Leadership dreams, visions, and nightmares

October 23, 2007

mbeki-after-world-cup.jpgThe payoff from a vision dashed is a recurring nightmare. We examine recent sporting visions, dreams and nightmares during the Rugby Union world-cup

A glimpse of dashed dreams was transmitted around the world as the beaten English rugby team trudged up to receive their runners-up medals after defeat by South Africa. As if in a nightmare, the players trudged past the line of dignitaries, which included Presidents Sarcozy of France, the host nation, Brown of England (and Scotland and Wales), and Mbiki of South Africa. Weariness seemed to have damped-down despair and elation alike. The players just about managed perfunctory handshakes.

A few minutes later and joy overcame fatigue for the South Africans as they eventually got their hands on the trophy. The defining image was that of President Mbiki hald aloft not quite as securely as man of the match Victor Mayfield in the lineouts which he dominated throughout the game. Sorry, must make that clear: It was Mayfield who dominated the lineouts, Mbiki the political gestures, during the post-match celebrations.

The vision

The build-up to the final from had been a classical example of the way sport can tap into the deepest of group emotions. A popular upsurge in interest was captured and amplified through the obsessive reporting from Paris, where there seemed to be more former international players than members of the current squad.

The broad news story was that England would be a match for the Springboks. Most of the legion of elders suggested that England could win, if they played to their very best. Most reporters translated this as meaning that the match would be very close. Close? The South Africans had beaten England seriously in the earlier stages of the tournament.

The talisman

Yes, but that was before the team began its revival. Before its talisman Jonny Wilkinson returned to fitness. Before those nail-biting victories against Australia and then France.

The pre-match story began to make sense to me. There was something very important going in England culturally. This was one of those episodes which reveal how culture defines itself, and is itself defined. A vision is articulated.

We are the champions of the world in Rugby Union. We will remain champions for the next four years by beating South Africa.

How will it be achieved? Because we have the talisman. He who will not let us down. Jonny Wilkinson. He whose very presence will strike fear into our enemies. And so on.

Specifically there was a genuinely mimetic story to be heard. [Mimetics: The controversial of cultural transmission through ‘conceptual genes’ or memes.] It is consistent with a memetic approach that the story becomes become more consistent in its re-telling.

The replication process was helped by the intense appetite for ‘news’ from any-one. Celebrity Rugby has-beens were in demand. But so was the voice of the true supporter, the camp follower from the front-line. These were the voices from people close to the action. The real heroes were in silent preparation for the mighty battle ahead.

Someone articulated the achievement of the dream in a special way. It became the orthodoxy. It went something like this.

South Africa beat us, but that was when Jonny was injured.

They know Johnny is our match-winner and fear him.

Their fear will weaken their play and their resolve.

If we are only five or six behind with twenty minutes to go, their fear will play into our hands.

Although they will try to prevent it, the result is inevitable. Our mighty forwards will control the ball, battle forward, the ball will come out to Jonny.

Jonny will kick a drop goal.

That will confirm to the opponents that their fate is sealed.

And then we will score again and win.

The story has the power of all primitive atavistic expressions of fear and motivation. It is the verbal equivalent of the Hakas performed earlier in this and every tournament for over a hundred years by the New Zealand all-blacks. I have tried to report it accurately. Note how Wilkinson, undoubtedly the focal image within the story, changes the course of the game. But he doesn’t win it.

That’s one way in which the story has its power. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it has its powerful echoes. If the story just had the team winning by Jonny dropping a goal at the last minute, the story would lose power. ‘That’s just remembering what happened last time?’ someone might object, in the spirit of the lad shouting that the Emperor has no clothes. That was then. Here’s the new story of our destiny.

One moving, one clapping?

In the vision, fate decried only one outcome. But as someone pointed out, you may not be playing a game with one side moving and the other side clapping. Indeed, we might see all such battles as a contest between two stories, each of which has won over other stories in the run-up to battle. Eventually one vision triumphs, the other loses.

But the cultural loss is softened. There is always a way to find consolation. Victory denied, is also denial of defeat. We must have been robbed.

We was robbed

Yes. In those bitter and dark hours for English fans, there was the coda of being unfairly beaten. (How else?). In this case, it was the case of the disallowed try which would have brought the score into Jonney Wilkinson territory. The effort was disallowed by a fourth official. An Australian. Need I say more?

The other vision

There was another story developing. The South African dream went beyond winning a little golden cup. The symbolism was there for all to see. The nation had also had its earlier dream come true, as Nelson Mandela celebrated their earlier win. Then the President wore the gold and green shirt, which was previously a symbol associated with the earlier apartheid regime. This time the President wore a suit. But it was very convenient that the charismatic Mandela was ‘too ill to travel’.

The story, as was the one that England had dreamed of, was rooted in the past, but was also about the future. In South Africa, there is still a long road to travel, as Mandela would put it, to achieve the goals of one nation at peace with itself. The sporting win was recruited in the service of its cultural and political dream.

One clapping, one moving

I just remembered who used to talk about sport as a creative collaboration not a competition. It was Mark Izrailovich Dvoretsky, one of the greatest chess trainers of all time. I can’t find the reference, (yet) but he warned players against too much focus on one’s own strategy. Chess is not a game with ‘one player moving, and the other clapping’ he liked to say. That’s another quote in search of a definitive reference, as well as another example of chess as a source of strategic insights.


Che Guevara was the ultimate charismatic leader

October 8, 2007


Heroic military figures offer insights into the nature of charisma. Che Guevara stands alongside such earlier leaders as Alexander, Napoleon, Nelson, and more recently, Nelson Mandela. But what do we mean by the charismatic leader?

There will be world-wide acknowledgement this week of the impact of the life and death of Che Guevara, forty years after his execution in the hands of the Bolivian army [on October 9th 1967]. The term most widely used of the Argentine-born revolutionary leader is charismatic.

Guevara’s military efforts were intertwined with those of his close ally Fidel Castro, and it could be argued that in some ways Che ‘out-charismad’ the Cuban.

Fidel became a political leader, preoccupied with the governance of Cuba. That earned him mega-credibility (and to his enemies status as dictator) as the founder and leader of a Marxist state within a hundred miles of the mainland of The United States of America.

In terms of practical consequence, Fidel’s revolutionary efforts had far greater impact than those of Guevara. He led the successful revolution against the Batista regime. Cuba was to become the cockpit of the cold-war confrontation between America and Russia.

In crude military terms, Guevara was more an example of the romantic and tragic figure fighting for a cause against all odds. Military defeat can sometimes become cultural victory, and that happened in spades to Che’s reputation.

Myth-making trumps historical strong suits

The process of myth-making can be seen in the semi-biographical film account of the young man’s South American journey of exploration by motor-bike. In the movie, Che was portrayed, according to one critic, as a Christ-like figure moving among the masses awaiting his emancipatory intervention. The approach, it has to be conceeded, is no more than the customary Hollywood treatment (albeit by a Brazilian director) accorded to heroic figures.

Other critics of Che have highlighted events glossed over in the myth-making process, pointing out that after the successful Cuban revolution, Castro had appointed him a special prosecutor, a role he undertook energetically, at a time when hundreds of opponents of the new regime were executed.

Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism offers one of the most vehement iconoclastic critiques:

The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che’s imagination.

The comments following Berman’s analysis put to shame the standard of discussion prompted by almost any web-site I have caught up with. They go a long way to teasing out the ways in which cultural forces shape our icons, and give us the leaders we create.

Berman completely fails to understand the role of iconography in art, particularly in Catholic cultures. Che is a hero to many because he resisted a truly ugly system, remained true to his ideals, and conveniently died before the Revolution’s slow, pathetic demise became apparent to nearly everyone. He is therefore associated in the public mind with what was right about the Revolution, rather than what was very, very wrong about it … The humans underlying the icons are just stand-ins for the values they emphasize. Che has come to symbolize the values of resisting injustice and rejecting worldly excess.

The loneliest place on the left in the 1960s was reserved for those who opposed Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. …Why are people on the left so delusional about Castro and Guevara? …

One reason is Castro’s good fortune in his [American] enemies [such as ] Jesse Helms .. getting passed a law which commits the United States to side with the property claims of people who haven’t lived in Cuba in forty years.

…The second reason involves the cultural tendencies which arose in the 1960s .. …The third reason is that Fidel and Che were, in a sense, speaking to their social peers when they addressed the American left, and knew how to be heard by them.

The redress of charisma

Leadership scholars are now writing about an emerging post-charismatic view of leadership.

The dismissal of charisma as a late-twentieth century construct seems hardly likely to eliminate the idea from popular discourse, however sophisticated the objections. In practice, the term, not unlike creativity, retains some functional purpose in every-day terms. Nor can the term be defeated on the grounds that individuals labeled charismatic turn out to be narcissistic, or pathological.

The challenge seems to me to find more convincing theoretical characterizations of those behaviours that continue to be labeled as chararismatic.

We have come a long way from the idea proposed by Weber, of charisma as the revolutionary force of personality which ruptured traditional power-structures.

The term charismatic is now applied to many kinds of person. Tracing their antecedents is difficult. There seems to have been a Darwinian evolution of numerous kinds of charismatic leader to whom the term is applied.

What is overwehelmingly likely, is that no unique set of characterstics will be found that adequately captures a charismatic type. (I base this on the well-known failure of searches for univeral traits capturing the leadership construct).

It is not a coincicence, however, that the image of the charismatic is that of the idealised hero or heroine. But Don Juan was allegedly rather an ugly-looking person, and far from comely in appearance. Walt Disney, so often described as a charismatic, looks in photographs to be a quintessential salary-man. And Hitler, so easy to portray as an inadequate buffoon, nevertheless had a terrifying power over the collective that gathered to hear him.

All that being said, Che’s potency was augmented by the imposing impact of several famous images. Alexander the Great was breathtakingly handsome, and we all know the legend of Helen of Troy.

Taxonomizing charisma

This post deal with two revolutionary figures, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. A wider examination of political and revolutionary charismatics would include advocates of non-violence: Ghandi, Mandela (well, let’s say the iconic Mandela), as well as some of the leaders classed as tyrants by Jeff Schubert.

Broadening the scope of the investigation, we would add the charismatic business leader, who at times seems associated with various power-grabbing common to alpha-males of other primate species. Then there is the more local recognition accorded to the charismatic sales manager, school teacher, tenor, civil servant, tennis coach, entrepreneur, cleric …

Maybe there is scope for a someone to develop a taxonomy of charismatic leaders, applying the methods of linguistic analysis.

Tribute to Nelson Mandela

August 29, 2007

A nine foot statue of Nelson Mandela now stands in London’s Parliament Square. The homage paid to a great leader is the outcome of over a decade of controversy

On August 29th 2007, the great man watched as the wraps came off his statue in Parliament Square. Fleetingly I thought of other statues of leaders. How size certainly does matter. How art and politics can not be kept apart, any more than sport and politics could be kept apart in an earlier South Africa. How the downing of statues can be as symbolic an act as their erections.

Nelson Mandela doesn’t need a statue

He already is an awesome world-figure, destined for his place in the history of the 20th Century. There may well be revisions to the story. There always are. Human-scaled blemishes will be revealed to enrich the tale of his role in the struggle of his country on what he termed a long walk to freedom. Enriched by evidence of weakness, temptations yielded to … Otherwise, the deification process will have succeeded in eliminating the personality behind the icon.

I was immensely moved by Mandela’s story written down in his autobiography. I go back to it from time to time. I remain in awe of what he communicated about his time in prison.

‘Even in the grimmest times … I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but that was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished’.

With Mandela, the process is reversed. In his every public action his ‘goodness’ shines through. We search for that second of wilfulness and vengefulness that seems forever hidden. For from diminishing his achievements, I feel this will enrich them by connecting them more strongly to the wider human world of weakness and frailty to self-service.

The Charismatic Leader

The idea of the great charismatic leader is coming increasingly under scrutiny. Leadership scholars have largely discarded earlier ideas of the heroic leader, or at very least challenged them. In the 1980s, a tamed-down version of charisma was proposed, as the transformational leader. More recently, the expression post-charismatic leader has emerged, from theological and secular sources.

In this context, Nelson Mandela and his story deserves the closest attention. He may be the exceptional case which tests a wider concept. Classical leadership theory would suggest that the course of history was fundamentally influenced by the actions of the great leader.

An excellent recent biography by Professor Lodge adds to several authorized biographies, as well as Mandela’s own accounts. It suggests that Nelson Mandela was

Especially sensitive to the imperatives for acting out a messianic leadership role during his [time as a guerrilla commander] …deliberately constructing a mythological legitimacy.. to engender hopes that salvation would be achieved through heroic self-sacrifice


Did the charismatic leader make a difference? The more you dig, the more complexities emerge. Whether you read to challenge the idea of the great leader, or to challenge it, read for yourself.

Look on my works, ye mighty and despair

Today’s story of the tribute in Parliament Square is more of an ironic tale. One version might run as follows.

The idea of erecting a statue to Nelson Mandela has been around for over a decade. There was (and still is) a highly suitable place in Trafalgar Square, which has four plinths for monumental pieces. Three are occupied with military and monarchic figures. The fourth would be particularly appropriate as it is close to the South Africa House, focus of so many ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ demos during his imprisonment on Robben Island.

When the public was invited to suggest appropriate images, For some while, a favored image was of a piece which would celebrate animals in wartime service. Nelson Mandela was among other front runners together with The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Lady Diana, as well as long shots such as David Beckham, Winnie the Pooh, and a very large Pidgeon, (capturing one of the more intrusive visiting groups that flock to Trafalgar Square).

The fund-raising ran ahead of the official decision, and the statute commissioned was considered too massive for the original location. Eventually the political pieces fell into place, and Nelson Mandela’s image was unveiled at Parliament Square, rather than close by to that other Nelson atop his column in Trafalgar Square.

What the poet says

Trust the poets to have something interesting to say. Anyone with a taste for such things will find something in Shelley’s words I borrowed above.