Is it time to be clearer about ‘secular’?

I don’t know if you have been following the coverage of the Michaela Community School legal case. Michaela is a school which has achieved fantastic academic results. According to the Department for Education’s Progress 8 measure it is the highest achieving state school in the country.

Yet it is mired in controversy and a legal case over its ban on all prayer rituals.

The case has been brought with legal aid by one pupil who sees the ban as discriminatory. Many sections of the press (eg The Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Evening Standard) have come out strongly in defence of the rights of the head and governors to operate its strict discipline and secular ethic without the bomb threats, online abuse and now the legal case that seems to have been triggered by the ban that particularly irritated some of the muslim students.

It reads like a case of secular society vs militant Islam. Yet I think much of the coverage misses the real underlying issue in its pursuit of this point.

What’s the issue?

The incident raises difficult questions. Not all (though most) press coverage is on the side of the head, Katharine Birbalsingh’s (eg Guardian) as they seek to defend the freedom of the school against religious interference.

For some, it is explicitly a part of the wider ‘culture wars’ (Evening Standard): “As many are saying, this strikes at the very heart of the elite belief that schools should affirm each child’s racial, religious and gender identity.”

Others see in it a justification for the case of the complete secularisation of all schools “Banning prayer rituals in school? Just get religion out of education completely.” (Guardian).

But the presenting issue actually raises many challenges beyond the ones that the press are framing:

  • How much freedom should pupils be allowed in school time? (The school’s position is that there is no free time in school hours) 
  • What is the purpose of school? (Is academic success everything or what are legitimate wider aims.) The ban was triggered by concern over the damage to the school’s mission which wants to avoid social segregation and promote integration) 
  • How much scope to define ‘school’ should be allowed in a publicly funded institution? 
  • Practically, to what extent does the school achieve its desired social integration by the rules based regime it operates
  • Is this the right sort of response to our multi-cultural society?

All are significant issues. 

But for me, it also raises the underlying question of what is an appropriate application of ‘secular’ with respect to individual freedoms.

What is or is not secular?

The OED defines secular as, ‘Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal.’ This seems simple. 

Is this to do with church or mosque or is it to do with public affairs? If its public affairs then it is secular. 

I think this is the current default understanding in Britain. It generally sees ‘faith’ as a private matter (i.e. not to do with the world and its affairs) and an arena where people will disagree irreconcilably. The solution to this is to keep it out of public affairs. So, as Alastair Campbell famously said in 2003, ‘we don’t do God’. 

However, even a moment’s thought should make it clear that this is not a defensible position. It is illogical, unreasonable and increasingly impracticable.

It effectively places barriers around public debate, interaction, and organisation that seek to limit discussion in these to ‘non-religious’ items. It seeks to exclude anything that needs the ‘acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers’(OED again). 

Yet this effectively makes ‘secularism’ itself a religion by outlawing any reference beyond its self-defined sphere of legitimacy. 

The popular Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as ‘a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith’, this qualifies perfectly. It outlaws all that is beyond material human experience.

In doing so, it seeks to set itself above other faiths, even though it is in itself a faith. It assigns every other religion to playing the role of blind feelers of an elephant trying to describe it whilst simply assuming itself firmly as the only sighted person able to see the whole animal (the blind men and the elephant).

Worse still, it consigns morals, values and ethics to the wholly negotiable space (or maybe as irrelevant in public policy?) as these cannot be anchored to any non-contingent object. We end up eating the very house we live in. This is especially true as our moral and legal framework has been shaped enormously by the Christian faith.

In effect it is a form and practice of atheism. But secularism is not supposed to be this. 

Secular is…

As The University of Groningen makes clear “Atheism is itself a belief system, whereas secularism is a political doctrine”. The two are not the same. Secularism and its implementation is supposed to ensure that all perspectives can be freely expressed and that differences can be accommodated in the way we organise society. This has to encompass diverse views.

I think we start to get closer to the heart of the issue over Michaela when we think about it in this way. It then starts to raise all the other issues I highlighted above. 

Specifically, the question hinges around the level of individual freedoms that a school should allow in school hours.

That will be a very nuanced and delicate decision which is about to be resolved by a state financed court case against a state financed school. But it is unlikely to address the underlying issues behind it. Our increasingly anxious society seems to react to these sort of incidents with an intemperate, emotional kick. That is not good for any of us in our society in the long run.

One journalist summarised their perspective on the issue as,”The school has been a blindingly successful example of how a multi-faith society can be made to work: everyone gives something up so we can all get along. It’s called compromise, and this is self-evident. Which is what a multicultural society should really be about: giving things up for the greater good”. But this is not the issue, unless you accept the inaccurate default definition of secular and lose sight of the other questions. It risks inflaming rather than resolving.

It is also not the same as, nor as positive as, Jesus might have said on the situation, “Treat others as you would have them treat you” (Luke 6.31, Matthew 7.12).

Is leading change the top challenge for leaders?

I was struck by an article in a recent edition of the Economist which looked at the predicament of managers in the current business environment. It summarised them as “burnt-out, distracted and overloaded”.

That seemed to me quite a reasonable picture of life in many of todays’ corporates. It substantiated its conclusions with data from a survey by Adecco which surveyed 16,000 managers across over 20 countries and spoke of the jump in pressure over the last couple of years and the increase in burn-out.

The article discussed the drive to press for better skills and then quickly zoned in on the skills that managers need to develop to be considered ‘good’. It transpired that these are increasingly soft skills rather than finance, intellect and technical capabilities (although these are still very important). 

I didn’t think this was new news. I have always understood soft skills to be the differentiators for most managerial roles (almost by definition in that they tend to demand the management of people not just things). However, it seems that many consultancies, business schools and analysts are suggesting that these soft skills are becoming even more important. 

Why? Because of the rising challenges that face managers who orchestrate people towards a common goal:

  • Greater workforce diversity – e.g. with more women in management, greater ethnic diversity, more international interaction and increasingly diverse outlooks on work and life
  • More hybrid and remote working which makes social signals more difficult to read and building relationships more difficult (see Zhao, Zhang, Noah and Tiede) because of the way our brains work
  • Increasing distraction and disturbance from shorter and less planned interactions with co-workers, through messaging platforms and video calls at the same time as the quiet time of business travel has reduced
  • A more turbulent business environment with international friction, a reemergence of inflation, supply chain disruption and the seemingly every increasing pace of technological change.

So what are the soft skills managers need?

A further piece of work by Adecco* highlighted the goals for which they most wanted coaching. The list is instructive. The top five in order were:

  • Leading change
  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Resilience
  • Emotional intelligence

The fact that companies agreed with the priority of the top three and not the last two is also significant. Companies selected shaping strategy and articulating ambition as their next two and placed resilience and emotional intelligence outside the top twenty… but then they are not the leaders facing the pressure and needing to support their teams

* (with 50,000 managers on their EZRA platform)

But is this really new?

Has this list changed much in the last twenty years? 

That proved a much more difficult question to answer! Finding priority skills for managers from the start of this century is tough.  The best I could come up with was a survey from a US Business School in 1998. It identified the most critical skills business and faculty leaders thought effective managers needed and the top six (there was a tie for fifth place!) were:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • An ethical or spiritual orientation
  • The ability to manage change
  • The ability to motivate
  • Analytic and problem solving skills
  • Being a strategic/visionary manager

This is similar in many ways  – change leadership, communications and influence and motivation are all the same and strategy also figures in the company list in 2023 as it does here. I also think the recent survey fails to pick up on a growing emphasis for managers, captured in the 1998 research – the ethical/spiritual. This is a rising pressure point for those leading generations Y and Z, (i.e. anyone under 40) as behaviours seem even more morally infused than for older generations.

Overall it feels to me that the key criteria for effective management has not changed but managers are feeling even more pressure over the need to succeed (which ironically could make it more difficult for them!).

This also reflects some of my experience in working with leaders. People feel under more pressure and more exposed.

Does this mean anything for organisations?

I think it does – both for leadership and for leading change. Here are three takeaways:

  1. We need good initiation and support for those moving to managing people for the first time.

While large organisations often excel in this due to robust HR departments and well-established appraisal systems, many other environments lack structured initiation into managerial responsibilities. In these places, individuals can find themselves promoted or recruited into managerial positions without adequate preparation for the distinct challenges this role entails. They might lack support in crucial areas such as staff appraisals, effective delegation, navigating difficult conversations, and balancing task management with relationship building.

  1. Leaders need to build and maintain self awareness and resilience, especially when leading significant change.

I sense a growing need to bolster leaders operating in turbulent environments and when they are mandated to press for significant change and innovation, especially in large unwieldy bureaucracies. 

Developing resilience skills becomes pivotal in sustaining leaders’ energy during protracted change. Equally critical is the support provided to identify and cultivate these skills, whilst concurrently strengthening the teams. This support is fundamental to sustaining and adapting changes in the organisation.

  1. Creating connections, fostering a shared language, and establishing positive behavioral norms within teams are vital components of effective teamwork.

While diversity brings valuable benefits such as enhanced innovation and adaptability, it also poses challenges by potentially undermining unity and camaraderie. A recent article in Forbes underscores how diversity, if not effectively managed, can lead to feelings of isolation among team members.

Leadership involves setting collective goals and fostering a strong sense of shared ownership. This necessitates effective communication with its shorthand, analogies and language. Linda Hill at Harvard calls out the importance of this. Encouraging curiosity, active listening, and the ability to advocate one’s viewpoint are integral to developing innovative collaborations.

Without establishing strong connections and a shared sense of purpose, diversity within teams can lead to frustration, hindering progress and impeding the development of the cohesive ‘us’ mentality that’s essential for effective teamwork.

Should you brand your change?

We live in an era full of names and labels -Influencers, Me-Too, millennial, well-being, Gen Z and eco-this or neo-that.

Names are given for everything – things, people, ideas, trends and issues.

A veritable stream of new ones appear for topics, conditions, campaigns and, of course, products and services. Indeed there is a multi-billion pound industry that has grown up devoted to names: the creation of names, the protection of names and the development of taxonomies and structures for naming.

These names are the currency of our soundbite culture and therefore the ideal vehicle for communication.

The value of a name

But is it always useful to give a name to a new vision, strategy, programme or initiative? Does it help or hinder? 

Names do have advantages. A label can be powerful:

It provides identity

A name enables articulation, connection and categorisation.

It allows the subject to become a something. Witness the way that mental health and well-being have enabled people, who a decade ago would have remained silent, to express their felt needs or issues on this sensitive topic. It is now a something – an issue that people can identify – whereas before it might only have been so with a clear medical diagnosis. 

Similarly, we used to just have flora and fauna for nurture and protection. Then in 2021, after a long process of advocacy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have now called out an additional important category – funga. 

A name signifies it has weight and needs attention.

It creates and reinforces meaning 

There is only a small step from identity to meaning and significance. Once used again and again the label is like sticky paper as it collects values, an image, impacts and significance. 

A name very quickly becomes full of meaning with its associated values. It leaves an almost immediate impression. This is especially valuable if the name is for a concept or complex idea that otherwise takes a lot of description. We see this with terms like ‘green’ or ‘right-wing’. Herein lies much of its value!

It creates boundaries 

A label marks out territory. It identifies the scope of an idea, issue or proposition. It can therefore helpfully define what aspects are in or outside an idea. These boundaries are not immutable but they create a focus and begin the process of changing perspectives.

Witness the impact of the concept of ‘shareholder value’ and then the slow move into a new named ideas around ‘stakeholders’ that have influenced corporate governance. The two concepts delineate a different space for the area of governance.

It provides a vehicle for communication

As a result of all, this the brand provides a shorthand for communication. 

In a few words it enables an idea to be introduced quickly and easily into discussions, programmes, operations and strategy.  At the same time, it immediately identifies purpose, values or approach – legitimising some things and ruling others out.

As a result, a name creates profile and, on the right topic, can be used to escalate its importance, encourage measurement, highlight its significance. These are your hashtags and placard labels.

It is quickly value-laden

Historically, names linked people or items directly to attributes  – surnames described… Greaves (think cemeteries), Butchers, Bakers or the place were someone lived. Many of the early brands capitalised on this by trying to capture their function or usp in the name – Brillo, Sunsilk or Lifebuoy. 

Names have always been imbued with meaning and naming something is to exercise a little power over it. Simon was renamed Peter (rock) by Jesus to signify the importance and solid nature of faith.

Today ideas, topics and activities all seem to gain a following wind when they acquire a name – well-being, Islamaphobia, trolling, rewilding, omnichannel, shrinkflation, zero covid…

The downside of names

However, there are downsides from using a name or label. These mirror the advantages. We see this in society just as easily as in organisations. It makes the decision over the creation and use of a name vital when leaders innovate.

Labels provide a target

Leaders who name an initiative or vision offer an immediate target for opponents to rally around and focus upon. This can obstruct progress unnecessarily. Smaller, more specific projects which are connected to the main programme, however worthy in their specific aims, are sometimes opposed because they are seen a part of the bigger label.

This can be seen in for instance the movement around ‘black lives matter’ . The straightforward sense of the label has a multithreaded nature that crystallised both support and opposition across otherwise disparate groups. Why? Because it puts a direct challenge to racial discrimination in a wrapper with a sociological theory that explains ‘social, political, and legal structures and power distribution through a “lens” focusing on the concept of race’. Some who agree on specific abuses, oppose the wider theory and are not then sure how to respond.

They can be misinterpreted 

Shorthand terms cannot provide a full and complete description of the meaning of the whole. This can be helpful because it takes debate out of the less important features of the topic – but it also exposes it to misunderstanding (of scope or aims) and even hijack.

One of the business waves of the 1990’s, ‘re-engineering’ fell foul of this. The core idea of working on the effectiveness and efficiency of cross-business processes was lost in the wider issues and consequences of restructuring, downsizing and hollowing-out leading to considerable resistance in many organisations to some otherwise valuable tools for improvement which struggled to be extricated from the other topics.

They can mis-scope change

A name creates boundaries as it focuses on certain aspects of an initiative. Yet sometimes these boundaries might not be clear at the start of the idea. Once established though, boundaries are difficult to move. The impact can be to unduly limit or even divert attention from the core.

This can be particularly true in organisations where strategic initiatives (e.g. a vision or important themes, like quality or service) are launched. It can be especially important to ensure that names do not carry different pre-existing meanings or implications.

Acquiring a name brings with it the values that it was associated with rather than the values that you would ideally like to attribute to it. It is very easy to become a prisoner of the identity of a name. I once ran an initiative looking at excellent customer service, something that you would think is quite clearly focused. However, it struggled to engage those in the after-sales area who saw only the spares fulfilment and repair/replacement as customer service and struggled to see the wider approach to customer centricity, let alone enquiries, sales support and complaints areas as constituent parts of the idea.

Three factors to consider before naming 

The choice of and use of a name is more art than science. Yet much of its value is tied to the breadth, shape and nature of the stakeholders that sit around whatever topic is under consideration. This is where forethought is needed.

With this in mind, here are three factors to weigh up in the decision:

Timing the need for broader support

When advancing a vision of what might be, especially a vision with many components, progress can sometimes be easiest through selecting specific projects or work that can be justified on their own merit. In these cases there is little to be gained by pushing for a wider name and exposing progress to debate and challenge.

However, if there is too little incentive for movement around specific initiatives or progress demands broader support from stakeholders who cannot readily be engaged in the smaller projects then the timing may be right to find a suitable name or label to build a bigger case for change.

This could be seen in last year’s COP discussions on bio-diversity where previous progress has been slow and diffuse despite the pressing need to address the wider topic. This time round though the adoption of ‘30×30’ (30% of planet protected by 2030) helped to crystallise the political support needed to close an agreement.

The value of broadband communications 

Some initiatives can be advanced readily in 1:1 or small scale dialogues that enable the full details of an idea or argument to be discussed and agreements secured. In other cases, the number of stakeholders or the context prevent this approach from being successful. 

In these instances, there is more value to be unlocked by branding a proposition, which can help open up multiple communications routes, engage a wider constituency and build support and ideas that might help progress.

The clarity of the proposition and its scope 

Where the proposition is not clear and well-scoped, or further experience and data is needed to shape and validate it then it is less likely to benefit from a name at this moment. It is often better to leave explanation in a long form format until further experience is gathered. It can be worth the wait.

To provide an appropriate name with the right values and impact sometimes makes this a task that itself takes time. The choice around a strong new corporate brand demands a wealth of understanding of the attributes that will be built upon and the target audiences in order to make it a success. A similar challenge faces a significant initiative in an organisation.


These factors are worth considering when you are tempted to come up with a catchy and hopefully sticky soundbite to label a programme, idea, method or aim.

However, in life it is not always under your control because as many people discover you don’t have to own an initiative to give it a name – anyone can. This is worth remembering. Whatever the decision to be made on labelling a change initiative, makes sure that it is based on a good understanding of all the stakeholders. Otherwise your ‘special military operation’ might become a war.

Lockdown learning: #14 of 14 Life and death

The last in a short series of 2 minute observations…

For me the lockdown has been like a magnifying glass poring over life and death. I have been encouraged to look more closely at what life is and is not really about and it has highlighted death on a dally basis.

Neither of these things are comfortable topics.  They have sharpened my focus.

For life, it calls forth a focus on priorities and bigger questions. For me, it has highlighted an idea well expressed by St Augustine back in 400 AD who said that humans are fundamentally lovers above all else – our choice in life is simply to decide what we will love.

I agree with him. Contrary to appearances, we are lovers not consumers (even if people might wish differently just at the moment!).

Our loves are the most important things in our lives. These are what we serve and end up ultimately being shaped by.

How do I know what they are? For me the lockdown has made them clearer. They are the aspects of life I most value or have missed most.

Our church did an online vox-pop where people explained their important loves and some humorous highs and lows. There were some strikingly similar thoughts and the exercise was a good prompt to consider this question. What are my loves and – are they worth loving that much?

On death, although so far I have not lost anyone close to Covid-19, people I know have, and two of my own friends have died of other things in the last couple of months. Death feels as if it has been brought out of the shadows. We have all been taken to the graveside and whatever bubble we were living in has finally popped. We understand afresh that mortality has a 100% hit rate and the world has always been a risky place.

In reality, our  risk of dying in any one year is quite low and Covid-19 has not really increased it by much (as David Speigelhalter explains). Nonetheless, we are much more likely to know someone who has died than before. What it has done is punctured our sense of unbounded safety – and brought us back to the reality of death….albeit with a vicious bump.

Death demands perspective on the importance, joy and value of life. We get one life to live and we need to live it well.

So at the end of this set of posts here’s the thought I am left with as we emerge (slowly and not smoothly) from lockdown:

What is worth loving and living for – and am I investing my life in that?

Lockdown learning: #13 Economy 2.0?

The penultimate in a short series of 2 minute observations…

We are nearing the end of ‘lockdown’ and entering a new ‘normal’ (or what passes for it). This week I was led to wonder if Covid-19 provides us  with a chance to reset our approach to living or at least the economic bit?

Bizarrely, this was provoked by the death of Lily Lian at 103 (see the obit in the Economist). She was the last of the street singers of Paris- a profession that lost its popular relevance post-WW2 as cultural changes, the pace of life and the importance of the economics grew.

We are starting to stare into the economic mess that the virus has created and talk is all about business and rebuilding.

I completely share the desire to provide useful lives for everyone in our society. The virus has wrecked millions of these but I also sense with others that it provides a wake-up call to rethink our approach to the economy.

We have an opportunity. Many of the jobs the virus has destroyed (an estimated 40% in the US) will not return. We have all cut back on consumer spending, travel and been forced to look again at our way of life. Simply going back to how it was does not make sense when that approach was not working well.

Put graphically, it was killing us – breeding mental ill-health, destroying our habitat burning our planet and not increasing our welfare. Simplistic goals aiming for higher personal or country income do not help us. Indeed, as another paper explained this week, the most successful people at this simply destroy our environment much more quickly (If you want a disturbing read on this, try David Wallace-Wells’ book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’).

We need to set different goals for life and approach the realisation of them in a different way and we need it in the next decade. The challenge is that this needs all actors in the system to revisit their living – from governments and corporations to countries and individuals.

It has to start somewhere and where else but me?

This means that despite the encouragement to go simply go back out and spend I won’t do that – and I sense that I am not alone.

It means working out what really and sustainably makes life buzz. Deciding where to spend time and energy, as well as money and, of course, what not to spend them on.

I don’t have a plan – only places to start.  I know that certain goals, like decarbonising my life, are limited by our current technology and approach. But, having been forced into a habit breaking 100 days of life, now is definitely a good time to act.