All at sea

by nick on July 11, 2016

In the extra-ordinary fallout from the UK’s recent referendum – a country divided, a future uncertain, and shock waves rippling around the world unsettling economies and societies alike – an invitation arises to inquire into the nature of leadership and the workings of ‘democracy,’ in particular their strengths and shortcomings. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that this inquiry has been going on for a very long time. Maybe it’s time we delved a little deeper especially challenging notions of political leadership and of democracy itself.

A warship of the Athenian navy was lost at sea. The captain and crew had no idea where they were. This should have been a surprise because sailors had been navigating by sun and stars or by dead reckoning for centuries. On the other hand this was at the height of the Athenian democratic experiment 2,400 years ago and this ship followed the rules of the current politics, not the custom of the sea.

Before leaving port the captain had decided that all operating decisions would be taken by popular vote. The crew would match in enthusiasm and purpose what they lacked in the specialised book learning of the officers. They would make their choices based on the past rather than any desire to see what might be coming over the horizon. ‘Independence and we the people!’ was their cry. ‘We’ll have our rights of self-governance back,’ they said.

But now they were lost, hungry, and their water supplies were fast running out. So they held a meeting to collectively decide what to do.

As it happened there was one among them who had first rate navigation skills but it was hard for him to get listened to in a culture where individual excellence was frowned upon. It also didn’t help that he wasn’t the most naturally passionate or articulate of men. And it was almost impossible to communicate his ideas to people who had already decided that they didn’t want to listen.

So even though he knew exactly where the ship was and how they could reach safe harbour to find the resources and supplies they needed, he lost the debate to a smooth-talking and charismatic orator who said exactly what the crew wanted to hear. The orator’s personal ambition, and the crew’s short-sightedness, outweighed the need for the ship’s safety, security, and greater purpose.

And so they remained lost. They valued collective ignorance over specialist knowledge. They valued sweet words over competence and a longer term future. They valued looking inwards over looking beyond.

Loosely adapted from the allegory of the ship in Plato’s Republic, Book Six

[Another version of this story exists in Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor: Stories for Leaders, Influencers & Motivators, Crownhouse 2004, p79]

It’s a provocative allegory and Plato was no lover of democracy. But Plato raises the important point that democracy does have its shortcomings and contradictions which need to be recognised and explored and that leadership requires due diligence and responsibility.

The complexity of the issues surrounding whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU, and the contemporary nature of the volatile, uncertain, and complex world we’re currently living in, suggests to me that whatever our personal view, it is makes more sense to hold not a single perspective but multiple perspectives: to find strategies and narratives that embrace many different viewpoints in order to examine how the UK’s complex and often fractious relationship with Europe might work from the inside rather than sniping from outside. The referendum offered a simple either/or question when what was surely needed were multiple questions that could  challenge the ways we think about our relationship with ourselves, with our European neighbours, and with the nature of democracy itself. 

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