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.

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A Bad Week for Weakened Leaders: But how far is Paris from Agincourt?

October 19, 2007

agincourt.jpg
It’s been a bad week for British leaders. A spate of sackings and resignations has occurred. The battered leaders met their nemesis after humiliating performances in sport, business and politics. But hope persists at the prospects for a great victory in the Rugby World Cup

There are so many stories. Too many for me to cover all of them in detail.

Some were easier to predict than others. Sammy Lee acquired his job at the start of the season, as manager of Bolton Wanderers FC, when the much-admired Sam Allardyce was head-hunted for Newcastle United. He stepped up from Big Sam’s shadow. But from the start he was dubbed little Sam, a painful reminder of his erstwhile stature and status. Bolton has had a dreadful start to the season. In a little league table of Premiership managers facing the sack, I had him placed second (just below Martin Jols of Tottenham). Sorry Martin. Hang in there.

Then there were the casualties from the World Cup of Rugby Football. I didn’t have a list of these. But I certainly would not have placed Graham Henry of the New Zealand All Blacks anywhere near the top. My list of managers most likely to take an early bath would have been headed by England’s Brian Ashton, about whom more later. Henry’s team had been confirming their status as the tournament favourites until the quarter finals. Until then they had outstripped opponents so thoroughly that they had hardly become match tight. They lost a tight game, playing below their potential. Exit New Zealand. Exit Henry.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland failed to make it through the first stage of the tournaments. Out went Gareth Jenkins of Wales, and Eddie O’ Sullivan, of Ireland. Only Scotland’s much-rated Frank Hadden survived.

England’s football coach Steve McClaren also seems to be surviving on borrowed time, after defeat to Russia leaves England’s qualification from the European Cup in doubt. In his case, there is a mathematical probability that England will reach the knockout stage of the European competition. This, as much as somewhat improved performances by the team, is staying the hand of the English Football Association. They had already botched the appointment of McClaren after a hasty effort and failed effort to secure Big Sam (sorry, Big Phil) Scolari during last year’s World Cup.

[Will Big Steve survive in his present coaching job longer than Big Martin Jols of Tottenham?].

In Politics

In Politics the increasingly nasty tussles between Gordon Brown and David Cameron continue in Parliamentary exchanges. Ironically, the more immediate victim of that contest was Ming Campbell of the Liberal Democrats. In a decision that caught the press unawares, Ming has his retirement announced for him by two leading Lib Dem king-makers and king -unmakers. (‘Did you wield the knife’ one reporter shouted audibly during the televised announcement. No, he resigned. Ming spoke the next day, saying he had decided that he would not be able to deflect the media from obsessing about his age, thus hindering all attempts to get across the political messages he wanted to convey.

These petty-paced political moves are arguably no more than the uncomfortable outcroppings of democracy. As I write, I learn of the real carnage within presumably an assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto as she re-entered Pakistan after a decade of exile.

In Business

In the aftermath of the celebrated Northern Rock affair, the bank’s leaders appeared before the commons select committee that had already interviewed the leaders of the Bank of England, The treasury, and The Financial Services Authority.

Under typically robust questioning, Adam Applegarth and Matt Ridley denied that they had ‘done anything wrong’ but indicated that they would accept the judgement of their shareholders, if they were eventually forced to resign.

In the course of the questioning, it was also revealed that all the bank’s senior directors had offered to resign in the immediate aftermath of the run, but had been asked to stay on to sort out its problems.

I think they are safe for the moment, on the same grounds as Big Steve McClaren has a temporary stay of execution. [Stop press, a few hours after I posted this, Dr Ridley accepted the inevitable and resigned].

In a somewhat different story, ITV faces calls for the dismissal of various culprits in their money-making scheme based on rigged phone-in contests. The enormity of this story can be seen when it emerges that Mr Ant and Mr Dec are under threat. That’s like Santa up for shop-lifting in the Christmas Sales.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

King-makers popped up to endorse Steve McClaren, and to praise and bury Ming Campbell. They even popped up to endorse coach Brian Ashton, after England’s heart-stopping Rugby Union victory over France. It could be seen as one of those endorsements which increasingly indicate that the coach is in big trouble. The denial serves to signal the presence of trouble, not its absence. This was a slightly different kind of announcement, I think. It was made on the wave of national support for the England team.

Here we have an example of the rapid swings for and against a leader. Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell. The performances of his teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is from Paris to Agincourt?