Saturday, January 5, 2008

A new discretion

The British civil service is one of the finest institutions humans have devised. Why? Because the service stands for two things in my mind: (1) Quality intellect applied; and (2) Discretion.

Being discreet is difficult. My teacher John Rohr has influenced my thinking a great deal, but I have come to diverge a good bit from Professor Rohr in my own thinking, perhaps a dangerous thing.

Regardless, what has discretion meant, and what should it mean to a leader as enabler?

First, discretion has meant a low-key, low-identity input on policy matters with the open capacity to make decisions for the public good as part of an institutional stream of excellence. That sounds like John Rohr...

What influences me from classical administrative discretion is the downplay of identity, a hallmark of the British Civil Service. The idea is this: One graduates from a fine institution, say, Cambridge, and then one serves politicians...quietly. As parties change in office, the civil service politely and obediently stays behind guiding the stability and quality of the institutional government. This can work well, and the UK is the paragon in many respects. I am honored to be part of its extended family. The old British comedy, Yes, Minister! satirizes this way of institutional operation and some of its foibles.

Now, what should discretion mean? As institutions melt we cannot rely on networks with the past to provide sustenance. Instead, we must look to discretion as a turn toward its identity-reducing aspect as the emergent primary classical influence. That is, I am not the institution and the institution is not me. Where I have gone to school is less important than who I help. I am an enabler...not out for myself but rather in service to the good. The minister melts away (never entirely...gracious me!) not leaving a bureaucratic state, but a melted set of proto-organizations where leaders must continually explore the darkness for the prospect of doing the right government, in policy networks, in civil society, in business, in life. Divisions fade. Life becomes a holistic moral enterprise about learning and connecting anew--not leveraging old links for power or agenda pushing.

What passes for good is each leader's moral challenge. What the leader enables is always linked to the dilemma of whether one's aid is helping in some impossible and final holistic analysis. Where I fail is certainty and agenda. Each decision of the new leader is a network decision...contextual, painful, uncertain and focused on the good and sustainable. Such enabling is inextricably linked to learning.

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