HMS Westminster: A Tale of Two Control Ships

November 15, 2007

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Two years ago, Admiral West was in control of HMS Westminster directing the international fleet review for the bi-centennial celebrations commemorating the battle of Trafalgar. This week, as newly appointed security minister under the command of Gordon Brown, the former Sea-Lord was taking a little time to find his sea legs

‘I’m just a simple sailor’. The quote by Admiral Lord West on Wednesday November 14th 2007 will become part of contemporary British folk-lore.

The news story cropped up during a period of parliamentary struggles. Gordon Brown, having flourished in the first few months as Prime Minister, had found his Government falling behind in the opinion polls in renewed onslaughts from David Cameron’s conservatives.

The political battles increased in intensity after the summer break (almost as time-honoured as the military practice of a pause to get the harvest in). In the United Kingdom, Her majesty’s loyal government writes the speech which the monarch then reads to her representatives gathered at the Palace of Westminster. The speech is then ritually debated by said representatives.

One of the multiplicity of issues under scrutiny is a bid by the Government to increase the time in which suspects may be held in custody without charging. The debate involves deeply held concerns about liberty and the principle of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus (ad subjiciendum) is Latin for “you may have the body” (subject to examination). It is a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined … Sir William Blackstone, who wrote his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 18th Century, recorded the first use of habeas corpus in 1305. But other writs with the same effect were used in the 12th Century, so it appears to have preceded Magna Carta in 1215 … Michael Zander QC, Emeritus Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, says: “Habeas corpus has a mythical status in the country’s psyche.

Background

The specific circumstances which embroiled Lord West were those accompanying the security measures following the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. The Government under Tony Blair had failed to obtain further legal powers for the police to hold suspects without charge. Gordon Brown, on his appointment in the summer of 2007 attempts to revive and revise the proposals. As part of his idea of a Government of all the talents, Brown appoints Admiral West to a ministerial position, in August, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office.

The newly ennobled Lord West has been set a task to review security in public places. This includes the appointments of non-nationals to the Health Service. This brief was a swift response to one of the first challenges faced by the new Prime Minister. A foiled terrorist attack at Glasgow airport revealed involvement from a terrorist cell including medical specialists who had gained entry to the NHS with inadequate security screening.

The Queen’s Speech

This week the debate on the Queen’s speech drew to a close. Lord West was preparing his report, meeting with various committees, and fitting in a round of press interviews. Gordon Brown was facing a testing Prime Minister’s question time, which would include tricky attacks on his intended security legislation.

The BBC played its part in generating and sustaining the basic story line

Lord West told the BBC at 0820 he had yet to be convinced of the need to extend the 28 day limit, a view at odds to most recent ministerial comments. Just over an hour later, after a visit to Downing Street, he told the BBC that he was actually convinced of the case. He later insisted he had not changed his mind, saying as a “simple sailor” he had not chosen his words well.

The blogging community seizes on the story with enthusiasm.

Why the hell have we got a ‘simple sailor‘ in charge of our anti-terrorism strategy? Were all the complicated ones busy?

What’s going on?

This is a rather nice example of the dynamics of a modern political story. At face-value, the reader is left with the impression of bungling incompetence from people who should know better. Stereotypes are reinforced. Brown is a control freak who manipulates others into shows of puppet-like obedience. Lord West is expected to toe the party line at all times, like the other puppets.

Students of leadership are aware that beliefs tend to be grounded in ‘common-sense’ assumptions which can simplify the picture to an extent that we ignore aspects that are uncomfortable, or that do not fit in.

It tends to be worth looking beyond the story for those inconvenient facts. Bloggers are strong at unearthing facts others would prefer to leave buried. However, righteous indignation is often more of an influence than efforts to examine and critique a story. For righteous indigation and balance, you have to go back to respected sources. Even that’s a matter of judgement. The Guardian’s view is not everyone’s idea of a balanced analysis, but it did seem to reach another level of insight here.

During his naval and governmental career, security minister Lord West has repeatedly spoken out against government policy. Before he stood down as head of the navy last year, Lord West, who distinguished himself in the Falklands war when he was the last to leave the sinking HMS Ardent, warned that cuts to the service would leave it unable to protect Britain’s coastline.

The former first Sea Lord has condemned the decision by the Ministry of Defence to allow Royal Navy hostages held by Iran to sell their stories, has harboured serious doubts about the legality of the invasion of Iraq, and consulted lawyers over whether naval personnel could face war crimes charges.
Despite, or possibly because of, his criticism of Tony Blair’s administration, West was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for security and counter-terrorism in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”. His remit included conducting a review Britain’s terror laws, which has led him – once again – to put himself at odds with the official government line ….

A case of herding cats?

In an earlier post we reported on an answer to a question on leadership in the House of Lords. It was put to another distinguished naval commander, Admiral Lord Michael Boyce. His reply was instructive:

Question: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

Answer: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats!

The additional talents recruited into Gordon Brown’s Government are a new species, with evidence of some of the characteristics of the cross-bench feral felines.

Leadership Lessons?

Where to begin? A cautionary tale, indeed for newly appointed Ministers, and maybe newly appointed Prime Ministers. But are there lessons for a wider range of students of leadership?

Might the case be worth studying by any military officer considering a new career in the political arena for indications of necessary changes in comunications and decision-making styles?

Or might there be lessons for any professional taking up a role a distance away from his or her previous career path?

Above all, what actions and by whom might have resulted in a different and more desirable outcome?


Leadership in military and civilian life

July 24, 2007

In a question and answer session at Manchester Business School, with an audience of military officers and business leaders, Admiral Lord Boyce explored his leadership experiences. He described leadership as the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can. He identified decision-making and communicating as general competences essential to effective leadership

Q: There are a multitude of ways in which leadership has been described and defined. How do you see it?

MB: I can tell you what it seems to be from my experiences. I like to say that leadership is the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can.

Q: What key differences have you experienced working in military and non-military environments?

MB: There are obvious differences. In military life you are trained to lead, and also on how to be led, until the principles become ingrained. I mean training, not education. You train for leadership, as you would train for a Marathon. Also, the military conditions are different. You need to be able to depend on colleagues for your mutual survival. Decision-making has more life and death consequences than in most other professions. But there may be need to show initiative when you may be in a position to consult more widely in civilian life.

Q But there are similarities [between military and civilian leadership]?

MB: I would say there are general core components of leadership. Two of them concern decision-making and communications. Good decision-making requires skills at assimilating information and applying analytic ability. These skills often have to be combined with decisiveness. Effective communicators have to demonstrate clearly and convincingly the logic of their approach. I must also mention strength of character, the ability to delegate and show initiative.

Comment from audience: We used to teach delegation to business leaders. Now there’s less emphasis, more on ‘empowerment’. Perhaps we should revisit the importance of delegation skills …

Q Why are Women held back in leadership in the military? I left for that reason.

MB Times are changing. There is a very senior officer I can immediately think of in the navy for example, but she has succeeded on merit, not because of equal opportunities.

Q One of the most popular current television programmes is “The Apprentice”. From watching the programme there is a perception that successful leadership is developed through bullying. Do you believe you have to be aggressive to be a good leader?

Not aggressive. Historically you can point to contrary examples. One of my favourites is Shackleton. No, Not at all aggressive. I don’t watch much television, but what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t advance far in the Military today with that sort of bullying style. You would not get past Major, Lieutenant Colonel, maybe.

Q: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

MB: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats! [MB is a cross-bench or independent Peer]. Collectively though, it’s an excellent system. It wouldn’t work so well if there were elections when a constituency would vote for everyone. That would be different.

Q What do you look for when on an interviewing panel to select for a leadership position? Do the characteristics differ across different environments?

MB: Again there seem to be some general points you are looking out for. The successful candidate for any leadership job will be able to communicate clearly, show imagination and vision. The answers to interview questions give a pretty good indication of how honest he or she is being. Of course you have to do your homework. The references you get are a great help too.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give an officer taking up work in civilian life?

MB: Something that surprised me. Perhaps it should not have. You will meet far more individuals who seem to have no concern beyond their own self-interests.

Also you realize you have your own [military] jargon, you will have to learn another dialect to be accepted. And there is a lot of stereotyping about the military mentality.

There’s another difference worth mentioning: [Corporate]directors are increasingly becoming legally responsible for the conduct of their company. This is becoming more widespread, applying to charities and trusts as well as PLCs.

Blognotes

I am indebted to course director Jed Drugan of Manchester Business School for inviting me to participate in this event. My Q and A notes are reconstructed as faithfully as possible, but capture only part of the wide-ranging conversation. For those interested in following up the points raised in the discussion, I have added a few comments.

1 Leadership has been notorious for its multitude of definitions. There are even theories of why there are so many definitions. Lord Boyce has offered his personal perspective, and one close to the classical one from Stodgill with its characteristics of leadership as an act or process influencing others to achive some goal. It is also close to Yukl’s operational definition of leadership as influencing to understand and agree what is to be done and facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared goals. I assume that the Admiral’s characterization of leadership has been tested in many experiences in his distinguished naval career, and then in a range of political and corporate roles.

2 Cat herding. This cropped up in a recent taxonomy of leader/follower relationships by the British theorist Keith Grint. He suggests one of several versions of situational leadership, which result from different levels of commitment to community goals from leader and group (followers, subordinates, team members etc). The cat herding (cross bench independent mavericks) according to Grint will specialize in independence of spirit but arguably unproductive conflict.

2 Shackleton. An interesting leader in the ‘great explorer’ mode. His biographers (such as John Adair) suggest his leadership was consistent with MB’s perspective of leadership as inspiring others to achieve what they might otherwise have believed impossible.


Ask the Admiral

June 15, 2007

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This week, Admiral Lord Boyce takes part in a discussion on aspects of leadership with an audience from military, commercial, and sporting fields. The former chief of defense staff examines strategic leadership, differences in public and non-public sectors, and transition from military to civilian employment. The event permits an opportunity for on-line participation.

The event is scheduled for Tuesday 19th June at Manchester Business School. Lord Boyce is a returning alumnus of the Advanced Management Achievement Course (AMAC). For the event, current members of AMAC will be joined by an invited audience for a question and answer session.

Advanced warning systems

Here are some of the messages picked up by our advanced warning system. The Admiral will face a barrage of questions including the following:

How does leadership manifest itself through your role in the House of Lords?

One of the most popular current television programmes is “The Apprentice”. From watching this programme there may be a perception that successful leadership is developed through bullying. Do you believe that you have to be aggressive to be a good leader?

What characteristics do you look for when you are part of an interview panel to select a person for a leadership position? Do these characteristics differ across the military, non-military public and commercial sectors?

What keeps you awake at night in relation to the toughest challenges of leadership, from a military perspective and from a non-military perspective?

Why not join in?

You can use the message reply at the end of this post to submit a question. We will try to get the questions on the agenda, Thanks to a sympathetic participant infiltrated into the event, we have every hope of adding to the list of questions discussed.

The event will also be reported in a subsquent post.


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