical to a flourishing society.

This is something I have strongly believed since my time as a trainee community organiser with Citizens UK. Saul Alinsky, arguably the father of community organising, built his method around the principle that the way you engage people in change matters just as much as the change.

This is both to ensure solutions are driven by what communities want, but it is also to empower people – building leaders who can deliver sustainable change, and building confidence within communities that further change is possible.

When people feel disenfranchised or excluded it sows the seeds of division and conflict. Building democratic and participatory structures that give excluded communities a meaningful say and some control over their own lives –  e.g. through devolution here in the UK –  is the only way to foster a more peaceful and more equal world.

This is why the best leaders are driven by people. It is the responsibility of leaders to bring people from across society with them, and be responsive to their different needs.

During our time in Cambridge, we were asked to bring an artifact that we thought demonstrated good leadership.

Our colleagues from Indonesia brought coffee beans. Their rationale was beautiful: because the best leaders not only achieve positive change when put under pressure (the coffee), they make everything and everyone around them better too (the water turning into coffee).

For me, this perfectly encapsulates why ‘winning at all costs’ cannot be the answer.

Our journey towards a better world is not linear. If we win, but everyone around us is miserable and the fabric of society is frayed, what kind of future is that?


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