Books: ‘Who’s in Charge, Towards a Leadership of Service’

Father Harry Bohan and the Ceifin Centre were probably the most prescient in analysing the effect of economic exuberance on our society and the impact of the rapid loss of this success has had on our national spirit and psyche.

This work has revolved around the Ceifin conferences that Fr Bohan has organised since 1998. The papers from each of these gatherings form an annual publication. These publications broadly charted the absence of values and of leadership based on non material values  during our period of rapid economic growth.

Their contribution has been richer in recent years as their papers have questioned what kind of leadership is required for recovery. Different contributors have argued that an ethical framework is essential to make the right economic, political and social choices.

The recent publication of the papers from the 2009 Ceifin Conference illustrates the value of this approach. Who’s in Charge?: Towards a Leadership of Service (Ceifin Papers 2009) tackles the crucial question of how national leadership must be rejuvenated to inspire faith in our institutions and a sense of meaning and purpose in our citizens.

Contributors include familiar voices such as Jim Power and Professor Ray Kinsella and new perspectives from Philip Lowe, Paula Downey and others.

The tone is set from the start by the editor in ‘The leadership we need has to be value based. It cannot be about the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Adding meaning to life has to be an integral part of our future. This can only be possible with the underlying values of integrity, trust and truth’. This sets a benchmark for leadership that is tough to meet but this collection does have a number of valuable themes.

A crucial theme is that our public and private institutions depend on the values that underpin them. If these values are threatened the institutions suffer. If these institutions are public then their ability to articulate a convincing vision of leadership is weakened. As someone who is a member of an institution that is conducting public hearings on the issue of expenses I have first hand experience of this. As Paula Downey argues ‘At the level of every single institution we must effect change, and I believe that is the new leadership agenda’. For example, NAMA will crucially depend on the internal culture within the organisation.

An additional point emphasised by many of the contributors is that our failures were more than just regulatory. Again and again, we see examples of where the breaching of the lowest of regulatory standards was driven by something deeper than a culture of non compliance. ‘The underlying cause of the crisis is an ethical ‘black hole’ at the heart of corporate capitalism’ according to Jim Power. A vital consequence of this is that we must address not just regulatory gaps but also create a culture that will encourage compliance. Changing the rules of the game is the easy part of the problem.

Some of the themes of this book have now been echoed so many times that they appear clichéd. And, at times the points are. Dearbhail McDonald concludes that ‘A new vision for yet another new Ireland would be a very good place to start’ but does not offer any practical or original suggestions as to how this narrative could be created.  Another writer urges the country to tap into a ‘well of life and leadership’, but stops short of imagining how this can be publicly done.

But these papers are resonant on a different level. A few simple and value based anchors are needed in these turbulent and hugely difficult times. Choices need to be made and then sustained at all times.

If, as a country, we say that we will never let our vulnerable and children down again then why can we not we find the money to maintain frontline respite care services by cancelling projects that are deemed to be less important? This choice should then be continuously explained to the country in these terms.

As opposed to allowing incremental tax revenue (yes, the day will come when we can use that word) for many differing and important priorities why not just use new money for one signature issue? Provide an additional 500 social workers for children at risk as opposed to a road, 10 school buildings, a reversal in some social welfare payments and a lot of other important (but smaller) tasks.

The tone of these papers is so refreshing in emphasising that ‘There is no scarcity of analysis. There is no shortage of ideas.’. We just must the find the time and public space to consider and debate them.