My father became an inspiration to many simply by believing in their potential. ‘With the right attitude, people can do anything.’ As an enthusiastic teenager, I was sent to sow a field of turnips without a word of instruction. When the field emerged with bald patches that I had missed, I was upset and neighbours laughed, but my father showed no annoyance; he was more interested that I had tried, and maybe learnt something. He would have been a better manager and farmer (and perhaps father) if his belief in others came with some patient training, support, and appreciation for the finer details. But that’s another story. He continued to see potential in the most unlikely people to the end, and despite being taken for a ride by a few, never lost his enduring and endearing faith in humanity.
Yesterday, as I arrived at Sacrewell (our farm and packhouse near Peterborough), there was a buzz of energy and creativity. Elected co-owner council members Vinny and Michelle told me how, faced with a freeze on big investments, co-owners had devised their own programme of smaller, bottom-up, co-owner-led improvements and training, which they named Improving Tomorrow Together. Their infectious enthusiasm reassured me that, even without the huge investments we had planned and can no longer afford, we can still move forward – and that believing in and investing in people, though less predictable, can be more rewarding than investing in grandiose buildings, mechanisation, or IT projects.
Five years into employee ownership, we are learning that when we consult and empower co-owners, even those with little management experience, they show an ability to embrace complexity and nuance that many experienced managers might not find space for. Specialisation and the concentration of power are overrated; most people are capable of far more than their leaders realise. They just need truly inclusive spaces, self-belief, and permission to make a few mistakes.
By contrast, the most depressing aspect of the ministerial WhatsApp messages recently published in the Telegraph was the contempt their language showed: for civil servants, for teachers, and even for fellow ministers. If you believe the worst of people, you will probably get it. If you believe in their potential, you will occasionally be disappointed – but you open the door to a richer world for all of us.