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What Witches of Scotland tells us about the dangers of 'blame' culture

The campaign for a pardon to the demonized humans who lost their lives 450 years ago makes for thought-provoking reflection on what it means to be a leader

This week as we approach Halloween, you may be sourcing costumes for yourself or your children, sweets for trick-or-treat callers, or carving out pumpkins. You may also have seen coverage of an interesting campaign called Witches of Scotland. The campaign, launched last year and led by Claire Mitchell QC, seeks a pardon, apology and memorial for those found guilty of witchcraft and executed in the Witchcraft Act in Scotland, brought into law in 1563.

'The vast majority of those accused, some 84%, were women. During this time witchcraft was a capital crime and those convicted of witchcraft were strangled to death and then burned at the stake so as to leave no body to bury.'

Many of the accused didn't fit in with the 'norms' of contemporary culture at the time, and often they were scapegoats for issues that arose in society which the state chose not to address. The state endorsed and reinforced this approach through its passing of and upholding of the law, and as a consequence the practices remained in place for 173 years, during which an estimated 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft, and 2,558 (2,148 women and 410 men), lost their lives. The campaign aims to raise our appreciation of not just the hats and brooms we associate with the concept of witches, but the human beings behind them, who were just like you and me.

The comfort of a simplified story

The story that was told during those 173 years, was a simplified one. There were bad people responsible for much 'wrongdoing' and creating friction in the social fabric of society (witches) and good people who were not responsible for any of it (everyone else).

Sometimes it's easier to tell a story where there are 'goodies' and 'baddies', in fact this is very common in children's books; think of The Woolf in Red Riding Hood, or indeed the Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Such characters have been used for centuries to externalise and embody characteristics that are socially desirable (Superman - bravery) and undesirable (Scrooge - selfish). The simplicity is comforting, but inaccurate - as we come to realise when we mature and learn that we all have elements of Cruella de Vil and Wonder Woman in us at times.

Adult stories are more complicated. As adults, we know that humans are complex beings, and it is the intricacies, contradictions and unexpected twists and turns in how we struggle and strive that we are drawn to when we connect with the experience of what it is like to be human in a great novel, film or play. It's not as neat, but that is human life, and so it's real, and importantly, meaningful.

The danger of simplification, blame and toxic undertones

At some point, most of us have been exposed to, heard about or worked in a culture which is based on a simplistic interpretation of 'good' and 'bad' behaviour. Everything that is valued as 'bad' is embodied by one set of characteristics (e.g. having commitments outside of working hours, showing vulnerability) and everything that is valued as 'good' is embodied by an alternate list (e.g. preparedness to sacrifice family time, endorsing a non-inclusive style of leadership). In extreme examples, there is little room for diversity of views, and blame is a common theme with fear of blame, ostracism and power-dynamics creating toxic undertones.

However, humans are not robots; we change, grow, suffer and blossom depending on what we are responding to, meaning a need for flexibility and adaptability is key to retaining our loyalty and accessing our best contributions. Because of this, in a culture that is highly restrictive and in which it's very easy to fall foul of expectations, there is often friction, uncomfortable silences, and in many cases swift exits. In such cultures much blame is loaded onto the individual and they are donned with a metaphorical witches hat and broom, rather like the poor women and men who lost their lives in Scotland.

Your power as a leader to prevent a cultural death

In this respect, there is not much difference between you as a leader and a Scottish state decision-maker in 1563. Where there are cultural challenges that show up in a consistent way amongst a significant number of your people, you as a leader, have a choice. You can either demonise those particular individuals, reinforcing a culture of restriction and fear, or look at this as part of a wider cultural challenge, in which you have a role.

Just like the state 450 years ago, what you do will affect other human beings. Are you going to make some of your people wear a witches hat and allude to their brooms? Or talk to them and understand what's really going on under your business' roof? And it's worth remembering, if you lose them from your business under these circumstances, you won't be able to get them back, and you might find the humans that remain ask for a pardon on their behalf further down the line...

(ps. you can read more about the Witches of Scotland campaign including how to support it here)

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