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“The Post Office scandal has exposed Britain as a hotbed of cronyism and corruption”.

In this episode, I explore the Post Office scandal in the UK and the lessons that leaders can learn from this abysmal example of executive leadership.

This is Advanced Executive Leadership. I’m Jacqueline Conway

Introduction – what happened.

What was it about a simple 4-part drama that turned Government, the law and a national institution upside down? A story so shocking that any corporate leader would be remiss not to take note and try to understand if anything remotely like it could happen on their watch.

I’m talking of course about the Post Office scandal. What has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

For those listeners who live outside the UK – this country has experienced seismic shockwaves by a television drama that told the true story of how hundreds of innocent Subpostmasters were wrongly accused of theft and accounting fraud when the issue all along was a faulty software system called Horizon.

The Post Office runs like a franchise, with local shops run by Subpostmasters having post office counters where people conduct money related issues like cashing benefits cheques, paying utility and other bills, and sending parcels. It’s on every high street and countless corner shops all over the UK and everyone has used it at some point.

Like so many others across the UK, I tuned into Mr Bates vs The Post Office over the festive season. I downloaded it and watched all four episodes in one sitting, getting more and more outraged and perplexed and the drama unfolded. I wasn’t the only one. The programme lit a touch paper in our collective consciousness and widespread outrage ensured.

Even The Telegraph, that bastion of the establishment, led with the headline “The Post Office scandal has exposed Britain as a hotbed of cronyism and corruption”.

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced last week he would urgently bring forward legislation to quash the convictions of the hundreds of former Subpostmasters.

A high court ruling in 2019 found that there was a number of ‘bugs, errors and defects’, in the software which amounted to a ‘material risk’ that it was to blame for the accounting errors that the Post Office has prosecuted the Subpostmasters for- with charges of theft or embezzlement. Many of them lost everything: their homes, their businesses, their liberty, and ultimately, their lives.

As the FT noted: the “scandal was uncovered not by officialdom but by dogged, independent minded heroes. Best known amongst them is Alan Bates, the now legendary Subpostmaster who with awe-inspiring tenacity, wouldn’t let it rest. He set up and leads the campaign group, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and was the lead claimant in the High Court action in 2019. Bates has been supported by journalists at BBC, Computer Weekly and Private Eye who knew it was a story to be told; James Arbuthnot then an MP, now a member of the House of Lords and a whistle-blower at Fujitsu: the company who supplied and ran the Horizon system.

In one scene, Jo Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted of theft, asks Alan Bates of the Post Office leadership: “are they incompetent or evil?” to which Bates answers: “it

doesn’t matter, it all amounts to the same thing”. Now, this was a bit of drama, not necessarily a conversation that really happened, but it struck me that the intent made a great deal of difference indeed.

There’s been a lot of talk of the “vindictive” way in which the Post Office pursed the Subpostmasters. As the story progressed on the news last week, the word malevolence was used again and again to describe the leadership at the Post Office. I turned to the excellent book at Nick Wallis “the Great Post Office Scandal” where he meticulously builds the story as only a seasoned journalist can. And that’s what I found. A retched kind of malevolence, that was staggering.

It now seems a matter of record that Horizon was faulty, and that at some point long before the dramatization, the executives at the Post Office knew about it. And this is the centre of what they did wrong. It was about knowledge. What they knew, when they knew it and what they were prepared to share.


We can’t just put this all down to those at the top having dark triad personality traits – the cluster of Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and psychopathy because there were so many people involved over such a long period of time. It just isn’t possible that everyone at the Post Office was in some way personality disordered.

Organizations can do great harm by deceiving customers, stakeholders, and society more broadly. For instance, scientists working at tobacco companies had observed that smoking causes cancer in their own clinical experiments as early as in the 1950s. But instead of sharing these findings with the public, they created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to conceal the harmful effects of smoking, and they discredited serious research and promoted junk science.

Academics researching this type of corporate knowledge deception distinguish two different strategies that organisations use to deceive: they ‘sow doubt’ by contesting information, and / or they ‘exploit trust’ when they deceive others by obfuscating, concealing, or falsifying information that they control. It’s clear that the Post Office did both.

They sowed doubt because they told the Subpostmasters who were having problems that they were the ‘only ones’ that this was happening to, making them feel that the problem was theirs and theirs alone. And then they exploited the trust we had in them about what they knew about the problems with the Horizon software from everyone, including Ministers and judges. It became a form of corporate malevolence when the behaviour was based on the motivation to deceive others when it served their own interests.

This is but one example of the type of vice prevalent in organizations where there are patterns of behaviour and attitudes that undermine knowledge. These features are rooted in the organization’s culture and governance. For example, there is an alarming part of his book where Wallis outlines how the Post Office were destroying evidence. There was knowledge of the failure of Horizon and knowledge that there were questionable convictions and yet they hid what they knew.

Wallis noted that they were using private criminal prosecutions in a process that was designed around asset recovery rather than seeking the truth. Their deception became a deliberate attempt to conceal, manipulate and lie. It’s clear that at some point in time, they stepped over a line. But why?

The Post Office has been under scrutiny from government on a major transformation programme and was trying to get new business from Government. And they considered themselves to be “Britain’s most trusted organisation”. It seems the short-term damage of admitting what they had gotten wrong became too difficult to turn back from.

But there may also have been cultural reasons.

Patronising Disposition of unaccountable Power

In a spot on Thought For the Day on Radio 4’s Today programme last week, The Right Reverend James Jones likened what had happened with the Post Office scandal with how the victims of the Hillborough disaster were treated. This was a fatal human crush at a football match at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 where 97 people died. In this miscarriage of justice, the supporters were blamed for the tragedy rather than crowd control and there was a massive police cover up.

The Right Reverend James Jones wrote a report that was published in 2017 called the Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power. Woof!

This “patronising disposition”, as he calls it “is a cultural condition, a mindset that defines how organisations and people within them behave…  One of its core features is an instinctive prioritisation of the reputation of the organisation over the citizen’s right to expect people to be held to account for their actions.”

It was true for what happened at Hillsborough and it is also true for those who have experienced the miscarriage of justice over more than two decades by the Post Office.

And the patrionising didn’t stop there. There was also a class issue underpinning how the Post Office viewed the Subposmasters, according to Wallis.

He noted that “the Post Office’s cultural snobbery towards, and lack of trust in, their Subpostmasters never quite disappeared” for the time when the Postmaster was an upper-class role and the Subpostmasters were their working class.

In Nick Wallis’s book he tells of an incident where a member of the Operations team described Subpostmasters as a ‘specific class of people… failed coppers and retired publicans’ who were ‘all on the take’.

Here is another lesson for leaders today.

When we patronise the people who work for us. When we diminish people who do jobs that we wouldn’t want to do, our leadership is hollow … In order to lead well we must be able to understand what life is like for the people who we rely on for our organisation to survive. Covid helped us as a nation to see who the real key workers were, and how reliant we are on people who do the jobs that are sometimes the most difficult and challenging.

It got me thinking to those leadership teams who keep it real by spending time every year on the front line. An idea originally popularised by the BBCs Back To the Floor, programme. Some companies still do this, with the executive team spending time every year in an operational role.

I’ve worked with executive who, during an operational crisis have donned their high-viz jackets and gotten alongside their staff, on night shift, on a Sunday afternoon… whatever it took. They mucked in, as we might say.

By knowing what it’s like when things aren’t going to plan, executive leaders have a much better understanding of how they can help make things easier for their people so it’s much less likely to happen again.

I can’t imagine that his ever happened at the Post Office. Indeed, not only did they not know what it was like when dealing with Horizon first hand, but they were conspicuously absent from many of the opportunities where they might have heard a different reality. If the only time that senior leaders come in contact with the place where value is actually created in the organisation when they’re cutting ribbons and giving speeches, they can’t really claim to know their company.

The air of superiority came right from the top.

Paula Vennelles, who was CEO through much of this scandal – is Reverned Vennells, Church of England vicar. Alan Bates and other noted the “callous” attitude of Vennels. This is somehwhat at odds with her once telling a business conference how she took “biblical inspiration from the young King Soloman, who showed humility in asking God for a wise and understanding heart, so that he could rule his people with justice”.

The scene in the drama where Vennells is ‘obstructive’ to the parliamentary committee with Nadhim Sahawi playing a cameo role of himself trying to get to the truth shows her to be anything but.

I thought about all of this and I was reminded on a story I read in the wonderful book by the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz: called The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Each chapter is a little vignette – a short story and the one I recalled is named The Bigger the Front, the Bigger the Back.

Grosz tells the story of a flight he took from New York to San Francisco where he gets talking to the woman in the seat next to him. She tells him that she’s going to see her mother for the first time in sixteen years after her parents cut her out of their lives. She explains that she had met a man at medical school. She was Jewish and he was Catholic, and this proved to be unsurmountable for her father. From the day of their marriage, her father never spoke to her again. This was a terrible burden for her, especially when she tried to reconnect and was ignored, even when she had children.

Then she got a call from her mother a couple of months earlier to say that she and her father were divorcing. He was marrying his receptionist, whom he had been in a relationship with for 25 years, and who was Catholic.

And then she says the thing that sticks with Grosz: Then I got it, the bigger the front, the bigger the back.

Psychoanalysts call this splitting. It an unconscious strategy to keep us ignorant of our feelings and the ways that we contradict or deceive ourselves.

Sometimes when our espoused values are very tightly held and publicly proclaimed, and we consider ourselves to be a certain thing – like for example of Church of England vicar. When we identify too much with our bright side and we deny our darker sides, we are in danger of letting them destroy us. Like, for example, a person who has a notion that they have a wise and understanding heart who rules with justice. They become so fixated this version of the truth, they engage in ways that are not wise. Or understanding. Or just.

When we exile parts of ourselves that we don’t like and can’t make peace with, or we can’t face that alongside being a person who is kind we can also be mean, we’re at risk of letting our meanness run us rather than us be aware of it.

This is something all leaders have to grapple with and none more so that CEOs. When you get to the most coveted position, people tend to tell you what you want to hear. They stroke your ego and they dance around difficult messages. Good CEOs who have a full and well-developed sense of themselves as being flawed just like the rest of us, will take all of this with more than pinch of salt.

Many of the best CEOs I’ve worked with have some people around them who are able, albeit behind closed doors, to speak open and frankly and to tell them how it is. These confidants, sometimes known as a consigliere, are most effective when they have a sound sense of themselves and don’t need to prove anything to the CEO. The relationship goes deeper than the difficult message.

This is why leaders are encouraged to continue to develop, especially to gain a deepening self awareness and to engage in coaching and other forms of development.

I say it often, but slowing down your development when you reach the C-suite is completely backwards. It’s at this point that the stakes are so much higher and the foibles and fallibilities can be amplified because of the impact of decisions. If you’re an executive leader, taking your ongoing development seriously should be a top priority.

Why did it take a drama to bring it to life?

There was a great deal written about and documented on the Post Office scandal before Mr Bates vs The Post Office aired on our screens. And there’s been many questions as to why it took this tv programme to create the reaction to what was an obvious travesty of justice.

It seems to me that it confirms that we know … humans are wired for story. And they makers of it did tell a brilliant story.

In the UK, I think we have a strong sense of justice and fair play. We want to believe that justice will prevail. So when we could see the frustration of people trying to do the right thing and putting their faith in the system, only for it to so catastrophically let them down, we shared in some of their frustration, anger and grief.

The Post Office’s story is now one of shame. Maybe we can all be humble enough to see if there are lessons we can learn from it.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.