Grenfell, Leadership & the Symbolic Dance: Lessons from Mehra; Barwell; Jenrick & others…

The symbolic dance of leadership

Recent decisions and actions surrounding Grenfell have left me perplexed…

If we’re serious about learning from Grenfell we need to move beyond blame narratives and understand why actions and decisions make sense.  Doing so will reveal deeper systemic issues. I have been bewildered about three recent, seemingly unrelated, events.  

  • The appointment of Benita Mehra to the Grenfell Inquiry Panel
  • Gavin Barwell’s appointment to the Clarion Housing Group’s Board, and 
  • Robert Jenrick’s lack of engagement with leaseholders caught up in the cladding scandal.  

Exploring why they might make sense suggests either a failure to understand the nature of change and the symbolic importance of decisions and actions or a lack of intent to make our homes safe and learn from Grenfell.

Three decisions

Benita Mehra was recently appointed to the Grenfell Inquiry Panel.  Grenfell United, representing bereaved and survivors, conducted an investigation that revealed that she ran an organisation that received a £71,000 grant from the charitable arm of Arconic, the US conglomerate that made the ACM panels used on Grenfell. Arconic will be scrutinised during Phase 2 of the Inquiry, which begins on Monday 27th January.

Clarion Housing Group appointed Gavin Barwell as a non-executive board member. A former housing minister and adviser to Theresa May at the time of Grenfell, he failed to respond to several letters warning of  the risk of a deadly fire, the last letter arriving 26 days before the blaze that killed 72 people. He is expected to appear as a witness during Phase 2 of the Inquiry.  

Both of these appointments were announced in late December 2019, a time notoriously used to avoid media scrutiny.

A month into his job as the secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick has consistently ignored residents living in buildings with flammable cladding; unable to sell their properties and facing financial ruin. Grenfell residents’ concerns were ignored prior to the fire.  

Updated events…

On 25th January Mehra resigned from the panel stating she had made “a regrettable oversight” by not connecting the grant her organisation received to the work of the inquiry and that she was resigning “with deepest regret”. From a symbolic perspective, both the Prime Minister and Inquiry seem to defend her appointment rather than admitting an error in judgement. So, let’s not get too excited that lessons are being learned.

Again the impact of ‘resonant actions’ is immediate…

On 24 January, Jenrick finally sent a message to @McrCladiators, a group representing and campaigning for the end of the cladding scandal, saying he would meet them. You can see the impact of a ‘resonant action’ in this thread.

Change: Symbolism & the resonance/dissonance dance

The symbolic messages that these send (unintentionally or not) are difficult to reconcile with the stated intent by government and the housing sector to learn from Grenfell, make our homes safe and build trust with residents. 

In my experience, sustainable change demands that executives and boards attend to two critical things. 

  1. Setting a clear Intention, and
  2. Managing Symbolic Change by intentionally ensuring that decisions and actions resonate with the stated intent and create dissonance with the status quo.

Unless these are both present and managed consistently and with integrity over time, change will be superficial and exist at the level of platitudes and ‘nicely’ worded direction and policy statements that have little lasting impact and often lead to increased levels of mistrust.  Putting aside any blame narratives, I wonder if there is a failure to understand the nature of change and the symbolic importance of decisions.  

The modern world does not operate in a linear, cause-effect manner.  You can neither predict nor control change. All decisions have unintended consequences and the art of leadership is navigating this complexity and nudging change in the desired direction. 

A key trimtab is managing the symbolic dissonance and resonance of decisions and actions.  Dancing with the symbolic messages and narratives our decisions and actions create.  Decisions should either conflict with the status quo or resonate with the stated intent (and sometimes both).   Failure to do so, leaves people questioning the authenticity of leaders and their intent. 

What messages do these decisions send?

  • Appointing someone with links to Arconic to the Grenfell Inquiry panel;
  • Appointing someone who ignored fire safety concerns pre-Grenfell and advised Theresa May in how to respond to it; and
  • Ignoring messages and e-mails from those living in homes with flammable cladding.

Symbolically these conflict with the stated intent to learn from Grenfell and to build trust and listen to residents. This is why they are problematic.  Whether or not Mehra’ impartiality will be affected by her association with Arconic is irrelevant; whether Barwell is well qualified for the board role is irrelevant; whatever reason Jenrick has for ignoring residents is irrelevant. 

These are poor decisions in that they fail to symbolically resonate with the intent for learning, listening and trust. 

Perhaps, those that made them don’t understand the nature of change and the importance of the symbolic messaging of decisions and actions.  Failing that, it’s difficult not to conclude that there is a lack of real intention to learn from Grenfell, make our homes safe and build trust. 

Their next actions will be telling…  

An Afterword…

And then there was this…

“The Prime Minister is completely committed to doing whatever it takes to secure justice for the bereaved and survivors and all those affected by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. This government will ensure that they have an active and engaging role to play in implementing the lessons of Grenfell.” Downing Street Spokesperson

“We owe it to the bereaved and the survivors to deliver action on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the level of tragedy, and to do all that we can to ensure that this never happens again.” Robert Jenrick at the debate pictured.

If serious about change and learning from Grenfell, leaders must consider the symbolic messages and impact of their actions and decisions.

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