Match Of The Day: Brown versus Osborne

April 18, 2007

Many of us missed Match Of The Day, Brown against Osborne, in the Westminster League. Although televised, the match attracted fewer viewers than the Manchester United/ Sheffield United Premiership football clash, which I watched. Sheffield United seemed to drag the front-runners down to their level. Meanwhile, at Westminster …

The Westminster match was a hastily arranged fixture in advance of more serious contests over the coming months. Brown had been challenged to defend his actions of a decade ago. It was to turn into a one-on-one battle between Chancellor Gordon and his Conservative man-marker, George Osborne.

Two hundred miles to the North West, Sheffield’s finest were at Old Trafford, where they were fighting for their place in the Premier League against the table leaders Manchester United.

Sheffield Manager Neil Warnock said that his team would be facing the best team in the world. While this would be contested by many fans from teams in the English league and beyond, he was effectively making the point that Sheffield were massive underdogs (you could have placed a bet at 14 to 1 for a Sheffield win).

What Sheffield did at Old Trafford

What Sheffield did at Old Trafford was to compete physically, never giving up, against more talented opposition. Young and energetic defenders followed their manager’s plan in man-to-man marking against some of the most elusive and skillful players in the world. Tackles flew in which sidelined United players, and added to concerns about the casualties sustained in recent battles.

The result was as predicted by the bookies a win for the table-toppers and likely Champions. But the win was a narrow 2-0. A week ago, also at Old Trafford, Manchester United had scored seven goals to win a quarter final match against one of Italy’s top teams. General consensus was that Sheffield had dragged the Manchester team down to their level.

Meanwhile in the Westminster League …

Please understand: I am just playing with this metaphor to see how a sporting battle might offer insights into a political contest. In this metaphorical sense, Gordon Brown might be seen as the odds-on favorites, entering the field with a ten-year record for financial success. His opponents’ tactics (like those of Sheffield United) were to challenge public perceptions of the top dog.

Over a decade, Gordon Brown has been regularly called upon to defend his financial actions, in such matches. He has been largely successful in preserving his reputation as a skillful and prudent Chancellor. (Let’s not forget his long-time ally Prudence).

I only caught the highlights in a late night news broadcast, which also indicated the final score had been a comfortable but not overwhelming victory for Gordon Brown. Had the conservatives set up a dogged man-to-man marking system that had minimized the nature of their defeat? Possibly. Had they dragged the Government forces into a scrappier sort of tussle than they would have liked? Again, possibly.

The BBC reported that

The arguments have been well rehearsed over the past few weeks, even years, but shadow chancellor George Osborne was not going to let that stop him .. The “raid” on pension funds had been a con, had devastated the funds leaving Britain with the worst system in Europe and been done in the face of official advice warning him of the consequences ..

The Conservative party went all out on this anti-Brown campaign, even producing a mock newspaper, imaginatively called The Moon, to hand out to rush hour commuters at train stations around the country, and declaring “Gordon Brown ate my pension”.

Gordon Brown ate my pension.

Yes, these are the defiant words of a street fighter.

Did the conservative battle plan work?

To the extent that they had shaped the nature of the fight. To the extent that the Tabloidification of the argument may contribute even marginally to a public perception of the Chancellor (shortly to become Prime Minister) as a man of stealth. It may be a dirty battle, but it may not have been totally futile.

In business, I have reflected on smear campaigns for many years. I’d like to see some decently researched evidence. If there’s anyone out there with some solid evidence I’d like to hear from you. In absence of such evidence I hold to a business principle. You smear your opponents at your peril. It’s a kind of wicked problem-solving. The unintended consequence is to risk a wider reaction of ‘a plague on all your houses’ among the neutrals. It contributes to the low opinion held of politicians by increasing proportions of voters (or perhaps, I should say non-voters).

These are the leaders we deserve, for as long as we accept the tactics of the playground which too often we are witness to.

Postscript

It was The Times wot done it. Originally, the story of Gordon the Pension Snatcher was broken exclusively by the Times newspaper. Today, it tucked away its report of the Brown-Osborne battle on page 22. Perhaps the accompanying Parliamentary Sketch by Ann Treneman rarther spoiled the Thunderer’s thunder. The headline ran ‘Hurricane Gordon sweeps in and demolishes his opponent’. Ouch!


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’?


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