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

October 14, 2007


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.


Honeymoon. What honeymoon?

August 12, 2007

caribbean-honeymoon1.jpgTalk of a Gordon Brown Bounce in the polls in England has been linked to the question of how long does a political honeymoon last. In David Cameron’s case, the answer seems to be as long as there was no attractive competitor around.

The notion of a political honeymoon remains unresolved. Much talk has been make in the UK of the period of Gordon Brown’s initial popularity as Prime Minister. Polls have placed him, and his party’s prospects high. High enough to set Conservatives on alert at prospects of an early General Election. At the same time, the popularity of David Cameron declines both in opinion polls, and among influence-makers as reported in the media.

Blair and Cameron

Suppose we are interested in the nature of a leadership honeymoon?. How long might a new leader be granted the good will of those close to him or her? Before addressing the current case, let’s look at the earlier honeymoon periods of Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Cameron won the leadership of the Conservatives in a blaze of positive publicity about his potential for transforming his party. In this respect he had a positive impact which had similarities with that of Tony Blair on his arrival as leader of the labour party a decade earlier.

Both made conscious efforts to signal change. Blair succeeded in exploiting a highly-charged issue, the Clause Four moment. Cameron is believed to be still searching for such a focus, in his attempts to transform his party to greater acceptability among voters. His early efforts signalled a conscious effort to dispell the image of the Conservatives as the nasty party. He also sought more middle ground around environmental issues, and social issues.

In the processes of seeking change, Blair and Cameron hit opposition, but were able to represent their respective internal opposition as traditionalists resisting reform.

Unfreeze – refreeze

Years ago, Kurt Lewin suggested that great cultural changes may be seen as processes in which social beliefs become unfrozen for a period, and then refrozen. He was much pre-occupied by the rise of Nazism. Later the freeze-unfreeze-refreeze concept became a foundation for explaining changes in a wide range of social and cultural circumstances. It has some relevance as a starting point for thinking about political honeymoons. Lewin though of social groups as stabilized within a field of forces (force field). A potential threat to the system will produce substantial counter-changes. A leader produces the threat. Or should we think of the threat as producing the leader?

The outcome is that the acceptance of a new leader will be followed by the ‘refreezing’ process as the group members engage in whatever psychological processes contribute to the readjustment.

In Stage One of Blair’s leadership the unfreezing within the party was accelerated during his election campaign as party leader, and then refrozen on his victory. This internal process was confirmed in his wider victory nationally.

In hindsight, we can make sense of the decline of Tony Blair’s political popularity as deriving from the role he played in British Foreign Policy. Within that, his part in the Iraq conflict and his relationship with President Bush make convenient labels for evidence of his poor leadership actions and judgement.

Pressure built up on Blair’s leadership position from accumulated pressures of repeated bad-news stories in Iraq. Maybe, if the honeymoon metaphor can be stretched that far, there were different specific moments of disenchantment for different people, rather than a single tipping point. An early one might have been the ‘dodgy dossier’ affair and the death of civil servant David Kelly. For others, a specific ‘moment of truth’ might have been some particularly horrific incident in Post-Saddam Iraq, or some farcical media shot of Bush and Blair engaged in a public display of affection.

Meanwhile pressures for change and opportunities to exploit Blair’s unpopularity were building up within and outside the Government. The Conservatives became sensitized to a possible escape from their period out of office. For them, the pressures eventually were released at the party conference which acclaimed Cameron their leader and saviour.

For David Cameron, his political honeymoon was to sustain itself quite nicely well beyond the mythical one hundred days . Accusations of lack of substance were easily deflected. The new leader was not going to rush (like Blair might have done) into hasty promises.

Blair, over this period, although deeply unpopular is reluctant to stand down. The heir-apparent Gordon Brown appears too eager to step into the job. Gordon is represented as a potential disaster for Labour. An inadequate megalomaniac. (Blair while unpopular remains skilled at hand to hand combat, in his public battles (speeches, Prime Minister’s Question Times). The unpopularity of Blair sustains Cameron’s honeymoon but his rhetorical skills help Blair to hang on to ‘the moment of his choosing’ to depart.

When Brown took over from Blair

Brown arrives as Leader of the party and country. A welter of national threats arrive on cue. Terror attack, floods, the plague in the shape of a Foot & Mouth outbreak. Brown the gauche, the megalomaniac, the unelected Prime Minister responds in a reassuring way. His actions are largely seen as primarily in the public interest. Which is another way of saying they are seen as not simply conducted in order to win public approval.

Over roughly the same time internal of rather less than a hundred days, Cameron’s position sustains a severe battering. Critics emerge from the ranks of erstwhile supporters.

Leadership honeymoon as a systems effect

Taking this approach, a leaders’ honeymoon period is one component within the ebb and flow of the struggles for political survival. Cameron and Brown complete for survival. Brown’s honeymoon period impacts on Cameron’s as surely as the moon above works on the tides below.

How long does a political honeymoon last? There is no answer in terms of a specified time-period. Maybe astrologers have been right all along. The truth lies in the stars. In this example, as Blair’s brilliance faded, Cameron’s shone the brighter. Then, as Brown’s star ascended, Cameron’s was fated to decline.

To go more deeply

The Great Man theory of Leadership has been around since the days of Thomas Carlyle.

It has more recently fallen into disrepute.

Peter Senge’s brilliant descriptions of systems stability and systems breakdown are also worth considering as an alternative approach to astrology. His excellent diagrams of organisational dynamics could be put to use in predicting the dynamics of political systems.

Maybe Darwinian connections can be found, with the possibility of exploring how a honeymoon exists as the period between two epochs (punctuated equilibrium model).

Bush Brown Mills & Boon

July 29, 2007


Tony Blair was said to have had an unhealthily close relationship with President Bush. The new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, meets George Bush this weekend. But are we at risk of making sense of their first encounter in terms better suited to romantic fiction?

The widespread view over here is that Tony Blair became too much in thrall to George Bush. The ‘poodle’ metaphor might have become clichéd, but it has outlasted other more nuanced terms. Maybe there will be a historical revision, but for the moment the story has been established, and the ending settled in the public’s recollections of both leaders and their relationship.

Gordon Brown became Prime Minister after a long and bitter succession battle. Maybe, again, the official line will soften the accepted version of the story. The official line is that the two men had a long-standing friendship which carried them through the long period of Blair’s dominance as Prime Minister, and Brown’s not inconsiderable political influence as a highly effective Chancellor of the Exchequer. In this version, any discussions between them did not amount to a deal that Brown would not complete with Blair for the top job after the sudden death of Labour’s leader John Smith. Blair would smooth the way for Gordon’s succession, but not with a time-scale attached to the arrangement, which as I have just said, was not in any way a deal.

In the version presented through the media, there was a deal, and in time Brown became increasingly convinced that he had been conned, and would not be given Blair’s support in a future leadership contest. The Blair/Brown relationship was to become as dark as the Blair/Bush one was to burgeon into an idyllic friendship of sweetness and light.

That was then

Gordon eventually takes over and ‘sends out signals that changes are on the way. It’s tricky because he can’t change too much of the things he was assumed to be partly res;onsible for. He might be accused of being Blair’s poodle! would be then accused of heavily involvement in under Tony. But it is thought that he will meet those two Kiplingesque impostors of threat and opportunity . over Iraq, and thus inevitably the Anglo-American relationship

Now Gordon journeys to Camp David to meet Blair’s old buddie. The meeting has attracted a little attention in the UK political circles, less so in America. The White House press machine seems to have reached an embattled compromise with the media in its standardized delivery of standardized news stories. The travelling members of the Washington Press Corp dutifully attends at Camp David and reports on the information provided. The item will slot into the back end of news reports in its rightful place after the breaking news of personalised tragedies, and the doings of celebrities from the overlapping celebrity worlds of sport, entertainment, and violent crime. No big deal. Gordon gets his allotted coverage, roughly that allocated to the meetings of the last and next international visitors with the President.

Does it the meeting matter?
Interested journalists seem to think it does.

Maybe this is so, although I am inclined to think the idea is too close to that romantic tale of a first encounter, and of the critical importance of first impressions. A misunderstanding leads to many a twist and turn before the two principal characters find their true relationship. Its too close to Mills & Boon, as we like to say.

First impressions are important, not least in the world of business. Rickards and Clark cited several examples of the importance attributed by business leaders to first impressions. It’s up there with other assumptions, such as the idea that trust, once lost, is never regained. That’s a more deterministic version of the ‘first impression’ assumption.

Here we have a chance to evaluate these notions in a well-documented (if well-packaged) form, as well as the suggestion that a new leader can expect a honeymoon period. In Gordon’s case, this is measured by the so-called Brown Bounce in opinion polls.

Home Depot needs more improvements

July 11, 2007

frankblake.jpgHome Depot is known as the largest home improvement firm in the world. High-flyer Bob Nardelli failed to sustain its early growth, and was fired. Six months on, his successor Frank Blake is also struggling in a tough market place. We look back at the board room battles that have beset the company

Financial warning signs are looming for Home Improvements giant Home Depot. Market conditions are tough even for a one-time glamour stock. Time was, when the company was outperforming Walmart. But then the company growth slowed.

AS USA Today put it in January, Home Depot boots CEO Nardelli.

According to Business Week,

the Board did not want to sack their CEO, neither did he want to go. In the end it came down to the headstrong CEO’s refusal to accept even a symbolic reduction in his stock package. Home Depot Inc.’s board of directors wanted their controversial chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, to amend his whopping compensation deals for recent years. After he pulled down $38.1 million from his last yearly contract, angry investors were promising an ugly fight at the company’s annual meeting in May.

How Bob was recruited

Nardelli was recruited in 2002 after building a reputation of a high flyer under the legendary Jack Welsh at GE. But Welsh could not promise his ambitious executive the preferment he craved. A director of both GE and Home Depot had secured his services for Home Depot, whose board removed the company’s co-founder. A Fortune article at the time of his appointment offered a picture of a determined and driven character, and a battler. He had wanted to become a pro footballer but was rejected as being too small. He wanted to be chief of GE but was passed over.

Enter Frank Blake

Frank Blake was appointed chairman and CEO of Home Depot in January 2007. Prior to this position, he served as vice chairman of the board of directors and executive vice president of the company. He joined The Home Depot in 2002 as executive vice president, Business Development and Corporate Operations, and was responsible for real estate, store construction, credit services, strategic business development, growth initiatives, call centers and the Home Services business.

Frank did not have a great leadership honeymoon. Progress remained unimpressive. This was not for want of leadership initiative. Recently he was praised for bringing in the expertise of the founders:

Baboons drive the dethroned alpha male out of the pack. Eskimos set their elders adrift on ice floes. And so it goes with departing CEOs, who are often shown the door as part of the new regime’s assertion of power. In 2000, Bob Nardelli was named CEO, replacing Arthur Blank; within the next two years, Blank and co-founder Bernie Marcus gave up their remaining ties to the company.

“No one ever called or asked us our advice,” Marcus recently told Fortune. As a result, Blank and Marcus became outsiders at their own company – until January, when Nardelli stepped down amid charges of bloated compensation. The board tapped executive vice president Frank Blake to take charge, and on his first day in the job, Blake called back the founders.
Experts suggest Blake is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to recognizing the value in retired brass. “They’re an incredible resource,” says Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. “They know where the bodies are buried.”
The risk, of course, is that the old team hangs around too much. Blank and Marcus try to keep their distance. Blake says the founders have struck the right balance: “They’re responsive, but not intrusive.”

Happy ever after?

Leadership is not that simple. Blake has a participative style that increasingly wins support from Business gurus. It fits nicely, for example, with the Sloan leadership model. This model reminds us that no leader is perfect, and it is a strength not a weakness to acknowledge that. On the other hand, shareholders invest for returns, not leadership theories. Home Depot may now have enlightened leadership. Will it achieve improved results before another leader departs, this time with a less generous golden goodbye?

Welcome to the top job, Gordon

July 2, 2007

images1.jpgGordon Brown has faced a turbulent first week as Prime Minister. As well as the natural complications of appointing a government, he has faced major terrorist threats, floods, and an industrial dispute. So how well has he done in his first examination?

Hard to resist the week is a long-time in politics cliché . Within days of taking over as PM from Tony Blair, Gordon has introduced his long-planned appointments of his lieutenants. These are as widespread as might have been expected. This is consistent with his message in his first public statements that he will deliver a number of changes. He is directly challenging David Cameron, the fresh but inexperienced Conservative champion who also presents himself as the leader who will bring change.

So far so planned. But within that first week Brown also had to deal with three terrorist incidents, two in London, and one at Glasgow international airport. The floods that engulfed parts of Yorkshire then spread to other parts of England and Wales.

So the new Prime Minister and his new Home Secretary Jaquie Smith faced an induction examination. What would they do about the terrorists and the floods. My selected test question for Gordon was to see how he would deal with the postal workers’ twenty-four hour strike last Friday. But that didn’t even get on the examination paper.

Terrorist tactics

The new Government faces a different kind of tactic from the terrorists in mainland Britain. Load up large cars with propane gas cylinders and with petrol (gasoline). Add a detonation device and an optional payload of nails. Target high-profile locations.

For whatever reasons, all three car-bombs failed to function as intended. Hundreds of people escape annihilation.

The security arrangements also survived the disruption at the top of Government. The specific response is to place the country on the highest security footing, ‘critical’, implying that a security threat has been assessed as both probable and imminent.

A little local story

As it happened, I was driving Susan to the airport in Manchester, earlier this (sunday) morning, and had a chance to become caught up in the security arrangements. Roads to terminals were blocked by police vehicles. Security personnel in their yellow dayglos were diverting cars through a series of chicanes. Straggling lines of passengers hauling luggage were pressing ahead on foot towards the arrival halls. I was waved on, and my passenger headed off, with the unenviable prospects of delays at Manchester, and on the next leg of her journey at Heathrow. [Subsequent report: all went as well as might be expected under the circumstances].

Gordon speaks to the Nation

In a formal televised statement the Prime Minister was brief and cogent. I found myself comparing his performance with what we might have expected from recently-departed Tony Blair. For me, he did pretty well. Quite different to TB’s favored style, although Blair’s famous theatrical adaptability might also have produced a good performance. But the circumstances probably favored reassurances from a dour serious man. Tony might have been more empathic, but maybe it’s not always an advantage to be chockfullacharisma …

What the polls say

Can’t get away from it. The leader who appears calm in face of a threat to the people scores political brownie points. If so, it comes as a bonus on top of what the columnists are calling The Brown bounce, a nice little climb in the opinion polls, up to 39%, and ahead of the conservatives (at 35%) for the first time since last May’s elections.

Crude percentage points in opinion polls are (as usual) misleading. Labour’s gains after Blair have come about mostly because less committed voters have drifted towards labour from other parties, including the Lib Dems (down 3 at 18%). The conservatives, while less than ecstatic, have even gained a (non-statistically significant) percentage point over the figures by the same pollsters for the Guardian a month ago. It’s still all to play for.

But to go with another cliché, the momentum seems to be with the new new boy Gordon, over the old new boy David, and particularly over the older new boy Ming.

Gordon grooves and Dave dips

June 9, 2007

Gordon Brown sticks to the same speech and his poll ratings climb. David Cameron continues to seek reforms in his party, and his ratings drop. We revisit the recent leadership tales and poll ratings

Gordon’s gigs

This week there were reports on Gordon’s gigs. It seems he’s been making a nation-wide tour. BBC journalist Robin Brant has become his most loyal groupie.

Gordon Brown has been on the road for three weeks now, hitting major cities across the country, meeting Labour supporters and trying to persuade them to support him as he prepares for leadership .. The stump speech, with which he starts every event, has remained virtually unchanged and impressively consistent

So Gordon is not so much groovie in the antiquated sense of the word as well-grooved.

The Bill Davies Approach to Hustings

It is hardly a surprise that Brown recycles a much-practiced formula in public speaking. Many years ago, I was taught the same method by a much-loved local politician Bill Davies. At election times, Bill, a life-time Labour activist, would find himself in a succession of village halls. At local elections he would be canvassing for himself, fighting to remain the sole Labour representative on the Knutsford Council.

Bill would have his handful of key points to convey. These were wrapped up in a formula so that he could deliver them long after battle-fatigue had kicked in. The formula left him only to customize it for each locality.

‘As I arrived in your beautiful main square today I noticed … [mention local tourist trap]

‘I could help thinking [link it with this week’s local paper headline]’

But you are lucky, you’ve got [mention local character and claim to fame ]

Now the conservatives ….’

And so on. To include the customized joke about the village grocer (‘my mum says we don’t want the toilet roll now, the visitors didn’t come after all’).

Bill was on all counts a richly imaginative speaker. But his creativity was far more formulaic than most listeners suspected. Some of his corridor-friends were regularly dragooned as practice audiences, as Bill tried out his latest bit of fine-tuning to the formula.

Don’t think that would work for Gordon.

Meanwhile Dave’s makeover hits a snag

Yes, the high-profile makeover of the Conservative family home has hit a snag. There is serious dispute over the reconstruction of one of the rooms. Several members of the family have been very angry. Dave remains firm, insisting it will all look fine when the refurbishments have been completed. But viewers don’t like all that fighting.

Or, as last week’s Sunday Telegraph reported:

David Cameron’s competence and credibility as a potential prime minister have been severely damaged by his party’s bitter infighting over grammar schools …The Conservative leader is seen as less capable and a weaker leader than Gordon Brown, an ICM poll shows today. He is also behind on “hard” issues such as the economy, tax and the fight against terrorism .. In the poll pitting Mr Cameron against Mr Brown, 45 per cent said they thought the Chancellor would make the better prime minister, as opposed to 43 per cent for Mr Cameron. The Chancellor also had a clear lead on foreign policy, tax and terrorism.

Leadership insights?

The opinion polls have shown the Conservatives with a lead over Labour which has persisted under David Cameron, but not by enough to suggest a clear win at the next election. The marginal blips in the poll have been rather simplistically explained by the political story of the week. This week, the story is around the Conservative’s plans (or lack of plans) around Grammar Schools. I’m not as convinced as the opinion-shapers that they have found the cause of the slight dip in the Polls.

Whenever results from a wider set of poll questions are examined over time, we see how variation is a lot of noise out of which statisticians detect some weak signals.

This week, you might just as well argue (as some pundits have) that the polls indicate that David Cameron’s honeymoon period is coming to an end.

One source of uncertainty is beginning to weaken, as Gordon’s appointment as next leader of the (New?) Labour Party and as Prime Minister is confirmed (Coronation date later this month).

Nurses pay won’t go away. Gordon Brown must have his say

May 28, 2007

_42810465_noreena203.jpgA recommended pay award for nurses in England was partly delayed by the Government. The Royal College of Nursing is to ballot its members for possible industrial action. Politicans back the call. A tricky and possibly important early challenge for Gordon Brown’s leadership. Is there anything he might learn from Nicholas Sarcozy’s first weeks in office?

How long is a leader’s honeymoon period? As long as a piece of string. Gordon Brown has over a month to go even before the nuptuals are celebrated. Already there are malcontents likely to be at the wedding ceremony.

Gordon Brown as Prime Minister will be not be given as much time to find his feet as was David Cameron on his appointment of leader of the Conservative party and wannabe Premier. Brown’s honeymoon will be briefer, if only because he has been in the public eye as a political heavyweight for a more that a decade (and a decade as we all know is a very long time in politics).

In this respect he has something common with Nicholas Sarcozy, the newly elected French president. Sarco had a tricky little test within days of coming to office. As he was preparing to assume the trappings of power he had a little time to consider the rumbling discontent of workers at Airbus.

Now Airbus in the French psyche is not quite the cultural icon as is The National Health Service in the British. Not quite. But combine the threat the French jobs with the traditional willigness for action direct and you are looking at a challenge that had to be dealt with at risk of a bad first impression as a leader. So we might conclude that Gordon has this also in common with the French leader.

The joys of opposition

The circumstances provide one of the joys of opposition. The opportunity to espouse a popular cause. Already there is further support from activists who have enlisted Professional Footballers to the cause.

Gordon Brown in opposition would have been in there with his political opponents (which, as they say, can be found in, as well as outside, his own Party).

According to The BBC

Nearly 200 MPs, including the leaders of both main opposition parties, have backed calls for nurses to get a full 2.5% pay increase this year. Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been offered a 1.5% rise followed by another 1% in November .. [The MPs also include] several leading Labour figures – the deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas, former health secretary Frank Dobson and former ministers Kate Hoey and Stephen Byers

What might Gordon do?

There is a juicy dilemma of leadership here. Gordon as social reformer would like to find a way of supporting the Nurses. As politican he would also like to win some points for being nice to such a cherished group of workers. As Chancellor, he has already faced the tough financial and political consequences of granting a modest-looking pay award in full and on time. As would-be leader his famous concern for prudence is likely to be gnawing away as he nail-bites his way to a decision.

A tip from across the channel

The parallels with the Airbus case are strong enough to be worthy of consideration.
In an earlier post I suggested that:

There are times in politics, when as in chess, the leader has to find a waiting move. In chess, the idea is to move without disturbing the delicate balance in a complex and dynamic situation. You do best by effectively not disturbing the status quo. … So it was in Toulouse. Facing angry Unions, represtatives of the Company’s French leadership, and the wider international press, he signals two somewhat contradictory positions. Yes, he will ‘stand by’ and ‘do his duty’ to the interests of the French employees. But in the longer term, he does not rule out selling the Government’s stake in the company. I will return, he promises. In July. When he will be accompanied by his new friend Angela [Merkel]. If not masterful inactivity, we have seen an example of how to create a little wriggle room in a tricky situation.

Gordon, who would have made a good chess-player if he had not chosen other pursuits, has to find a waiting move. He will try not to upset the nurses. That would never do. He will try to appear not to have been forced to act by political opponents. That will never do, either.

And so we will not have long to wait to find out what happens next. The next game in the leadership match is starting, and Gordon Brown’s clock is ticking away.


Later, May 28th 2007. Gordon brown’s website has a vote on issues of the week. Voters were opting for the NHS by a narrow margin (over international affairs).

Sarcozy finds some wriggle-room at Airbus

May 20, 2007

Early into his honeymoon period, President Sarcozy finds himself in action at the fermenting Airbus organization. Contrary to his reputation and inclinations, he finds a waiting move, buys himself some time, and preserves some of his limited options.

Airbus was always likely to be an indicator of M. Sarcozy’s presidential style. Politicians may be accused of not listening, but they do listen to the evidence provided by popularity polls, especially those connected with the votes they may be winning or losing in democratic elections.

During his own leadership campaign, his call was for a strengthening of the leadership of the company through attracting new investors to its board. This came through more clearly than his views on the difficulties facing the company, such as immediate production difficulties and the longer-term strategic and governance issues which have been the preoccupations of its chief, Louis Gallois. The plan to address these problems has led to Union unrest not only in France, but elsewhere in Europe where the plans also threaten jobs.

In an earlier post, I suggested that for all Sarco’s intentions, it is hard to see him being in a position to make a difference to Airbus, in the short-term. A gesture of masterful inaction is likely to be his best outcome at the moment.

Kissing Angela Merkel

Sarco has had to balance his new international role with his inclinations to preserve what he sees as a cherished French asset. So he has already made warm overtures to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hamburg’s Airbus manufacturing plant is, like Toulouse in France, facing major job-cuts. The International Herald Tribune acknowledges this as a necessity, commenting from the Toulouse:

As Louis Gallois, the French chief executive of Airbus, noted wryly in a session with reporters here , “He is kissing Angela Merkel every time they meet, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

For Gallois, a seasoned executive with ties to the Socialist Party, the election of Sarkozy injects another volatile element into what is already one of the hardest repair jobs in European industry.

The article further points out that Sarkozy has been sending out mixed messages during his campaign, leaving it unclear whether

… he is, at heart, a free-market reformer or an economic nationalist determined to prop up France’s industrial patrimony. Given his track record and the imperatives of French politics, several experts said, he is likely to be a bit of both. Sarkozy, they predicted, will give Airbus leeway to proceed with cost-cutting, while at the same time moving to strengthen France’s influence over the enterprise.

Sarco finds a waiting move

There are times in politics, when as in chess, the leader has to find a waiting move. In chess, the idea is to move without disturbing the delicate balance in a complex and dynamic situation. You do best by effectively not disturbing the status quo.

So it was in Toulouse. Facing angry Unions, represtatives of the Company’s French leadership, and the wider international press, he signals two somewhat contradictory positions. Yes, he will ‘stand by’ and ‘do his duty’ to the interests of the French employees. But in the longer term, he does not rule out selling the Government’s stake in the company.

I will return

I will return, he promises. In July. When he will be accompanied by his new friend Angela.

If not masterful inactivity, we have seen an example of how to create a little wriggle room in a tricky situation.

Airbus is an early test for Sarcozy

May 18, 2007

791px-farnborough_air_show_2006_a380_landing.jpg18-nicolas_sarkozy.jpg_41385977_seamusheaney203.jpgNicholas Sarcozy discovers that Airbus will be one of many issues which will require his attention as President. At present, he may be able to do little more than signal his awareness of its significance. He is unlikely to have a long honeymoon period.

The energetic M. Saroczy moves quickly to the scene of potential troubles over the future of Airbus employees in France. The company serves as an interesting indicator of his leadership style early on in his Presidency.

He arrives at the firm’s Toulouse headquarters with plenty of experience and preparation for what he will do. While it has not dominated the recent Presidential campaign, he will have had as much time then, as he is likely to have in the future for considering his plans. His call then was for a strengthening the leadership of the company through attracting new investors to its board.

In the election battle he avoided addressing the immediate production difficulties and the longer-term strategic and governance issues which have been the preoccupations of Louis Gallois.

For all Sarco’s intentions, it is hard to see him being in a position to make a difference in the short-term. The workforce has already begun action direct. He comes as the newly appointed champion of the Right. A gesture of masterful inaction is likely to be his best outcome at the moment.

Some words of advice: Listen to the poets

Across the channel, an historic election recently resulted in the appointment of leaders to the new power-sharing assembly of Northern Ireland. The challenges facing the leaders are as tough as any facing Sarcozy.

In his acceptance speech, deputy leader Martin McGuinness recounted advice he had been given. He had chosen Seamus Heaney as his mentor. The great Irish poet had urged him to pay attention not to togetherness, but to working and celebrating ‘otherness’.

Not bad advice for Nicholas Sarcozy. Also, as a general principle, listen to the poets. Their worlds, and words, in another inspired phrase borrowed from Seamus Heaney, offer us redress to our assumptions and beliefs. That’s maybe a worthwhile leadership principle of itself.

All quiet at Westminster: time for a non-futile gesture?

April 27, 2007

hitlerwarn.pngThe political scene in the Westminster village has gone rather quiet ahead of next week’s regional and local elections. Might this be a good time for a non-futile gesture of political leadership?

In contrast to the excitement across the channel, there seems to be a dip in energy from the normally exuberant posse of our own much-loved political journalists. Perhaps they are preparing for next week’s regional elections without the sniff for any juicy story.

From a Westminster perspective, Scotland is a long way away, Northern Ireland has become temporarily a surprise-free zone politically, Wales is closer but even less likely to provide much in the way of an ephemeral headline nationally (i.e. in the media located mostly close to the dominant London hub).

Tony Blair has lingered so long after announcing his eventual departure that his remaining weeks as PM are long even in politics. Gordon Brown is concerning himself with more Prime Ministerial matters. These are no longer reported as stories of his departing from his brief as Chancellor of the Exchequer. No-one really wants to take on Gordon in a leadership fight to replace Tony. The newest boy David Miliband has convinced even the press that ‘I am not standing’ actually means just that.

End of a leadership honeymoon

David Cameron is no longer a new figure offering surprises to observer, followers, or opponents. His presentation of a young and reforming leader is consistent, but no longer newsworthy. His leadership honeymoon is drawing to a close. He resists offering specific stories around policy promises, as these may offer hostages to future fortune, something he has made clear will not happen. This is an interesting and calculated leadership decision. Appearing to do nothing, can be as tough as acting decisively (when is decisiveness little more than a nervous twitch?). It is a decision which can hardly have been taken lightly, and sustained, without him coming under pressure from those disposed to take more direct action. It must be irksome to have to face continued assertions that the Cameron brand of Conservatism is more than a bit policy-lite.

Time for a non-futile gesture?

If I understand the military principle, surprise is an excellent factor in a successful attack. It’s certainly a good strategic principle for chess players.

As this seems to be a rather quiet time politically, in the United Kingdom, might it not be the precise time for an unexpected political move? Such an attack might be carefully planned or opportunistic. The opportunistic action is more likely under hard-to-predict and turbulent circumstances such as the heat of battle. Even then, I suspect that the successful leader has fought the battle a thousand times, and draws on a rich set of stored mental frames of maps.

In quiet times, there is maybe more to lose, and less chances of initiating a successful political maneuver or tour de force.

There is never a good time for a futile gesture. But is this a good time for a non-futile gesture? I rest my case. But I’m not holding my breath.