A Brief history of leadership

October 21, 2007

glass_spiral_staircase.jpgLeaders and leadership continue to capture the public imagination. But there have been few attempts to trace the history of leadership to its earliest manifestations. What can be learned from the hard-wired behaviors of insects, the territorialism of reptiles, the disciplinary schooling of horses, and the social capitalism of chimpanzees?

This post [under development] is based on a presentation to Manchester Business School Alumni in October 2007. You can access the presentation entitled A brief history of leadership here, [accessed via my slideshare powerpoints. Be patient. It does load, in about 15 seconds from my PC! ].

The lecture sets out the case for learning about today’s leadership dilemmas by reference to animal behaviors. This is in some ways a well-trodden path since Desmond Morris reminded us of our kinship with other animals as a naked ape.

The approach has to beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism (attributing human behaviors to other animals). These challenges have been examined by John Stodart Kennedy as the new anthropomorphism.

These scholars have continued the debate on instinctive behaviors that followed the work of pioneering ethologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Drawing on these sources, the lecture argues that our modern concepts of leadership draw on residual ancient forms. Furthermore, our shared concepts and folk-memories contribute to universal archetypes.

It is suggested that as humans, through consciousness and learning, we become and create ‘the leaders we deserve’

Other points of interest: By re-evaluating the role of instinct in behaviors that are considered to exhibit leadership qualities, we approach the ancient question of whether leaders are born or made.

To go more deeply

In preparing the lecture, I drew heavily on the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly The Ancestor’s Tale.

Anyone with strong creationist beliefs will probably have problems with the Darwinist treatment.


Message from Northern Rock: Telling it Like it Is?

September 21, 2007

adam-applegarth.jpg

In a message from its CEO Adam Applegarth, Northern Rock communicates with its customers. The one substantive item is an offer to refund all penalties imposed if they re-invest within two weeks. The message is as revealing for what it does not say, as for what it does

Northern Rock for the moment is the safest Bank for investors in the country. The website, much maligned as an indication of the Bank’s inability to respond swiftly, shows signs of recovery. (Although that side-bar graphic of a deep-sea diver gently descending offers a rather unfortunate image of the company’s future …)

Mr Applegarth’s message suggests just how little wriggle-room there is for a leader in these adverse circumstances. Every scrap of information will be scrutinized minutely. A minimum requirement is the avoidance of any factual inaccuracy. I read it carefully, and was left with the impression of a company doing its best under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
One dilemma is how much honesty there should be about the future. Should the message tell the truth, the partial truth, and only the truth that encourages investors to return to the Northern Rock’s offerings?

It is a dilemma, because the marketing and PR impulse is to create the simple brand message. That is the brand imperative. The conventional wisdom is to draft and redraft until the final version has eliminated all traces of ‘off-message’ signals. In this instance, the short-term need is to get some cash back in.

But we know that these are exceptional times, and there has been plenty of evidence in the last week of the difficulty of finding a way of reassuring customers. Thanks to the actions of the Bank of England, in coordination with the Financial Securities Authority and the Government, Northern Rock can say without falsehood that

The Chancellor has made it clear that all existing deposits in Northern Rock are fully backed by The Bank of England and are totally secure during the current instability in the financial markets

But that truth is unvarnished, and yet carefully polished in the posting. Polished to remove any hint that mistakes might have been made, or that changes will have to be made that will be unpleasant for investors. The dilemma is the inclination to be honest about such matters. To treat people frankly. Doesn’t that help build trust? And is it really the case that it will be pretty much business as usual in the future?

A mischievous suggestion

Sometimes it helps to face reality by acknowledging what can’t be said. Suppose the reality is that Northern Rock has been in a near fatal accident? At the moment it is presumed to be wrapped up in a financial security blanket and unlikely to return to full health. No-one will turn the life-support system off until arrangements have been made for donation of the various organs. A first message is received from the bedside of the patient.

There has not been much time to reflect on how I arrived in the Accident and Emergency Room of the Financial General Hospital. I suppose I had been feeling a bit off-colour for quite a while. But I had always been in such good health before. Maybe that had prevented me from seeing those symptoms that something was going wrong.

In hindsight, I suppose my lifestyle was unhealthy in some ways. I’m just thankful to all those who helped keep me alive. The doctors tell me that I will make a full recovery. I’m not sure. I’ll probably have to change my life style quite a lot. Still, must put a brave face on for the sake of the family. There’s a lot more like me. That A&E department is working 24/7. I think I’ll say it’s business as usual. Except I suppose it can’t really be the same business again. Can it?

If you want to sit in judgment …

A lot of effort is going into trying to establish ‘who is to blame’ in the declining fortunes of Northern Rock. I would prefer to see whether there is anything to be learned from what’s going on. Would things have been better, say, if Robert Peston had been in change of Northern Rock? Or Will Hutton in charge of The Bank of England? Or if George Osborne, or Roman Abramovich, or Warren Barton had … Enough of that. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.


Blair gets a rocket

May 19, 2007

Tony Blair seems driven by unfinished business. His visit to America offered closure on his formal relationship with George Bush. Returning westward, he made an unexpected visit to Iraq. His arrival in Baghdad’s green zone closely followed a rocket attack

The official line offered is that the visit and the attack were not (directly) connected. Meanwhile, in the UK, the leadership transition from the Blair to Brown is marked by the sound of popguns. And a Prince is denied the chance to fight for his country

The dilemmas of leadership

While Tony was saying goodbye to George Bush, the British Press was working up a story concerning the non-show of Prince Harry in Iraq in the near future. The essence of this story is that the Sandhurst-trained Prince is by all accounts a committed Army officer. His career would have taken him and his men into action in Iraq. This was originally sanctioned, but this week the decision was reversed.

According to the BBC, General Sir Richard Dannatt said the prince’s deployment would pose a threat to him and those serving alongside him …

The announcement, which represents a U-turn on an earlier decision, was made amid reports militant groups in Iraq planned to kill or kidnap the prince …Clarence House said Prince Harry was “very disappointed” but would not be leaving the Army as a result.

Sir Richard’s dilemma is easy to appreciate. The deployment of Harry was always open to re-appraisal in light of most recent intelligence. These suggested the likelihood of unacceptable risks to Harry and his men. Non-deployment would invite public reactions and adverse publicity for the Army and its leadership.

From a leadership perspective, this seems illustrative of the notion that sometimes there are situations in which there are no satisfactory solutions, only the need to take a decision that will be criticized.

Republic, a group which campaigns for an elected head of state, said the decision showed that “the prince should never have joined the Army … This is a scandalous waste of taxpayer’s money, brought on by the Windsor family’s obsession with linking themselves to the military.”
Former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo also criticised the MoD for “terrible vacillation” over the issue, and Tory MP Desmond Swayne – a former Territorial Army officer in Iraq – said the decision was a victory for Iraqi insurgents.

Blair’s dilemma

Anyway, Tony Blair arrives in Iraq intent on other matters. In some ways his leadership dilemma is also illustrated by a sense that he is being forced into actions that offer little in the sense of ‘solving’ problems, for Blair, for his successor, or their party.

He raised the possibility of his resigning his leadership of party and government in 2004. Since then, the issue returned to figure all-too-prominently on the media agenda. Like some suspect tailed by enemy forces, he has never been able to shake them off.

It is not clear how he might have handled the matter more effectively. I haven’t seen any convincing suggestions in the hundreds that have appeared. Maybe, just maybe, he had become a hostage to his own dreams of legacy. Even now, the most popular explanation of his sustained efforts over the final weeks of his Premiership is that of his yearning for a significant place in political history.

Poets always knew of the destructive power of over-vaulting ambition. I could go back to Shakespeare, Goethe, or on a slighter scale, Wilde.

But it seemed as least as appropriate for the wannabe pop-idol to remember The Beatles and their haunting refrain

Can’t buy me lo-ve,
everybody tells me so
Can’t buy me lo-ve,
no no no,
no.


It’s a fire. No it’s not, it’s you who are fired!

May 5, 2007

20075315910089.jpgsurvivors.jpgNearly two hundred years of tradition ended as receivers found an efficient way to tell staff that their company was folding. The receivers at Robbs department store, of Hexham, Northumbria, rang the fire alarm. As employees gathered in the car park they were told the news. Creative leadership? Or what?

The story got under my skin. I imagined how the idea might have come out of a brainstorming session. How the preferred solution had been found to meet the criteria of clever, unexpected, appropriate, cost-effective…

On second thoughts, the freedom to freewheel for creative and ingenious ideas has to be coupled with the discipline of principled evaluation of consequences.

The BBC reported the story as follows

Bosses at the almost 189-year-old Robbs store deliberately set off the fire bell to clear the building of customers and get staff together in one place. At the designated fire point, the 140 members of staff were told the landmark store would be shutting in two weeks.

The store’s administrators [Kroll] called the decision “efficient and practical …the closure of Robbs department store was due to become public knowledge before the end of the trading day and [management wanted] to notify their colleagues of the situation before they found out through other means”.

As a result, they determined that “the most efficient and practical method of informing their colleagues of this business development was by using the fire alarm”.

What do you think?

Was this an example of the creative dynamism needed to sweep away the obsolete and force in the new? Or was it something else.

Next week…

Dynamic young executive from Kroll auditions for a place on The Apprentice. Says his work experience makes him an ideal candidate to work for Sir Alan Sugar.

As the company website puts it

Kroll’s Corporate Advisory & Restructuring group is the world’s leading specialist in corporate turnaround, restructuring and recovery. Our focus is providing clients with objective, independent advice and delivering creative solutions to complex problems.


Marks sparks ‘Nazi’ furore

April 19, 2007

_42827233_mands203.jpgStuart Rose faces a problem at M&S that will exercise his leadership skills. Bryan Ferry, who has been modelling clothes for the company, extols Nazi iconography. Calls are made for boycotts of Marks, and of Bryan Ferry

The glorious place held by M&S in the history of modern Jewish entrepreneurial achievements is under threat. The company has been promoting its gear through aging Rock idol Bryan Ferry. Ferry turns out to be an admirer of Nazi iconography. A recent interview for Welt am Sonntag has quickly turned into an international furore. According to the UK’s Daily Mail

The singer, 61, had angered Jewish groups by telling a German newspaper of his admiration for the Third Reich’s cultural achievements and admitting he named his recording studio after Hitler’s bunker .. But in a statement released on Ferry’s behalf, he now said the comments “were solely made from an art history perspective ..I, like every right-minded individual, find the Nazi regime, and all it stood for, evil and abhorrent.”

Ferry has also modelled for Burberry, another company which has hit a storm of adverse publicity recently as it reported increased profits and closure of a factory in a deprived area of South Wales.

Rights, wrongs, and Rose

Ferry is intelligent enough to discuss Germany’s cultural heritage. He has been naïve enough to ignore possible repercussions of remarks acknowledging any aesthetic merits in German art the era of the Third Reich. The story presents a leadership dilemma for Stuart Rose.

He is custodian of another icon, the Marks & Spencer brand. Ferry is visibly identified with that brand. Should Rose:

(a) ignore it, as a storm in a tea-cup

(b) intervene swiftly to say it is just a storm in a tea-cup

(c) intervene swiftly to say it was a major error of judgment by Bryan Ferry who has agreed to make some economic or symbolic gesture of his deep regret

(d) announce that Bryan Ferry has damaged the brand, and that M&S is terminating the contract

(e) do something else altogether

Put another way, what might be the rationale for justifying one of these courses of action over the others?

Labour peer Lord Janner is a former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a campaigner on behalf of Holocaust survivors. He has indicated his preference for (d).

According to the Daily Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/04/17/nferry17.xml

When asked about Ferry’s remarks and his subsequent apology, Marks & Spencer said it did not give its opinions on views that were expressed by people in other situations ..A spokesman for the company would not comment, when asked whether it planned to review Ferry’s contract.


Cameron faces Clones syndrome

March 11, 2007

Polls remain promising for opposition leader David Cameron. Despite a political wobble this week, he seems to be succeeding in weakening the Conservative reputation as the nasty party. His shifts towards ground previously occupied by New Labour appear to have been shrewdly chosen. But they may yet have the unavoidable consequence of reminding the electorate of Tony Blair and his charismatic early days in power. Cameron may yet become a victim of Clones syndrome.

This week David Cameron acted swiftly to dismiss Shadow homeland security spokesman Patrick Mercer after remarks about ethnic minority soldiers. Patrick Mercer’s career as a serving officer was put under scrutiny. It was revealed as exemplary. Black soldiers who served under him came forward to reject any accusations of the officer having displayed racist behaviors.

David Cameron came as much under the spotlight as did Patrick Mercer. Political allies insisted that Cameron had no option but (‘regretfully’) to dismiss Mr Mercer. According to the BBC, Mercer had been reported as saying that

he had met “a lot” of “idle and useless” ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a “cover”. The former officer also told the Times that being called a “black bastard” was a normal part of Army life .. Mr Cameron had made his position clear: “The comments made by Patrick Mercer are completely unacceptable and I regret that they were made … We should not tolerate racism in the Army or in any walk of life …I was completely shocked when I read the remarks of Patrick Mercer.”

The dismissal polarized opinion within the Conservative party. Some echoed the popularist sentiment that it was another example of political correctness gone mad. Others accepted that their leader had no choice. However honorable his record, the remarks, if left uncensored, could too easily suggest to the electorate that the Conservatives remained the nasty party.

This is subtle stuff indeed

This is subtle stuff indeed. I’m not sure that Cameron was forced to act in the way he did. If so, he is already a victim of ‘events, dear boy, events’. More significant is the sense made of the situation among political commentators. By and large they agree that he has to deal with leadership dilemmas by careful attention to their second-level consequences. I have no problem with this line of reasoning.

Another point made this week also seems pertinent to the dilemmas of David Cameron in the specific context of Tony Blair’s departure from power. I have called it Clones syndrome.

Clones syndrome

Among those second-level consequences are some which have been expressed from time to time. That David Cameron has studied, learned from, and rather admired Tony Blair’s transformation of old labour. Just as Blair studied, learned from, and rather admired Margaret Thatcher.

Whenever David Cameron acts in ways similar to those espoused by Tony Blair, he will be open to the accusation of copying him. Opponents will be quick to label him no more than a Blair clone. It will not matter that the actions are similar because there are a limited number of non-stupid actions to take.

Actions that can be interpreted as good for the media will be presumed to be taken for that reason alone. My Cameron appears to be strongly commited to moving the party to a greener position. Demonstrating it through hugging a Husky will never be a complete PR success.

I’m not sure of all the implications of this. It will be interesting to see how they emerge in the months to come.


Football leadership: Strong is weak and weak is strong?

March 3, 2007

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When Steve McClaren became England’s football coach he booted David Beckham out of the team and out of the entire squad. Showing strong leadership. Or was he just showing the need to try to show strong leadership? Now he faces losing his own job

Update

This story has been updated [August 20th 2007, October 19th 2007] to a time when after many twists and turns, David Beckham had been readmitted to the England Squad by Steve McClaren, then lost his place through injury.

The updates gives me a chance to clarify the content of the original post. I’m keeping the original which even I think was pretentious and unclear, because it does have a leadership point to it. I wish I’d just kept it simple, mentioned that the ‘previous General’ was Sven Goran Eriksson, his favorite captain was that self-same David Beckham, and cut out all those post-modern flourishes.

The Original Text

I will leave the full story to those who have studied it in far more detail, for nearly a year, across front and back pages of newspapers, in multiple TV and radio shows around the World. I’m really interested in the more general points of a leader’s honeymoon period, and what constitutes ‘good’ leadership.

Trying to leave the sainted David out of the story is bit like trying to write a history of the Second World War without mentioning Winston Churchill, or that Austrian chappie. Becks is a near-unique marketing phenomenon, as well as a former England football captain. I’m going to try to airbrush him out, if only because it keeps me on a playing field where I’ve at least got a couple of coaching badges.

The Beckhamless Tale

[Look, we’ll just cut out the clever post-modern stuff about Beckham still dominating the text, despite all efforts to leave him out. OK?] This is a story about a leader who takes over after the fall of another leader judged to have failed. I will speak only of Generals, and Captains and so on.

As I was saying, there was this leader, a foreign General, who had taken over from a failed leader. At first, the Foreign General was successful in comparison to the previous leader. But his popularity might have been the Honeymoon effect. Even quite small triumphs helped secure his popularity at first. This period lasted a few years, although there were many who always opposed him because he was not a member of the tribe of which he had become the General in command on the field of football battle.

This foreign General had a favorite warrior, whose name need not concern us in this story. This favorite was his appointed military Captain. The Captain was indeed a famed warrior, (another btale of triumph after early setbacks). Captain and General helped achieve some victories, often snatching victory as defeat seemed inevitable.

As time went by, the closeness of the victories, and a few defeats, dispelled all dreams of the people that the General was a super-hero. Both General and Captain fell from favor. The honeymoon period was over. The General indicated that he would leave his post. He was aware that the powerful barons would call for his head after his next defeat.

There followed another defeat even as the General was preparing to relinquish his duties. His gallant and weary Captain also proffered his resignation, but pledged himself to serve under a new general, and under whomever would replace him.

The General’s lieutenant takes over

Those barons had appointed The General, and had also provided him with a member of their own tribe as deputy, someone who had become a faithful lieutenant. Many people thought he was too close to the General, so faithful and discreet was he.
The barons who wanted the Foreign General to go had been wondering how to replace him. They even approached another Foreign General, but the plan did not work. ‘Maybe if we selected the faithful lieutenant’ they perhaps argued to themselves ‘that will show we still have confidence in our past actions. And so it was, that the faithful lieutenant became the new chief.

The Lieutenant’s leadership dilemma

The new chief is closely associated with the last failed campaign of the departing General. To do nothing would suggest he has no new ideas. To attempt to introduce many changes would be suggest that he had been too weak to oppose things he disagreed over in the past. Yet he had to decide what to do to replace the Captain who had been so faithful to himself and the previous General.

The big symbolic gesture?

The new leader accepted the resignation of the gallant captain, but announced that he was no longer to be considered on active service. Some said that the decision pleased the Barons who had been critical of the favoritism showed the gallant captain by the former General. Others said that the captain had lost the support of his own foot soldiers, and was weakened by the adulation he received from the common people, and had become vain and lazy.

By acting to remove him, the new general was showing decisiveness, and this also helped deflect continued criticism that he was too wedded to the plans and favorites of the former General.

What would you have done?

Remember we are trying to work towards principles that might apply more widely than a single case example. I am still trying to set aside that sense of ‘I know what happened next to the former Captain, and the results of early campaigns of the newly appointed General’. What would you have done when first put in charge? What might be the considerations favoring one action over others? You have to do something, even if it is a ‘wait and see’ policy. How might we assess a leader’s competence at the time, and subsequently?

This is a thought-experiment. We can simulate various possibilities and outcomes in imagination. This in turn helps us develop micro-theories around our assumptions and beliefs. It’s how war games are played. We can try to draw on parallels from the stories we know of other leaders, in other sets of circumstances.

There are arguments in favor of a new leader making painful changes as early as possible on appointment. The case was made many years ago by Machiavelli.

I have indicated some other considerations that might have been part of the new General’s calculations. Perhaps you feel that Machiavelli’s principle (hit hard and early, then rein back) can be used to justify the actions of the new general. Maybe you have another take on the story of the newly appointed General?


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


John Reid acts. But if he’s in a hole, shouldn’t he stop digging?

February 16, 2007

Britain’s prisons are crammed full. John Reid announces plans for two new prisons to be built in the future. His actions illustrate a leadership dilemma. When the battle is reaching a critical stage, what should a leader do? Is it better to act, showing that you are not paralyzed into inaction? Or is action – any action – better than appearing impotent?

If you are in a hole, digging may be a good thing to do, providing you are tunneling in the right direction to get out. Or, to use another explanation, provided you are not heading for some wicked problem-solving.

To act or not to act, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the field to suffer the stings and arrows of ….sorry got a bit carried away there. That soliloquy was prompted by Dr Reid’s announcement that two prisons are to be built to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of overcrowding.

It follows the recent accounts suggesting that John Reid was struggling to demonstrate that he had any grip on an intractable problem. In earlier blogs, I suggested that the Home Secretary appeared ineffective because the situation was so difficult that any announcement lacked plausibility. Today’s announcement does little to encourage me to change my view on this. Rather, it indicates the nature of the dilemma for leaders in a tight corner, or deep in the brown muddy stuff. Planning permission for one of the prisons has still not been secured. The other is scheduled for completion later this year.

Background to the Dilemma

The story has been building up with news of the current overcrowding, and following Dr Reid’s recent efforts, encouraging Judges to avoid committing criminals to prison wherever alternatives were possible. According to the BBC,

the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that the jail system was in “serious crisis” . Prisons had become “like a funnel where liquid is being poured into the top with no tap to release it at the bottom”.

.. Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, said the government had not grasped the basic issue that sentencing policy rather than lack of prisons was to blame for overcrowding .. “It’s not actually going to deal with the fundamental issue… that sentencing has become much tougher. It’s a bit like adding extra lanes to the M25 – they’ll get filled up very quickly.”

The overflow pipe (or release tap) is missing or blocked. Widening the motorways has increased the flow of traffic on them. Such metaphors help us grapple with abstractions, but they have their limitations. I will try to present the issue less colourfully at least for a while. The two cited commentators agree that the processes of supply and demand are out of balance. The mechanisms in the short term involve reducing the flow in, or increasing the flow out (cars, water into the top of the funnel, criminals leaving the system).

Dr Reid’s dilemmas

At some stage we will have to build into our considerations the possibility that Dr Reid is constrained to act in ways that promote his personal ambitions. This is nothing unique within leadership decision-making, as few leaders act ignoring personal implications of the decision. The leadership dilemma, in broader terms, is how should a leader deal with a crisis. To date, The Home Secretary has been constructing his narrative as someone acting decisively although the situation will require many and lengthy struggles. Although he has avoided mimicry of Churchillian rhetoric, he has been quick to remind us that we are not at the end of our problems, nor even at the end of the beginning.

One of the dilemmas is how to deflect criticism of leadership inaction, when there are no actions that appear to be effective in the short-term. Mr Reid opts for offering the promise of an easy-to-understand solution. The solution is derived from a presumption that the problem is overcrowding of prisons and the solution is to build more prisons.

The Road to Cairo and Wicked Problem-Solving

Some while ago I took part in a discussion of these kinds of dilemmas in a group of international business and political leaders. A view emerged that pressures to find simple solutions lead to wicked problem-solving. An Egyptian delegate told the story of a problem of a dangerous stretch of road to Cairo from the International airport. He explained that the favoured solution for some time was to arrange for first-aid services on stand-by at the most dangerous stretch of road. We voted it the best example of wicked problem-solving.

According to Anne Owers and other commentators, Mr Reid may be heading for wicked problem-solving. This tends to arise from a denial of the assumptions around the proposed strategy.

Leadership principles

What leadership lessons can we learn from all this? Under crisis, the temptation to act often goes hand in hand with an unwillingness to challenge assumptions. Returning to a metaphor, the escape from a problem involves digging a hole – but as Edward de Bono would ask ‘Are we digging in the right place?’ Should we be looking for ‘another place to dig’?


John Reid’s leadership faces the honeymoon test

January 21, 2007

The Home Office could be split into two departments under recommendations being put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. This will be the biggest challenge to his honeymoon period as Home Secretary. Is he getting the balance right beween ‘quick wins’ and sound transformational policies?

Plans announced this week suggest that John Reid will seek to split the Home Office. One new department will deal with security issues and the other with justice. The plans are to be put before the Cabinet for discussion.

Background

John Reid has displayed an energetic and pugnacious leadership stance in his brief time as Home Secretary. He took over in May 2006, after his predecessor Charles Clarke had departed following a story of foreign criminals being released from prison without being considered for deportation. Subsequently, serous errors on police computers have been revealed and inmates including terror suspects have ‘disappeared’ from custody, (precise numbers not known to the Prison Service).

Initially, he took the line that such weaknesses were inherited. In a memorable phrase, the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then, he has initiated extensive internal investigations. The ‘fitness for purpose’ of forty four most senior figures have been assessed, and two new chief executives have been brought in.

Quick wins?

In business mythology, leaders brought into a crisis go for quick visible results. Shortly after John Reid’s appointment, Nick Cohen blogged that

‘Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted “quick wins” – his version of Tony Blair’s “eye-catching initiatives”. Quick wins followed by the truckload .. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the “absolutely unrelenting pressure” for “top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives”.

The BBC noted that ‘In a recent commons statement he addressed the most recent Home Office embarrassment over failure to maintain accurate records of people in the United Kingdom who had commited criminal offences abroad. He found it increasingly difficult to maintain the line that he was not responsible for such continued procedural weaknesses falling within the responsibilities of The Home Office’.

The merits of a quick-win strategy for leaders

There is an intuitive feeling that a new leader should go a quick win. First impressions are important. Particularly if a leader arrives to ‘sort out’ a crisis, the psychology of the quick win is appealing. The leader addresses anxieties, and shows that he or she is decisive. Ritala Houston illustrates the quick win in the context of IT projects (quite relevant in some respects to the current issue).

But the mythology is worth challenging. On one hand, decisiveness may sit uneasily with the claim that there are complex issues to be understood, so that a newcomer may be reacting before being aware of important aspects of the situation.

The Leadership Dilemma

There is a leadership dilemma here. How can a leader take advantage of the leadership honeymoon without starting new schemes based on inadequate knowledge and preparation? Answers please to this blog, or Dr John Reid.


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