The Ignominious disgrace of public leadership in the UK Post Office

Vector Image of Post Office with Label “Closed: Pending Prosecution}.

Reflecting on the lessons of why some seemingly excellent institutions’ leaders turn evil

The recent ITV series “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” has shed light on the problem of toxic leadership at the highest levels of the UK Post Office. But is it just the Post Office, or does it illustrate how insensitive the Government has also been instead of just being out of touch?

The Post Office – once considered a great institution – has destroyed its reputation, perhaps even beyond repair. Unfortunately, our long-standing history of impartial justice has also been tarnished, and the role of Government in protecting its citizens needs to be revised. Ian Hislop’s mauling of the Conservative Party Chairman on Robert Peston’s programme this week illustrates how ineffective the Government has responded to the scandal until the proverbial hits the fan – then the Minsters all run around trying to look like heroes whilst clearing up their muck!

It is difficult to overstate the scale of injustice that resulted from poor leadership, systemic failures and a ‘blame culture’ of the worst kind. The devastating impact of over 700 wrongful convictions resulted in 230 innocent individuals suffering the unimaginable trauma of imprisonment, with the remainder also having their lives ruined. Many of these innocent people were treated the same as the ‘Barons’ of Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) in having their assets seized under the so-called Proceeds of Crime Act. Tragically, four people took their own lives.

Although some convictions have now been overturned, it has taken almost two decades for justice to prevail, whilst CBEs and Knighthoods were being bestowed on some key culprits. Yet, many more continue to suffer and await their day in court. It is unacceptable that these victims have been deprived of compensation for their suffering. Since the programme’s airing at the beginning of this month, over 100 victims have come forward, and the Government is now pledging legal change to exonerate all and expedite appropriate compensation. But why did it take a drama programme to get the Government – not to wake up and smell the coffee (they had already smelt it) – but to realise that the coffee was about to boil over and subsume them?

From Reparation to Reimagination and Reform

Reparation is the most important goal for the victims, mainly and entirely appropriately. My focus is on why this has happened and how we can avoid such ignominious leadership actions from happening again.

It is time for us to demand accountability and action to ensure that such injustices never occur again. We must learn that toxic, selfish leadership damages people’s lives, often irrevocably.

Investigating leadership failures – asking how and why this happened – is paramount and must represent the second goal. It is not just a leadership deficit but an absolute catastrophic leadership debacle. It is a public leadership disgrace. The topmost leaders’ self-centred, egotistic, and utterly apathetic approach has resulted in a culture of the evilest kind.

Was this debacle the result of Groupthink?

Undoubtedly, the series has brought to light the issue of toxic leadership within the UK Post Office. I refer back to one of my Sunday ROAST newsletters from last year, which focused on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of leadership. With this latest example, we are clearly at the downright ugly part of the spectrum, and I reiterate what I said last year: we need to draw on the power and the pull of collective memory. We should remember what happened in this post-office leadership scandal.

As I said in my previous Sunday, ROAST, history is replete with comparisons of leaders based on courage; courage alone is not enough. Alan Bates certainly displayed tremendous courage, but he needed the wider community’s support to achieve the goal. Ultimately, his persistence and resilience paid off. For too long, though, the leadership practice which led to this calamity was highly toxic, representing what I described last year as the ‘dark side’ of leadership.

History and, more specifically, collective memory from experiences have shown us how quickly an individual’s infectious and toxic (ugly) leadership can soon spread to the masses. Toxicity often starts with an individual, such as successive over-ambitious and self-centred Chief Executives. Still, it gathers pace and reaches a tipping point in which it generates ‘groupthink’.

As a simple explanation, Groupthink leads to corporate corruption through the deflection of blame from systemic failures (such as what happened with the infamous Challenger disaster). Groupthink occurs within a group when the desire for conformity leads to irrational and dysfunctional decision-making outcomes. Groupthink suppresses dissent, gives an illusion of invulnerability, pressures others to conform, and senior leaders collectively rationalise unethical actions – passing the blame onto the postmasters and falsely telling them they are the “only ones”. The members of Groupthink ignore the computer glitches through a combination of ignorance and, more worryingly, self-preservation at the expense of others (we may recall that the Challenger disaster occurred because of a technical problem that had previously been known by those who had a responsibility to pull the launch). The only concern of Post Office Groupthink was to fall back on (erroneous) contracts that postmasters signed to the effect that they were responsible entirely for any shortfalls. Remember, they were also told they were the only one; all 700+ of them!

The tragic scandal indicates that Groupthink cascaded throughout the parts of the Post Office that had a role to play in this scandal, from the CEO and HR lead to the Post Office investigators whose only interest was the contractual responsibility of each individual to make good any deficits. Why? As the ongoing public inquiry is now evidencing, they were driven by performance bonuses for (1) convictions and (2) asset recovery. As with the Challenger disaster, the technical/computer malfunctions were known but ignored.

Where does the buck stop?

Leadership through networks is more inclusive than the hierarchy. Quite rightly, questions are being asked of Ministers who, collectively, across these twenty years, have seemingly ignored the signs, relying more on deflecting their inactions back to the lies allegedly being told to them by the respective senior leadership teams of the Post Office. Ministerial responsibility is a collective requirement, and several ministers responsible for the Post Office side-stepped their responsibilities. A corollary of this can be drawn from my previous Sunday ROAST in which I referred to the emerging ‘messages’ being presented to the Hallett inquiry, which was examining questions about “core UK decision-making and political governance” to establish how well the Whitehall machine reacted under massive pressure in responding to Covid-19. The inquiry learned that the head of the Civil service, Simon Case, described the Government as a ‘terrible, tragic joke’. The consequences of Covid-19 policy-making for thousands of people and the impact of both the Post Office and the Government’s toxic leadership on the 700-plus post office workers are beyond a joke. It is a scandal of the worst kind, driven by Government and corporate preoccupation with Management by Objectives, Targets and the bottom line.

Groupthink was undoubtedly evident. But this understates what led to such apathy and blame deflection towards loyal public servants who are pillars of their communities. It starts from the top and the positions of power. It touches on evil intentions and motivation.

Did the leaders and some of their people turn evil?

We can better understand the question by examining Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. This insight can help us prevent such scandals from happening again through the abuse of power. It is not just the power exerted by guards over captives but also by those who lead organisations and set the short-term climate, which can quickly morph into a toxic longer-term culture.

Referring back to the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly Sunday ROAST newsletter, I said many of us hide behind egocentric biases that generate the illusion that we are unique. These self-serving protective shields allow us to believe that we are above average on any test of self-integrity”… and “that we look to the stars through the thick lens of personal invulnerability when we should also look down to the slippery slope beneath our feet. Had the senior leaders of the Post Office bothered to look down at their slipping feet, they would have foreseen what had happened. They chose not to. It was evil leadership.

Zimbardo’s theory emphasises the role of the environment and organisational culture in shaping an individual’s behaviour. In the prison experiment, participants took on authority or subordination roles. The roles led to the development of oppressive dynamics. Similarly, in the context of the UK Post Office, senior leaders created a toxic environment by fostering a culture of blame, cover-up, and the pursuit of profit targets at the expense of ethical considerations at best and dehumanising actions at worst. It is now emerging that the oppressive dynamics deployed by the Post Office Investigators were not driven by a quest for truth but the rather more selfish motivation of performance-related bonuses. One investigator who gave evidence this week to the inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams, in agreeing that bonuses were a driving motivation, nevertheless said that the impact of this fallout on investigators had been overlooked. Undoubtedly, the pressure placed on them was significant, but this mirrors Zimbardo’s argument about why some people turn ‘evil’ (I was only doing my job, as the prison guard group was using oppressive tactics). Part of the challenge is to make whistleblowing far more effective.

The false prosecutions and cover-up of computer system problems show a deviation from ethical norms. No person has a right to accept this as part of their job. There is a complete absence of values. These unethical leadership actions suggest that the leaders may have adopted a mindset akin to the guards in Zimbardo’s experiment, who abused their power. The organisation’s hierarchical structure could have contributed to a power dynamic, allowing postmasters to be victimised. Furthermore, Zimbardo’s theory underscores the importance of leadership in shaping organisational culture. In this case, the senior leaders failed in their responsibility to establish a positive and ethical culture, instead fostering a climate that led to the persecution of innocent individuals.

The time for collective, selfless leadership has never been more apparent.

In summary, the toxic leadership within the UK Post Office aligns with Zimbardo’s theory as it involves the creation of a harmful environment, abuse of authority, and a failure to uphold ethical standards. As we have said, we must not allow this to happen again after significant other leadership failures (Enron, Mid Staffordshire Health Authorities, and countless others, including the government response to COVID-19).

Is it systems, or is it people? (Italics are my emphases)

According to Barry Oshry’s perspective on organisational systems, organisations face challenging problems in predictable conditions. In response, their leaders often implement predictable and overly simplified solutions. These solutions, unfortunately, lead to disempowering experiences for the people involved, which can have destructive effects on their lives. Oshry then asks, “Why do these recurring issues continue to happen with such alarming regularity?” Despite efforts to prevent them, these problems persist.

It is often the case that people say the right things, but they don’t necessarily mean them. They say what they believe is the right thing to say without taking any action. Then, they move on to the next problem without putting their leadership skills to the test. Leaders at all levels should take a stand and show their responsibility to set a collective culture based on selfless pursuit of value-based actions.”

In conclusion, selfless leadership is a collective approach. Selfless leaders ask intelligent leadership questions and enable collective others to come up with further intelligent questions and solutions. We stand on the shoulders of giants. I want to end this Saturday Spotlight with two quotations from two giants:

First, paraphrasing Aristotle, leadership concerns “doing the right things, in the right way, by and for the right people, in the right places and with the right impact”. Leaders recognise that different things must be done at different times and in different ways.

Second, Albert Einstein had a note on his wall which read, “Count what counts and not what can be counted). Just as many organisational

The suggestion is that leadership is collective and will rely on the strengths of intelligence in reducing information asymmetry and in building the right skills for the right people at the right time and place.

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The Selfless Leader