The concept of the modern, open democracy that embraces freedom, diversity and human rights is under threat. We live in a time of conflict unlike any other. A war is under way that is not just being fought out on conventional battlefields among state powers, but also on the internet and the streets of our towns and cities, as the citizens of Paris found to a shocking cost in November.
How has this threat become so tangible, so powerful? Have we, in some way, unleashed and then failed to control a set of psychopathic individuals who have been brainwashed by a toxic philosophy? Or has there been some dramatic crisis in what we term “society” which has resulted in a failure to provide the structures we so obviously need to keep us safe?
In my view, simply labelling the perpetrators of atrocities such as those seen in Paris as insane is too simplistic. As is an assertion that any government should or could have complete control over or responsibility for every one of its citizens. Instead, we need to examine whether at least part of the problem, and consequently the seed of a solution, lies in a failure, not of institutions or individual psyches, but of organisations and their management and leadership.
Even the most individualistic of individuals seeks to belong to something. We define ourselves in large part by what we identify with, whether that be a family, a religious institution, a club or, crucially, a workplace. This organisational membership helps to bond us together in micro-societies. Policy, society and ideology are holistic terms that no longer represent anything really meaningful. The sense of who we are has been relocated to our memberships of organisations in both the bricks and mortar and virtual worlds. If too many points of identification or membership are denied, as for example through the high rates of unemployment among the young of the French banlieues, or of the disadvantaged areas of Brussels, then we present opportunities to the ever-eager recruiters of IS.
A body which may use the term state but which is actually a decentralised organisation using ideological mantras to fulfil its members’ need for identification.
As director of the Society and Organisations Centre at HEC Paris, I spend much of my working life trying to help managers and leaders make sense of this disorganised world. Now I think it is time that these leaders and managers realise that they play a fundamental role in society that politicians and intellectuals can no longer fill. That of generating meaning locally, in their everyday operations, helping people to develop an identity in a concrete way.
Who are the people that are most acutely confronted with the difficult social realities of our time? Who has the experience to handle multiple sources of identification, whether that be client needs or employee diversity? And who are the people trained by experience to handle different market imperatives, national regulations and the demands of red tape? Managers.
Management may have failed in not offering spaces, symbols and practices that help people identify with positive values, but it does offer a source of hope for tackling the threat that faces us all.
Modern capitalism can be a source of exclusion when firms ignore economically challenged groups and areas. Yet a number of companies, Carrefour and McDonald’s in France being prime examples, have built successful businesses by embracing consumers of all types and incomes. Where I believe business schools can play a valuable role, is in redefining what management actually means. Managers can develop and implement the practices that will help to consolidate the fractured structure of our world. Leaders need to present better role models to a much wider range of people than they do at the moment. We need concrete practices and role models that are easier to identify with because they speak more of inclusivity, sustainability and responsibility.
There can be no simple solution to the challenges we face in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and those that have followed in the UK and the US. However, if we are to address the issues that leave members of our societies so vulnerable to the message of those who would wish to destroy us, I believe a reshaping of the way that business and other leaders conduct themselves, and the organisations they manage, also has a vital part to play.
The author is director, the Society and Organisations Research Centre, HEC Paris business school