Leadership Lessons from the UK Post Office Scandal

Leadership Lessons from the UK Post Office Scandal

With every success there are lessons. The same with failures, a tragedy in this case, that huge lessons beyond just leadership need to be learned.
The UK Post Office has been at the heart of a decades-long scandal, that shockingly continues.

Background

The scandal is that over 700 Post Office sub masters and mistresses (sort of like franchise owners) to-date have erroneously been accused, fined, penalized, and in many cases tried and convicted of theft.

It stems back to a new computer system that was installed in 1999 for postal outlets to use for all transactions. The system was faulty and could be accessed unknowingly by the software provider, Fujitsu. Frequently the system showed that money was “missing” hence the Post Office management accusing the franchisees of theft and fraud.

The system was used as the evidence to fine and charge people. Multiple sub post office masters and mistresses were accused and at the same time told that they individually were the only ones having the issue of short balances.

As part of their contract they were required to pay the Post Office the ‘lost’ money from any shortages. These franchises re-mortgaged their homes, took our loans and borrowed money to “give” the Post Office the amounts declared “lost or short” by the Horizon software.

On top of having to pay back these losses, many were fined, and some charged and convicted and sent to prison.
In the UK local post office masters and mistresses were often the hub of a small community and not only were they financially out of pocket, their reputations and characters were ruined.
There’s one post master, Alan Bates, that has led the charge for decades to keep the issue in the limelight to get justice. He’s one of the few positive leaders in this sad saga.

Current Situation

Everyone now knows and agrees the software was at fault and the sub post masters and mistresses were lied to, erroneously accused.
The Post Office has admitted it has been poorly handled internally.
Many of the affected still haven’t had their payment of the losses returned, nor their fines or penalties. Some convictions still need to be dropped. The question of compensation has been raised however, no where in sight of being paid out.

Management of the Post Office, Fujitsu and government officials have appeared before an inquiry.
A recent @ITV dramatization of the scandal has put the scandal into the public eye, well worth a watch IMHO, and pressure is starting to be put on the government to rectify it.

That’s the long intro…

Leadership Lessons

This travesty is a huge example of failed leadership. As with any success and often more frequently failures, the key is to garner the lessons so it’s not a lost cause and it can be prevented from re-occurring again.

1. Leaders know culture eats policy for breakfast. The culture of an organization will overrule any written policy. Culture is a culmination of the behaviours that are modelled and allowed. Culture starts are the top and cascades down. Leaders monitor the culture, often through 3600s and engagement surveys.
Culture needs to include safety for raising issues and concerns. Psychological safety is key, especially in today’s complex world, and leaders must infuse that in the culture.

2. Leaders take responsibility. Leaders are role models and figure heads for the organization and beyond. They own the fact that the ‘buck stops with them.’ They are ultimately responsible for every decision made in the organization. This requires trusting their people, process and safety checks in the system and transparency and integrity of themselves and others. This didn’t happen in the Post Office, even with the recent head who was dismissed in 2023. He appeared at an enquiry into the scandal without having obvious details such as dates and names with no proper apology.

Leaders are held accountable by the board, shareholders, the media, the public, their customers so the best place to start is for leaders to be self-reflective. Many have private mentors, coaches or family that support them in this.

Taking responsibility includes admitting mistakes, making heartfelt apologies and striving to rectify the situation. And it means stepping down when appropriate.

3. Leaders ensure accountability at all levels. Following on from the leader holding themselves accountable, leaders hold others accountable. They call out poor behaviour, publicly if necessary; people know the consequences of good and bad; they speak to what behaviours are wanted; they give positive and constructive feedback regularly; they communicate expectations and goals clearly, repeatedly, create alignment behind those and measure progress.

Leaders need to promote learning from mistakes, allowing permissible mistakes, having difficult conversations and letting people go when necessary.

4. Leaders influence beyond their organizations. Everyone, especially leaders, have a “leadership shadow.” Just like a shadow, it is cast outside of ourselves, it can be dark, and it can extend far beyond our expectation or understanding. Leaders cast their shadow further than the organization. Aware leaders proactively manage their shadows to ensure the impact they want.

Leaders ensure alignment of their goals, culture and vision among suppliers, partners, associations, politicians and all key stakeholders. They proactively manage relationships. That didn’t happen with the Post Office; they were quite insular and secretive.

5. Leaders are curious. Leaders can’t know everything, if they do they are probably stifling their people, their growth, the performance results and organization. Leaders need to be curious. This is especially important when leaders encounter differing ideas, thoughts and opinions. And when there seems to be uncertainty, issues or voids in information.

The smartest person in the room is usually not the one with all the answers, they are more often the ones with the best questions. That’s curiosity. Approaching things with a beginner’s mind, and leaving preconceptions, assumptions and perspectives at the door. I was once advised to play the fool more, don’t think you have all the answers, if you do everyone else is redundant.

Research shows that diverse thinking teams achieve better solutions to issues, faster than those with the same cognitive approach. Leaders make sure those differing styles and approaches are shared.

6. Leaders prioritize people over processes. A big failing of the Post Office was blindly following the technology, dismissing people, even when the magnitude of fraud increased (especially versus historic figures). Leaders listen. Leaders collect differing perspectives. Leaders consider everyone in the value chain, not just those closest, nor the data without the narrative.

Leaders often must take data and create a story or narrative around that story, because data can often be interpreted in different ways. It’s the story, context and narrative that give data meaning. People and their stories create the meaning.

What Now?

For the Post Office? Who knows?

I’d want the sub post masters and mistresses to be reimbursed, compensated, pardoned and categorically exonerated in all ways immediately.

For leadership, it’s about knowing yourself, who you are as a leader, how you want to lead, and continually managing your impact – regardless of the situation.
I know you haven’t had a failure on the scale of the Post Office scandal, and we can all learn. Neuroscience confirms that are brains have neuroplasticity – research says you can teach old dogs new tricks.

If you’re a senior leader or established founder and feel like now is the time to take your leadership to the next level, get in touch to arrange a no-obligation consultation: DM anne@directions-coaching.com 

What leadership would propel your business and people to satisfying success?

What have you learned from your failures?

What have you learned from your successes?