The Syrian crisis: Study leadership decisions not leadership styles

September 16, 2013

The complexities of leadership make assessments of a leader’s style less effective than assessments of a leader’s most critical decisions and dilemmas

The story of Syria’s internal conflicts and external attempts at intervention remains complex and obscure. I want to advocate its analysis through a study of leadership dilemmas and decision-making.

My executive students are familiar with the principle through applying it to current leadership cases. Here is how the approach may be effective in understanding some of the complexities of the Syrian crisis [as of September 2013].

Media treatments

Media treatments are arriving at a narrative or interpretive story of events in Syria. In the narrative, the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad faces increasing attempts to overthrow his regime by a complex set of internal interests. The American President Barack Obama would like to intervene, preferably with support from the international community. The Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the forces opposing Assad are waging war against a legally constituted leader.

The nature of narrative

Narrative by its nature is interpretative. It implies a belief in a story. I like to think of the story as a map or interpretation of a real-world reality. The Russian, American and Syrian maps differ. The real-world events involve thousands of people being killed, millions being displaced. If the narratives are maps, the conflict is the territory represented in the maps.

Dilemmas

News stories provide us with the maps. One way to examine them is to consider evidence of the most important dilemmas facing leaders. That way we glimpse the leadership processes better. For example, an excellent analysis in the Wall Street journal [updated and uploaded 15 Sept 2013] gives a Western map of current events. It also suggests the dilemmas facing President Obama.

Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place…

[D]uring a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.

Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.

Map-reading

Before I can assess or ‘map-test’ the ‘rightness’ of decisions, I need to ‘map-read’ thoroughly. The story suggests a critical dilemma. Mr Obama [it says] wants to reduce the U.S.’s role as global cop, but finds himself ‘lurching into launching a strike against Syria’. The dilemma, and the Presidential decision-making start to resolve with ‘the unintended outcome’ of the public remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and the reaction by his Russian counterpart.

Map-testing

This interpretation of events can be tested. Kerry’s statement is the most public. That it was ad-libbed and not offical policy is a piece of map-making or interpretation by the WSJ. Mr Lavrov’s reply is reported but not public. Subsequent events give it, and the narrative or map some plausibility.

Map-making

The events may have helped President Obama re-make his map to increase the chances of a non-military approach to Syria. The debate continues whether this is ‘true’; whether it was influenced by the decision of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to withhold support for military action; whether The Russian position and that of President Bashar al-Assad are to be trusted. But these become speculations. By sticking with dilemmas and decisions we avoid the morass we find ourselves in when dealing with such speculation.

I have chosen to examine the dilemmas facing President Obama. A richer picture (or map) emerges only after examination of other maps, other decisions, other leaders.


Charlotte Hogg appointed hew Chief Operating Officer at the Bank of England

June 21, 2013

Charlotte Hogg, new COO of the Bank of EnglandMark Carney, the incoming governor, has appointed Charlotte Hogg as Chief Operating Officer of The Bank of England running all day-to-day management functions.

The news this week [June 19th 2013] suggests evidence of changes accompanying the arrival of the new governor of the Bank of England.

Whenever a banker is appointed or leaves, the public is avid for further evidence of the cupidity our financial leaders. In this case, the figures speak for themselves. She will work for the same salary, £260,000 salary p.a. and benefits as the Bank’s three deputy governors. Last year she is reported to have earned, with bonuses, £2.5m in her senior post in Santander

According to the BBC

Charlotte Hogg, who like Carney studied at Oxford and Harvard, started her career at the Bank before moving to McKinsey in Washington. She has also worked at Morgan Stanley, before joining Experian as head of its operations in the UK and Ireland.
Hogg is descended from one of Britain’s most high profile political families. Her mother is Baroness (Sarah) Hogg, a senior adviser to Sir John Major when he was prime minister. Her father is Viscount Hailsham, the former Tory cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, who gained notoriety when he stepped down as an MP after claiming £2,200 expenses for cleaning the moat at his 13th-century country estate. Her paternal grandfather was Lord Hailsham, a former lord chancellor. “You can have too much of a good thing in one family,” Hogg once told her local newspaper.

Paul Tucker, the Bank’s deputy governor for financial stability who lost out on the top job to Carney, announced his intention to leave the Bank last week. Prior to Charlotte Hogg, the most senior woman at the Bank was Rachel Lomax, who served as a deputy governor from 2003 to 2008.

One small step for Charlotte …?


How firing a leader may be explained in Keynesian terms

April 1, 2013

By John Keane

The firing of leaders should be clear evidence of rational decision processes. Sometimes it seems driven by irrational expectations

My example comes from the world of football in England, but it could easily be extended to other business situations.

As Easter approached [March 2013] Premier League battles for survival were heating up. Six clubs were considered most likely to supply the three who would be relegated, with serious loss in income. If a boost to performance could be achieved in the final ten games, financial disaster could be avoided. It is considerably harder for a club to fight its way back, as the relegation to the Championship has considerable consequences on recruitment of new players, sponsorship and match attendances.

On firing a leader

The decision to fire a manager seems to be one primarily taken by a powerful owner, who may or may not be influenced by others such as the manager, and (or so the fans would like to believe) the vocal protests of supporters.

One of the most powerful and wealthy owners, Roman Abramovitch of Chelsea, has a track record of removing managers in search of others he approves of more. At present his choice has already been told he is a stop gap to be replaced at the end of the season by the best manager money can buy. This is somewhat different as Chelsea is also able to buy good enough players to win trophies. They are currently European Champions, but the achievement was not enough to save the last manager from being fired.

The candidates for the chop

Managers facing relegation this year included those at Southampton, Wigan, Aston Villa, Reading, Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland. One of these (QPR) acted earlier in the season and appointed Harry Redknapp, one of the most experienced managers capable of helping ‘the great escape’. Reading, Southampton and Aston Villa pressed the trigger later. In these cases the replacement is not obviously a better manager by track record than the departing one. This is particularly the case for Sunderland, who replaced a manager of considerable prior achievements, with a controversial one with less experience.

These sorts of decisions illustrate the Keynesian view that financial decisions are driven by irrational forces and expectations. Or, as Keynesians like to say, the leaders are left trying to ‘push on a piece of string’ [to obtain supply-side wins] to achieve better results than might otherwise have been produced.


Holy Smoke: The symbolic nature of voting processes

March 17, 2013

Pope FrancisThe election of Pope Francis illustrates the symbolic nature of the voting process deployed by the Catholic Church in the selection and election of its spiritual leader. But how different is it to the practices of decision making found in many other Organizations?

In a papal election the symbolism is evident. The conclave of Cardinals assembles in Rome from around the world and its members are prepared for their elective duties. Through dress, location and traditional rituals they are reminded of their sacred duties. The process combines periods of prayer, periods of intense discussion cut off from the ears and eyes of the world. The votes are recorded anonymously, each Cardinal adding a single name to a simple voting slip. these are scrutinized to assess if the required majority has been reached. In either case the slips are ritually burned to provide one of the most famous of signs, the smoke emerging over the Sistine chapel, black for an inconclusive result, white for the awaited news that a new Pope has been elected. [Incidentally, the chemicals now used to achieve the dark and white plumes are pretty noxious...]

Unique and Universal

The ceremony is unique. Yet I suggest it has near-universal aspects which can be noticed in leaders appointments elsewhere. This week, for example, election results were announced in The Falkland Islands and in China.

More symbolism in voting

In each case there was a heavily symbolic component. The Falklands have remained disputed territory between Britain and Argentina which the ‘Thatcher war’ did little to resolve. In the Falklands referendum-type vote, , 98.8% voted to remain British. Three votes were cast against. In China, the electorate voting for President Xi returned an almost identical 98.86%. I will spare you lengthy political analysis. There was one point I found interesting made my commentators in each. On the Falklands, a spokesperson said the result was good because a 100% vote might have seemed suspicious. A Chinese blogger said it was Xi himself for reasons of modesty returned the one vote against, not wanting it be seen as voting for himself.

My unreasonable view of voting

Like many citizens around the world, I value the symbolism of participating in voting. But part of me carries a suspicion that many ballots are more about symbolic process through which a contested election appears to be ‘the will of the people’. Too often, the voting conceals the power behind the ballot box, for example in the choice of candidates or voting procedures. This applies to decisions of corporate boards as much as to those made in the election of a parliamentary representative or a President.


Tough Calls: Allan Leighton’s philosophy on business and how to fix the economy

September 22, 2011

Allan Leighton has distilled his experience as a successful business leader into a how to do it book. He talks to BBC’s Radio Five of the book and his views on how to fix the economy

Not a Book Review, by Tudor Rickards

Allan Leighton has written a book on business as a matter of making tough calls. This post followed Mr Leighton’s appearance talking about his new book on a radio interview [BBC Five Live, Sept 22nd, 2011]

The high-profile leader

Allan Leighton has had a track record of considerable success as a corporate business leader. He is widely credited for the successful transformation of Asda. LWD subscribers will have followed his more turbulent time at Royal Mail. You can see a range of posts dealing with the period 2007 on as he battled with the challenges of transformation in the State owned organization [Use the LWD Search box opposite inserting the tag Allan Leighton]. According to reports at the time, his leadership style was no-nonsense, and popularist (or unpopularist if you crossed him). His successful career justifies attention when he turns his attention to offering business advice.

No business jargon

Mr Leighton spoke with impressive confidence. The absence of business jargon was noticeable This differentiates him from business leaders whose public utterances often suggest too much coaching, over-rehearsal and acceptance of someone else’s script-writing.

The key ideas

Three key ideas were clearly expounded.

[1] ‘Most business decisions are ultimately simple’
[2] Work from understanding consumer needs and motivations
[3] Stick to your Business DNA. [Shades of the advice given several decades ago by Peters and Waterman, ‘stick to your knitting’]

George Osborne or Allan Leighton?

The interview shifted to the Tough Calls facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr Leighton suggested that the Government’s focus should be on renewing consumer confidence which had been eroded by high levels of inflation. Confident consumers are spending consumers.

Within an hour there was a powerful exchange of views between two industrial commentators, one taking the view that confident financial analysts were more important than confident consumers for long-term economic stability. Not such a simple decision, perhaps?

Tough Calls reviewed

I came across a fine review of Tough Calls written by Tom Otley, in The Business Traveller:

Books from business leaders seek to draw general rules from specific experience. For us to read them we have to believe the person is successful, and they are able to distil the knowledge they have gained from their careers into a form we may learn from.

One obvious advantage his high profile has given him is that for a book like this he can speak with dozens of very well known, influential and respected business leaders and learn what they think about decision-making. Everyone from Sir Terry Leahy (Tesco) to Martin Sorrell (WPP), Sir Stuart Rose (Marks & Spencer) to Charles Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse) is here, and it’s immensely interesting reading what they have to say.

The disadvantage of Leighton’s approach is that each one of these business leaders has their own receipt for success, and they don’t always agree with one another. Nevertheless, Leighton concludes by offering a sequence of actions on the part of the decision maker:

“1. Step in. 2. Collect and digest the best information available at the time. 3. Make the decision. 4 Communicate the decision. 5. Make sure it happens. 6. Move on.”

…Many of us over the years have had bosses like this, who distil their considerable wisdom to the point where it’s obvious.

The reviewer mischievously then illustrates the point with a quote from the currently beleaguered James Murdoch:

“I have been following a lot of journalists and commentators tweeting and blogging about News Corp. … They’ve been out to dinner, they’ve had a drink and then they are on Twitter. It is just madness. You have to have rules about engagement in these areas.”

Follow That

I’m not sure if I can add much to Tom Otley’s review. However, the book is available at a very reasonable price on Kindle, and I may well attempt my first review of an e-book.

Watch this space.


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