Back Jesus vote BNP?

April 7, 2009

The BNP poster claims that if alive today, Jesus would vote for them. The campaign has brought much publicity. But will it win voters, or trigger resistance from opposing activists?

The BBC reports the story :

In the UK most politicians are markedly reluctant to “do God”. But the British National Party has recruited Jesus Himself in its efforts to get an MEP elected to the European Parliament in June. [Their] election poster bears a passage from John’s gospel and a traditional image of Jesus. “What would Jesus do?” it asks, and then supplies the answer – “vote BNP”.

It’s an appeal to people worried by the growth of Islam, and to traditionalist evangelical Christians anxious about the secularism they feel is eroding their values in society. The party tries to strike a chord with them by claiming that “church leaders actively shun the word of God on issues like sodomy, abortion and social justice”. Christian groups have accused the BNP of using the word “Christian” as a synonym for “white”, and “Islamic” to mean “Asian”, but it’s a claim the party dismisses. The BNP has also been stung by strongly worded instructions to voters from Church leaders telling them not to vote for the party. The UK’s first black archbishop, John Sentamu, said in 2004 that voting for the BNP was “like spitting in the face of God”.

What is the BNP?

The BNP (British Nationalist Party) does not hold any parliamentary seats in Westminster, but has secured a handful of local government seats. Controversies over a more overtly racist past continue, although its current leadership denies this in public. What is clear in these murky political waters is that the BNP attracts voters in areas where racial tensions are high, and is regarded as a group with views that play to anxieties of the disaffected and underprivileged.

Jesus would have voted for us …

Christians from time to time discuss ‘what would Jesus do if he was alive to day …’ over various topics from gay rights, to shopping on Sundays, to women priests. No doubt there will be discussions (and further advice from church leaders) on this one.

It has long been said that the Church of England is the Tory (Conservative ) party at prayer. Recently it was argued in one influential Christian blog that the old saw has political mileage today. By espousing it more wholeheartedly evidence of

such a moral purpose would undoubtedly find resonance among the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities, the Conservative Party would find itself increasingly attracting the votes of ethnic minorities

Leadership questions

I’m not convinced. Suppose that you are involved in the leadership of a political party? What considerations should inform a decision to present your political message with a strong religious connection?

Clearly there is no simple and universal answer. Each leadership campaign calls for judgments drawing on various kinds of evidence. It is situated in the conditions of the time.
It may be backed up by techniques of market research, and short term considerations may be weighed-up against longer term consequences. Emotions may be triggered today which arouse recollections of other emotionally charged memories. I would think carefully whether a campaign might trigger off such past assocations. In that sense, history tends to take hostages to fortune.

Update

Yesterday [May 24th 2009], Archbishops entered the fray with exhortations to their flocks to vote, but not for the BNP. The poster was again used as a hook for the story.

The British National Party has dismissed an appeal by senior Anglican church leaders for voters to boycott the party at next month’s elections.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York are urging people not to let anger over the MPs’ expenses scandal drive them to vote for the party.


The Post Office Saves the Day

November 22, 2007

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The Post Office offers a Christmas savings scheme to meet the needs of savers damaged in last year’s Farepak crash. This is a financial services innovation which is welcome news to many of the most vulnerable families in the community. It also demonstrates that The Post Office may still be able to develop new strategic options for itself

The Post Office has been under threat for some time. It has hardly won accolades for its leadership, as competition increasingly invades once-protected markets. The Royal Mail group continues to present a beleaguered image. Its current news bulletin begins

We apologise to all of our customers for the inconvenience and disruption caused by the recent industrial action and are pleased to announce that there is no strike action currently taking place.

The announcement concludes in less than convincing style

We are pleased to confirm that the CWU EC has ratified the deal on pay and modernisation and that this acceptance of the proposal means that Royal Mail is now able to go ahead with plans to modernise the business and make it more flexible, efficient and able to compete more effectively. We are making sure that any changes we make will not cause any disruption to our customers and where we have mail for customers, deliveries will be made each day across the country.

The Post Office and Royal Mail

As its website indicates,

Post Office Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Mail Group Ltd and operates under the Post Office® brand. Managing a nationwide network of around 14,300 Post Office® branches, we are the largest Post Office network in Europe and the largest retail branch network in the UK handling more cash than any other business…

Post Office Ltd is one of the three arms that make up the Royal Mail Group, along with Royal Mail and Parcelforce Worldwide. Post Office Ltd’s Chief Executive and non-executive Chairman sit on the Group’s management board.

A leadership opportunity?

When are there leadership opportunities? At times of great threat. Why? Because there the obviousness of the threats will have encouraged considerations of what to do about them? Doing nothing may indeed by good for rather subtle reasons. This amount to ‘doing nothing in a calculative way’ rather than in a helpless way, the latter backed up by denial. Doing something can also be backed up by denial and by false calculation.

In other words, not acting is also a possibility. Acting or non-acting can be strategies. They can be considered strategies. They can be well considered and doubtfully considered. The circumstances surrounding threat at least may increase conscious efforts to do something better and different. Sometimes the strategy has been elevated to a leadership principle of masterful inactivity.

The opportunity in the threat

My unexpected conclusion is that the Post Office has a rare asset that it carries through the financial crisis, and which is one that most other financial institutes do not have. The asset lies in the confidence of customers that any deal offered will be as near as safe as any deal can be.

The implication is that the proposed savings product, although a relatively small one, could be an indicator of futher possibilities based along the same lines of guaranteed safe and regular savings. This was the strength of the home-savings schemes and of the offerings of the door-to-door insurance salesmen epitomized by The Man from the Pru. , The Pearl, The Refuge for a century or more.

The healthy option

If this is the case, it will be a healthy option that has emerged partly as a consequence of a breakdown of trust in the current business image of high street banks and their current accounts (no pun intended). Healthy, because the good old Post Office was hardly a considered option by many ordinary people who considered themselves to have more financial savvy than to follow the untutored practice of saving with the Post Office, or with the friendly societies.

The possibility is healthy because it is not dressed up in dubious marketing promises of foolishly attractive yields. What you are offered is what you will get. Maybe, just maybe, the simple promise can not easily be copied by competitors.

Straws in the wind?

The idea is based on several assumptions. First, that the various beffetings to the international and national financial systems are producing a shift in attitudes among members of the general public. These in effect result in beliefs that banks are no longer safe havens for money. In the UK this week, the missing computer records of thirty-five million members of the public may contribute to such atttitudes for some time to come. The second assumption is that the Post Office is, in contrast, safe. Not safer, but safe.

We will see.


Bob Nardelli. A good leader for Chrysler in its present plight?

November 4, 2007

bob-nardelli.jpgIf you believe in situational leadership you may feel that Bob Nardelli’s style is an appropriate one for Chrysler, following the Cerberus takeover

The bloodletting at Chrysler is not going to be pleasant. It calls for a special kind of leadership to avoid worse outcomes than might have been possible. There have been business leaders in the past who relished the prospects of being in charge in such a crisis. They had earned their reputations as uncompromising men willing to made the big decisions in a slash-and-burn situation.

Uncompromising men? It’s just that there are fewer stories about equally ruthless business women, because they haven’t had as many opportunities. A few years ago there was Linda Wachner, America’s first Fortune 500 female boss, whose high-handed management style was blamed for the bankruptcy of clothing company Warnaco. And I have little doubt that if Margaret Thatcher had found herself in change at Chrysler at the moment, she would have entered into the spirit of things with her legendary energy and decisiveness.

Heroes and villains

In times of crisis, it is tempting to portray events as dominated by the actions of great villains or heroes depending on your view of capital market mechanisms. The leader as hero rescues what can be saved, and in the process accepts that casualties as a vital part of winning the battle. That might be called the unconditional free-market view. Opposed to that, is notion of the leader brought in to a company in trouble is a villain, a mercenary, a ruthless bounty-hunter contracted to deliver what is required, ‘dead or alive’ in order to earn his own booty on behalf of a powerful rapacious corporate raider. That’s the unconditional anti-capitalist view.

Young people around the world learn of their national heroes and traitors in terms rather like these. Cultural forces sustain the views, as part of each culture’s ‘national heritage’, regardless of efforts at history teachers to offer a more nuanced explanation of events and of the impact of individuals.

Many years ago, Thomas Carlisle took the view that great leaders could be excused human flaws. Assuming they have something special which achieves great results, we must beware of belittling them for being all too human. That’s one argument. Carlisle warned against what he called valetism. (‘No man is a hero to his own valet’).

One of various objections to Carlisle’s idea is the way in which heroes suddenly become villains (the hero to zero effect), but in either case are granted exceptional abilities. It anticipated the more technical studies of leadership in search of the right stuff, the essence of leadership.

It took us a hundred years of work to suspect that the impact of great leaders was to a considerable degree based on the perceptions of followers. That’s why I am rather keen to promote the suggestion that we get the leaders we deserve, and that they are to some degree the creation of our collective imaginations.

Remember Chain-Saw Al?

Before returning to Chrysler, it may be worth recalling the rise and fall of other leaders once hailed great, and then trashed. ‘Chain saw’ Al Dunlap comes to mind. Older subscribers will remember Al as hero of Wall Street, the wizard of down-sizing. Al was in demand for a company in need of the slash and burn treatment. Al kept producing the goods, metaphorically. He eventually was found not to be producing the goods literally, and had been engaging in all sorts of creative accounting.

Morer recently, we witnessed had the rise and fall of Sam O’ Neal at Merrill Lynch. Sam had been lauded as Sam the Man who had shaken Merrill Lunch out of its strategic slumbers. He had also presided over the company at the time when it hit the buffers as one of the biggest losers in the sub-prime markets this year. Exit Sam with some $16 million compensation for his efforts during the good years.

Once the performance of Merrill Lynch fell, Mr O’Neal’s contribution, and his leadership style were called into attention. He was autocratic. He would not listen to advice. He could be very difficult to work with. And so on.

Which brings us back to Bob Nardelli

When Nardelli left Home Depot, earlier this year, the consensus was that

Home Depot faces a well-known dilemma. It has long passed a growth phase when its stock was rising in sensational fashion. Efforts to maintain the growth led to a decision to bring in new and dynamic management. When the desired growth was not achieved, the leader was deposed. Nardelli’s demise was made easier by his management style and a skill at extracting extremely favourable personal rewards. It should be noted that this might suggest he was a difficult boss, but not a stupid one

When Cerberus acquired Chrysler, they turned to Nardelli.

Why? Private Equity business deals require leaders to be able to follow a plan, stick to the numbers. They may or may not be ‘good with people’. If they are, it’s a bonus.

Matching the situation and the leader

Situational leadership suggests that different situations call for different leadership skills. In one well-known leadership formulation, leaders are invited to assess situations and seek an appropriate style. In Chrysler’s situation, the temptation for the new owners is to regard a directive style as appropriate. That’s how it’s worked in the past. Hello, Bob, I think we’ve got just the job for you …Yes, a bit like Al., but we don’t want any financial tricks. Remember what happened to Al.

So is Nardelli likely to be a good leader for Chrysler?

There are no easy answers in a case study like this one. Conclusions have to be supported by argument and indications of the assumptions being made. So far, I’ve been putting forward a qualification that it is not possible to put leaders into one of two boxes ‘good or bad’. This is based on the evidence that leaders may have a style that suits them to some circumstances better than others.

The next point to consider is good for what and for whom. In evaluating Nardelli’s impact at Chrysler we may wish to take the broad view that Chrysler appears to be in need of drastic and painful change, and that Nardelli was attracted with a deal in which he is generously rewarded for carrying out the painful operation of change.

I suspect he has some of the characteristics of the tough-minded leader required to meet the short-term financial objectives of Cerberus. I don’t know if he will succeed in the wider challenge of creating something permanent that will be recognised as the New Chrysler. Sadly, among the biggest losers at Chrysler will be tens of thousands of workers who will be without jobs over the coming months. The unconditional free-marketeers will Maybe argue that the alternatives would likely have led to even more job losses at Chrysler further down the line. Maybe a tough approach now will create more jobs elsewhere, than a more ‘humane’ and collaborative approach which fails to bring about changes in market prospects of the ailing corporation.


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.


What can be learned from the ending of the Brown honeymoon?

October 14, 2007

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The Gordon Brown honeymoon is over. He has seen his party’s lead in the opinion polls whither away. His handling of the non-election has been branded cowardly and inept. His rival David Cameron scores overwhelmingly in parliamentary debate. What leadership lessons can be learned from the unfolding story?

This is the current situation. Gordon Brown is widely reported as having lost the initiative he held since his appointment as Prime Minister. The fall from grace can be located in time easily.

Prior to the labour party conference, the honeymoon period was continuing, and the main question was whether a snap election could destroy not just David Cameron, by maybe the Conservative party itself.

During the Labour conference, Mr Brown’s speech at worse did not seem to damage his or his party’s prospects. Yet the snap-election story continued to build momentum. At the start of the month [October 2007] it seemed to have been settled. There would be an election within a month or so.

Then the Conservative party conference, a well-received speech by David Cameron, and the news stories piled up full of bad news for Brown. The week following the election added to his woes in and out of Westminster.

You learn a lot from what surprises you

Over the last few months I have been frequently surprised by the ebb and flow of political events. So what were the surprises? What was the learning?

Remember the passing of Tony Blair from office? I was surprised at the time by suggestions that portrayed Gordon Brown as a person psychologically unfit to lead his party, or the country. The contrast with business leaders is quite stark. The literature of the dark side of leadership is mounting, and it is easier to find examples of leaders who do not manifest symptoms of narcissism, with a dash of other fancily-termed psychotic tendencies, than to find examples of well-balanced (‘abnormally normal’?) individuals.

Then I was surprised over aspects of the so-called Brown Bounce. That nice theory was made almost impossible to evaluate, because Gordon’s arrival coincided with a particularly turbulent time, during which the New Prime Minister acted in a competent and reassuring manner. [Remember the joke that had been told about him during his personal campaign to consolidate his election campaign? The trouble with Gordon, the ironic joke went, is that he is all substance. Ho, ho. ].

The honeymoon period is now over. One surprise is that no-one pointed to the curious contrast between the bounce, and the herd-mentality that had dubbed Brown a pathologically-flawed no-hoper for Labour, prior to election. The bounce transcended all those concerns expressed in the media?

Over the last two weeks, I have also been surprised by the speed at which opinions about Brown and Cameron have swung back. The ratings are now [14.10.2007] roughly where they were before Mr Cameron hit policy problems a few months ago. Now, Cameron is as a hot a favourite for destroying Brown politically, as Brown was for destroying Cameron, a few weaks ago.

I was further surprised at the damage politically the Gordon Brown has sustained over his assertion that his decision not to call an election had been nothing to do with opinion-polls in marginal seats. The statement has become taken as evidence that the Prime Minister is irretrievably untrustworthy.

The second event, the afore-mentioned pre-Budget speech by Darling, is similarly taken as a sign of Government duplicity, specifically over Magpie politics. Specifically, like thieving Magpies, the Government has stolen the shiny baubles plucked from the Conservative lips, including inheritance tax from non-doms.

There’s enough mud for everyone to play in

The speech from Alistair Darling infuriated the conservatives, and particularly the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Alistair is in the Brown mould (measured and a bit, how can I put it, non-dom Scottish). Osborne is more of the smooth but menacing inclination, unafraid to take the fight to the muckier side of the farmyard. His immediate response to Darling’s pre-budget statement was a well-mounted piece of aggression at the calumny of his immediate opponent and the forces behind him, all the way up to King Gordon.

The next morning he had simmered down enough to articulate the view that the public would now be able to choose between the party of principled and honourable statesmanlike politicians, (the conservatives) and the cynical duplicitous lot on the other side (labour).

Overall he had had a good twenty-four hours, and is evidently on the way of becoming a dangerous opponent for the new Chancellor. Nice one George. Nice, in the sense of dangerously nasty.

The various outbusts of anger left me conscious of the farmyard metaphor, that there’s a lot of mud out there, likely to spread itself liberally on to all concerned. Voters may find it confirms their suspicions if they are repeatedly told that there are a lot of cynical duplicitous politicians (CDPs) out there.

On the other hand, drawing attention to this will not mean they will buy the proposition that all CDPs are to be found among the ranks of Gordon’s followers, thus enabling the conservatives convincingly to claim the high moral ground as The Principled Party.

Leadership lessons?

Some are immediately apparent. Gordon Brown contributed to the way in which this story developed. I rather think he moved back towards damage limitation in claiming responsibility for the election frenzy. (However tempting it might have been to bang on about the media).

There was another misjudgment when he insisted that he would not have been influenced by opinion polls in his decision, even if they indicated a majority of hundred after an immediate election.

The leadership principle is to retain some of that valuable commodity, wriggle room, whenever possible. Put another way, practice the art of the Delphic Oracle.

Find a creative way of dealing with the question at two levels.
Avoid yes or no answers when these are over-simplifications (which they almost always are).

No-one will get it right every time, but the frequency of poor moves, and the damage sustained, is likely to be reduced. At least, that’s if you believe leaders are made not born, and are strengthened through learning from their mistakes.


Northern Rock and Stone Age Economics

September 16, 2007

Northern Rock

The Bank of England backs a national bank as lender of last resort. Within a day of the announcement, Northern Rock customers flocked to their local branches. The great panic had begun. Assurances by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, various officials from the Bank of England, and the CEO of Northern Rock had little impact

The queues continue to grow

To be sure, the company has not helped itself, as a drama turned into a crisis. The cardinal rule under these circumstances is to find some way of making specific information available as rapidly as possible. Instead, the Bank was unable to deal with the technical problems following the crash of its website (presumably through sheer weight of attempted traffic).

Timeline of a crisis

Friday September 14th 2007. Radio and TV media throughout the day showed the growing queues outside selected branch offices. Nervous depositors and mortgage holders were interviewed. The beautiful impartiality of the media shone through the reports. Or was it the icy heartlessness which Graham Greene considered was the characteristic of the creative temperament? It’s an old debate.

The emergency lending facility to Northern Rock was agreed by Mr Darling, on advice from Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England. Northern Rock chief executive Adam Applegarth said that it had not yet borrowed any of the “unlimited” funds available… [The Chancellor, Mr Darling] said that “in order to create a stable banking system, the Bank [of England] steps in and it makes facilities available to the Northern Rock.” .. Angela Knight, chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, said that anybody who was “either a saver with Northern Rock or has got a mortgage… can be absolutely confident that they have got their money with or they have borrowed from a very sound financial institution.”

All the calming words did not stop some Northern Rock customers [attempting] to move some or all of their money to accounts with other banks.

Saturday 15th September.

Media reports concentrate on the big story. Big queues. Panic. Anxiety No ice in the heart from the customers. I imagined they would be mostly the inadequates and mostly poor and uninformed people. Confused casualties. Instead I heard interviews with articulate pensioners. Young house-holders. A university lecturer. Recently retired business people. (What sort of business?). Many had come with friend or family support. Some had knowledge of the likely downside to their investments. Maximum £900 from over £30,000. One was intending to retrieve £10. Others talked of £100,000. Taken collectively, these groups far from matched my stupidly simplistic expectations. These worried lines of people had more financial resources than you might expect from a queue of people to be found at a post office each week on ‘benefits day’. Was it time, too, for me to revise a long-held image of ‘ordinary people’ flocking to their banks in the financial crash in 1929?

This seems an example of mild hysteria to be witnessed at airports as crowds build up around desks, seeking information during a flight delay. I recognised the ‘nobody seems to know anything. They won’t tell you anything. I don’t believe what I’ve been told, anyway. They [the ‘they’ of possible mightmares] can’t ever be trusted. Politicians. Bankers. Airlines’.

The BBC treatment has been clumsy. Not so much ice in the heart, as unthinking. Northern Rock customers (those who were not queueing) were being advised to go to the BBC website. Where they would find the main report asking what if Northern Rock goes bust.

There was excellent information (as there generally is) to be obtained. That’s why I like the BBC coverage of national stories. But its efforts to become both more commercial and demonstrate its independence are regularly less than impressive. An earlier piece entitled Market Jitters and your pocket was also on offer

The piece on Financial Jitters: Lessons from History was informative about that Mother of Financial Crashes in 1929. Tucked away in that report was the steps taken internationally to avoid such an event happening again. The piece quite rightly pointed out that nothing is certain in life, and any deposits are theoretically vulnerable.

Overall, the Northern Rock customers who failed to get information on the corporate website seem to have remained in a state of high anxiety.

Leadership reflections

What sort of leadership are we observing here? Adam Applegarth was widely regarded as a skilful leader in Northern Rock’s transformation from a little Building Society into an international bank. He pioneered an imaginative business model which was in tune with clever notions of slicing and dicing investments and loan risks. Admiring enthusiasts of the mathematics of derivatives have been particularly impressed.

His experience in working his way up to the top of the organization suggests ability, energy and intelligence. In hindsight it is easy to suggest that the company was still not too far away from the management skills of a much smaller institution. Cynics tends to warn against investment in swanky new headquarters of the kind Northern Rock is building. And what to make of the unusual skills for a chairman, Dr Matt Ridley, better-known as a journalist and popular science writer on socio-biology (unkindly sometimes described as stone-age economics)?

Or a company committing a proportion of profits to charity through its own charitable foundation. Quirky and admirable maybe. Or too clever by half, and undone by market circumstances?


Tactics for a general election: The significance of Kerr’s Folly

August 28, 2007

The next General Election may be several years away. It is already shaping the thoughts and actions of the main political parties. While the new European Treaty may be of secondary importance to voters, it could play a vital part in the outcome of the election.

Conservatives and Labourites alike should be thinking beyond the obvious regarding the treatment of the New European Treaty. The issue is very much on the political agenda. The Government stands accused of breaking an election pledge. So how damaging might it be to Gordon Brown?

Background.

This week all the pressure seemed to be on Gordon Brown. Two unions, The GMB and RMT, are calling for a referendum by tabling motions for the TUC annual conference. This adds from the left to calls from the Conservatives and UKIP parties from the right. Presumably the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats would also welcome a referendum. This suggests that the government faces opposition from inside and outside its ranks to its decision to avoid a referendum.

Kerr’s Folly

A classic paper in the Academy of Management Journal in 1975 by Steven Kerr drew attention to ‘the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B’. The essential point made by the author is that the key to effective implementation of plans is understanding how reward systems work. Or, as Bill Starbuck memorably put it, ‘it’s the reward system, stupid’.

According to Kerr, numerous examples exist of reward systems that foul-up because the types of behavior rewarded are those that the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all. He explores this in various social, economic, and political fields. The paper leads us to the notion that politicians are all too-aware of the process through which the electorate wishes to obtain one thing and might appear to be of rewarding the politicians by voting for them. However, experience has shown that the electorate may wish for one thing and punish the politican by voting in effect to deny the policies approved of. Specifically, in politics, policy is couched in a deliberately vague manner, lest the electorate punish the ‘honest’ politician for spelling our any unpleasant consequences of that policy.

The [American] citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office to set forth operative goals, making their proposed programs clear, and specifying sources and uses of funds. However, since operative goals are lower in acceptance, and since aspirants to public office need acceptance .. most politicians prefer to speak only of official goals, at least until after the election. … The [American] voter typically punishes (withholds support from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards politicians who speak only of [policy] goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues [revealing potential pain to the voter].

In other words, Kerr’s folly indicates how we get the political behaviors and elect the politicians we deserve

The Behaviors we Deserve

It becomes the received political wisdom for a political leader to find ways of presenting policy with avoidance of mention of its costs, leaving that to the opponents of the policy. This happens to be one of the strengths of an open society. For example, in the UK, Conservative policy for releasing citizens from the burdens of taxation have to be justified increasingly with specific explanations of funding for maintaining social institutions such as the Health Service.

The Treaty, The Election and Kerr’s Folly

A knowledge of the theory of Kerr’s Folly might not win an election. But it explains and perhaps helps predict political ‘moves’.
Let’s see how it might be working at present. Gordon Brown is pressed ‘to stick to an election commitment’. He is benefitting from being seen as a ‘Not like Blair’ statesman. He is thus vulnerable to accusations of behaving in a Blair-like way, involving a bit of ducking and weaving. Thus he risks the displeasure of a proportion of the electorate, demonstrated by a slump in opinion polls.

In its original form, Ferr’s Folly suggests that the electorate may want to punish a politican for avoiding any tricky behavior, spin, or obfuscation. But if so, the folly is that the self-same people appear to deprive themselves of evicting such politicians by discounting the undesired behaviors, and when it coms to the vital vote, cast it on different grounds. In other words, if the electorate thinks a referendum will not really make much difference presumably to self-interest, a slump in opinion polls interpreted as disapproval on general grounds moral grounds will ultimately not count for much.

So, should David Cameron choose to fight over the principle of Labour’s broken promise? Probably not. One of the reasons is that there is still considerable ‘wriggle-room’ for the Government. The finer details of the logical or even moral case are not so critical as the evidence of personal disadvantage of the issue to voters.

The Knight’s Move

But battles are rarely predictable. A sudden unexpected surprise, like a devious Knight’s Move in Chess, changes the entire game.
Suppose Mr Cameron does go big on this attack on Mr Brown and his failure to stick to the Manifesto of the last Election? This may present the Prime Minister with the opportunity to be ‘forced’ to accept a call for an early election. If so, be sure it will be at the time of his choosing. It is not unknown in the heat of battle to drive the enemy into a more favorable position.


Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

July 12, 2007

lions_donk_haig_cartoon.jpgA second one-day strike at Royal Mail is announced for Friday 13th of July. Letters are exchanged between the Union and Management. In that curious way of industrial disputes, the letters seem intended to avoid constructive dialog. The battle looks more and more like the Somme, or perhaps Little Big Horn and General Custer’s last stand.

Events at Royal Mail grind forward, painfully slowly. Billy Hayes and Dave Ward are in there somewhere battling for the Union side, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier also somewhere for ‘Management’.

Sometimes the general shape of a battle-field has old warriors reminiscing of past triumphs and disasters. Two historic possibilities occur to me, one from The First World War, and one from the early days of American History.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I do not have first-hand experience of either, although my father survived the Somme, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it. There were no real survivors. Poets and military historians give us a picture of the bloody futility of it all.

Appeals to Patriotism

The first world war was a war of patriotic slogans, sometimes wrapped up in the noble ancient language of the ruling class.. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori… Lions led by donkeys. Two or three generations later and there is cultural residue, a nagging awareness in Great Britain, going back to Dr Johnson’s maxim that patriotic rhetoric is the last resort of the scoundrel.

While patriotism remains more desirable and contested ground in the USA, two American journalists are worth mentioning for a modern gloss.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.

Lions led by Donkeys

Historians argue over the origins of the term. Alan Clark wrote a book which helped popularize the expression. A reviewer noted:

The title comes from the German view of the English soldiers who charged into their machine guns and barbed wire: “Lions led by donkeys.” The donkeys were the professional officers of the British army which was destroyed in those battles, officers who were unable to adapt to the awful technology that changed the face of war forever

Back to the Royal Mail dispute

From the outside, events since the last one-day strike are baffling. Maybe they are as baffling on the inside as the battle orders were to the front-line troops on the Somme, or to General Custer’s men.

As the troops hunker down for the next planned push, the generals exchange letters. The tone of the letters is that of civilized beings engaged in diplomatic speak. Dear Allen, Dear Dave they begin.

But are the generals struggling and ‘unable to adapt to the awful technology’?

There is no alternative

Royal Mail claims it needs a billion pounds for the new technology, rather than meeting payclaims they compute as roughly the billion pounds for modernisation. There is no alternative. Or is there? It seems cruel to quote words associated with Margaret Thatcher, a general who waged war with another great Union two decades ago.

Today we have a new generation of political leaders. Dave the toff an open admirer of Tony Blair trying to drag the conservatives to a safe place for their political survival. Gord of the clunking fist is busy recruiting talented capitalist heroes to advise him.

Maybe the outcome will eventually attract more political attention. But for the moment, Dave and Gordon are united in their silence over the Royal Mail dispute. The BBC is curiously uninterested. The business has not yet cast any leader in a particularly heroic light. Creative leadership is at a premium.


Leadership: Going from good to great

June 8, 2007

What separates the good from the great in team projects? Managing the task effectively is a necessity. Three inter-related issues repeatedly crop up in MBA business assignments. They concern managing boundaries, managing expectations, and managing for insights

It is one week from final presentation day. A team turns up in my office for final words of advice. Every project is different. Every team is different. But their concerns this time have a very familiar ring to them. Are they on the right track? How will their sponsor (‘business client’) react to their findings? What to do about what they’ve learned in confidence?

To muck about with a saying from that great Management theorist Tolstoi, all teams fail for the same reasons. Each team that succeeds does so for its own unique reasons.

So its easier to alert teams for what often goes wrong, than to say what they have to do to get everything right. Their project could stand for hundreds of projects. The tricky thing is to sort out what are the commonalities. What advice from past experience might be extracted, and offered for this particular team?

Lord of the Flies?

Some team behaviors are right out of Lord of the Flies. Or The Apprentice TV series. The team is to all extents and purposes a bunch of individuals each struggling for individual success. It’s dog eat dog. The design of The Apprentice TV series forces participants to re-enact that familiar drama. One of its messages is personal survival. Survival at all costs. Any collaboration is minimal. There may be a veneer of collective sense of purpose implied in public at presentation time. But it is rather difficult for the dominant and dominating leader to come across as part of a unit which has been able to bring all its talents to the tasks they faced.

Lord of the Flies (LOTF) teams can get by. Thre are quite a number among MBA project teams. They tend to ‘stick it out’ and blag themselves to a decent rating in a final presentation, promising thmselves never to work together on another assignment. Decent result for the short-term maybe, but not dream-team behaviors.

This team did not fall into the LOTF category. The was no ‘chief honcho’ . No ‘followers’, ‘nodding donkeys’ , or ‘loafers’. Just a bunch of people who seemed to be sharing in a pre-agreed plan. Also, they seemed open to suggestions which required them to re-examine and perhaps depart from elements of that pre-conceived plan. In other words, they showed they were capable of being flexible in response to new ideas. If they behaved that way in my office, there was every chance they had behaved in a similar way at their sponsor’s workplace.

Who owns the project? Managing across boundaries

When teams present their findings, who are they really trying to impress? This is where The Lord of the Flies analogy breaks down. In Business School jargon, the team is learning to manage across various different boundaries. It is in the later stages of a project that some teams begin to grapple with this. They may well ‘delight the customer’. But the team now realizes there is more than one customer, and ‘delighting’ one may not ‘delight’ another.

The team can come to terms with these ambiguities in a final presentation and in their final report. In general, the process is managed by a bit of simplification into ‘who owns the project’, with just a hint of acknowledgement of other interests around.

In these projects, the team may have started as if their first contact was their one and only client. Then they found that a more senior figure in the organization has quite different views. In this specific case they had found that there were two sub-cultures in the business, each with differing views about what the company needed to do.

There is another boundary to manage. The entire project will be assessed and graded as part of the participants’ business degree. Faculty members will also be attending the final prentation to the client.

Incidentally, some students think that makes the whole thing unrealistic. I argue it is only another version of business life, when new team members are open to so-called 360 degree evaluations of their performance.

Managing expectations

As you consider how to manage those boundaries, you will inevitably begin to consider how to manage expectations of those interest groups. One obvious possibility is preparing in advance, checking out as far as possible the expectations of key players. Here again, it will be a judgement call. My own experiences suggest that successful teams have not just prepared themselves, but prepared the sponsor. But they will also have one or two pleasant surprises up their sleeves. It’s the bad news that is best pre-signalled.

Managing for insights

A great result will mean that the team will have managed expectations of key constituents including the project sponsor or client. It will have attended to differing expectations, which may be particularly intense at meetings where wider networks of interests are represented. The project task will have been tackled in terms of its objectives. The objectives of an initial brief may have been tested and negotiated.

All this may produce a good result. But not a great one. For that, there needs to be something special. A final presentation offers one situtation rich in opportunities to demonstrate excellence.

Agagin, drawing on experience, I would say that effective creativity enhances a message and is not substitute for one. A recent example was the ‘pitch’ made to the BBC by the Salford consortium which revealed an exciting vision of the city of the future. The London Olympic bid had an equally powerful video, which switched attention from the event to the children who would benefit from the event.

But creativity ‘works’ only if its intended ‘consumer’ buys it. If your sponsor heads up a finance organization, then she is likely to respond differently than would a sponsor from a dynamic and fast-growing IT outfit. Creativity in business will always involve risk and judgement.

How to get an A

How might a team get an A for its work? They may increase their chances by concentrating on the primary examiners and trying to find out their particular preferences. But in practice this is never straight-forward. One academic examiner may be highly influenced by the project sponsor. Another may not. It is not unknown for teams to win the active support of their sponsor to lobby the examiners on their behalf, only to find that may have the contrary effect to the one desired.

This team had got to the point of realizing that ‘getting an A’ should not be the only or even dominant objective as they reached the end of the project. They would take it as an opportunity for testing their own skills in business projects, and for discovering how they might work as a team for future challenges. Even for having an enjoyable experience in the process. Now that’s something they can self-assess as an A.

Leadership lessons

I’m aware that the content of this post hardly toches on leadershp. A few ‘don’ts’, perhaps. Don’t be a bully. Don’t encourage Lord of the Flies behaviors.

By implication I have been making a case for a creative leadership style touched on in an earlier post. In these MBA projects, leadership is more obviously a task distributed across team members. Nevertheless, there may still be a valued place for an individual who may have earned the right to be the most prominent team member in decisions and in those boundary-spanning situations in which expectations are tested.


Leaders we deserve: Stevie Mac brings Beckham back

June 5, 2007

englandlineup_l.jpg

First, Steve McClaren dumps superstar David Beckham out of the England soccer set-up. Then, following a run of disastrous results McClaren brings back Beckham. Weak or strong leadership?

The story so far. New English coach Steve McClaren steps up from the number two job, and is seen to put down a marker of his intention to make a fresh start. David Beckham had offered his resignation as team captain after an unconvincing display in England’s disappointing World Cup performances . McClaren drops him from the entire squad.

The new-look squad perform poorly. Beckham signs the largest contract of all time for a footballer, and agrees to leave Real Madrid and play in America for the Los Angeles Galaxy club later in the year. In the interim, Beckham suffers injuries and loss of form, and is dropped from the Real Madrid team, with clear indications that his career is finished.

A long time in football politics

As the season progressed, England without Beckham are far from revitalized. There is every chance that the team will not make the finals of the European championships. By coincidence, (?) Real Madrid also continues on a poor run of form.

And so it comes about that David Beckham returns to the Real Madrid team, and performs with distinction. Real makes a late challenge for the championship. Pressure mounts on Steve McClaren to bring Beckham back to the England squad.

An opportunity arises in a friendly match scheduled as the first international for the new Wembley stadium. The occasion is to be graced by an international team from Brazil, still widely regarded as the most gifted of all soccer-playing nations. The friendly is to be followed by a must-win European match the following week against minnows Estonia (No pushover, says wife, kibbutzing on this post, no such thing as an easy match …).

McClaren brings back Beckham. Much heated debate. Is it a desperate attempt by the coach to salvage something from the failing European campaign? Is this the action of a weak leader, or one strong enough to admit he had made a mistake dropping David Beckham in the first place?

What happened next?

I’m not a serious commentator on football. The indisputable facts are that England took the lead after a courageous header from new captain John Terry. The cross was provided by David Beckham – one skill in which he is widely regarded as being exceptionally talented. The other precious talent is that of taking lengthy dead-ball free kicks from what had became known in a favorite phrase of commentators as David Beckham territory.

Wha’ever. DB is widely considered to have had an outstanding game. Terry won the man of the match award. Beckham marginally eclipsed Terry in one of those dubious polls on a BBC website. Oh, yes, and Brazil in second gear nonchalantly scored an equalizer late into the game.

So England set off for the crucial game with Estonia, with Beckham undoubtedly in the line-up.

McClaren, tall poppies and leadership actions

Whatever happens in Estonia, the debate continues.

A popular saying in Australia is that the culture operates on the tall poppy syndrome. The original story is a tyrant myth, suggesting that a powerful leader will rather destroy potential rivals rather than risk them weakening his power. Today, the story is taken to illustrate our old friend the notion of leaders we deserve. It is typically taken to illustrate the fate of celebrities, indicating that adulation and fame arise because of popular acclaim. That acclaim can be withdrawn as rapidly as it arose.

Did McClaren act according to old tally poppy principle in ending Beckham’s international footballing career? Did he then bow to another swing in public opinion in reversing his decision? Or was he strong enough to admit a mistake?

The debate continues. I can see no conclusive evidence for arguing one way or the other. In other words, we have a nice example of the ambiguities surrounding a social science narrative. I’m inclined to the view that at the time of McClaren’s appointment the king-makers at the English Football Association initially wanted a tall poppy (the charismatic Brazilian super-coach Scolari). Failing in this, they settled for the not-at-all tall poppy Steve. He may be an average-height poppy, but this will not protect him from the grim reaper at harvest-time, in the fullness of the footballing year.


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