Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fighting Turbulence 2

When my children learned to climb trees, I always insisted that they needed to be able to climb down as well as up.

Gordon Brown is now being hailed as the only person capable of leading the British economy through an economic downturn.

"We would be mad to get rid of Gordon," said a minister, a Brown loyalist who wants him to lead the party into the next election. "There is no one else with his experience to get the country through the global financial crisis." [The Independent, 20 September 2008]

But experience going upwards doesn't imply expertise going downwards. We understand that the September 11th terrorists had learned to fly planes but not land them safely. Lots of financial wizards made money during the prolonged bull market, and then proved their incompetence and/or negligence as soon as the market faltered.

At the Labour Party Conference in September 2000, Brown promised the end of boom-and-bust. [Power to the People, 18 September 2008] And more recently, in March 2008, he promised to fight global financial turbulence. As Willem Buiter said in the Financial Times, welcome to a world of diminished expectations [FT August 2008 via Procrastinating Politicians]

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pearl Cornioley

How good are we at judging leadership qualities in advance?

When Pearl Witherinton (she later married her wartime fiance and associate Henri Cornioley) was being trained for her wartime role in the Special Operations Executive, her trainers had mixed feelings about her.
  • "not having the personality to act as a leader ... subordinate"
  • "probably the best shot - male or female - we have yet had ... this student, though a woman, has definitely got leaders' qualities ... cool and resourceful and extremely determined".
She was so successful running operations in France that the Nazis offered a reward of one million francs for her capture.

This raises an important question. How many people (lots of women obviously, but many men too) have been denied opportunities because of poor assessment of their leadership potential?


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fighting Turbulence

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised that the UK and other EU countries will "lead the way" in fighting "global financial turbulence". [BBC News 17 March 2008]

I just did a search on a well-known Internet search engine for the terms "fight" and "turbulence" and found that all the hits on the first page are to this news story. Paging down, I find lots of references to the airline industry (a journalistic cliche), and a fictional character called Turbulence who (you may not be surprised to learn) gets into a lot of fights with other characters with names like Thundercracker and Firebat. Nobody else is talking about fighting turbulence.

If you are flying, fighting turbulence simply means getting to your destination despite the turbulence. But that doesn't seem to be what Brown means. It sounds like he imagines that he and Sunstreaker and a few others will overcome Turbulence with their bare hands, wrestle it to the floor and stamp on its face.

Good luck with that. But I am minded of a previous ruler of these islands, one King Canute, who tried and failed to fight the tides.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams (official website, BBC profile) is archbishop of Canterbury and "leader" of the worldwide Anglican communion.

There are currently strong issues pulling this communion apart, including homosexuality and the appointment of female bishops. In an interview for BBC's Heaven and Earth programme today, Dr Williams said that the church faces a fundamental rupture.

Voices on both sides have called for Dr Williams to make a strong statement to resolve these issues - preferably supporting their own position. Making such a statement would be regarded (by them) as "strong leadership".

Dr Williams clearly takes a different view of what counts as leadership. He has often spoken of the role of the shepherd, and apparently sees unity as equivalent to truth. So far he has succeeded in holding the Anglican church together. But if schism is inevitable, then the role of the leadership perhaps shifts from maintaining unity towards creating some looser structure that will continue to serve the same purpose. Leadership AND change.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ted Cullinen

The architect Edward Cullinen lives in a house in Camden, North London, which he built in the early 1960s, over two years of weekends, with a little help from his friends. He was interviewed in the Independent Magazine, 3rd December 2005.

I particularly liked this quote, which seems to have a much broader relevance to leadership and change.
The trick of getting people to help you is to save the bits that give the most spectacular results for others and to do the boring bits yourself.
For the sake of gender balance, I should also include his wife's interjection
And put on plenty of big barbecues.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Homeric Leadership

Last summer vacation, I read the Odyssey, in Robert Fagles' excellent translation. This summer I read his translation of the Iliad.

In both books, there are parallel struggles between men and gods to master the course of events. We can see examples of both positional leadership strategies (taking a fixed position on some issue, and devoting one's energies to maintaining this position) and relational leadership strategies (trying to achieve desired outcomes by flexible interaction and manoeuvre).


Achilles - angry with Agammemnon - seeks to prevent the Greeks from winning the war against Troy without Achilles
Poseidon - angry with Odysseus - seeks to prevent Odysseus from reaching home safely
Achilles and Poseidon assume structural symmetry between challenge and response - an environment in which simple strength always prevails.
Zeus - manoeuvres between the conflicting interests of various gods to achieve the right balance
Odysseus - establishes friendly relationships with assorted people who help him reach home safely
Zeus and Odysseus exploit structural asymmetries in the environment, to produce favourable outcomes in more complex situations.

Updated: I have inserted the word "structural" to clarify what I mean by symmetry here.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Scoble attacks IBM

Two of the most powerful leaders in the modern world are faced with an interesting challenge to their leadership. Can/should Microsoft take a leading role in progressive social policy?

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer want (wanted) to support some anti-discrimination bill. But they've been warned off by the religious right. Or changed their minds. Or maybe that's what they were planning all along. Or something.

Steve Ballmer's email. Comments from some Microsoft employees: Robert Scoble, Steve Maine, Adam Barr.

Scoble implies his bosses are chicken - afraid of standing up for their beliefs. And of course at one level he is quite right - we must always stand for our beliefs - whatever they may be. This is endorsed by many non-Microsoft bloggers, including Tim Bray (Sun) and James Governor (Redmonk).

And of course the fact that Microsoft can accommodate this debate is itself a good sign. Scoble asks: "What if we were a company in Germany in the 1930s?" Now which computer company could he possibly be talking about here? Has he been reading Edwin Black's book, by any chance?

But besides the sideways attack on IBM, this example raises some serious ethical questions about individual leadership, corporate leadership and social change. Who is the "we"? Shall Microsoft collectively stand up for the opinions (however well-justified) of Bill and Steve? What are the principles of leadership and change that Ballmer and his supporters are using to justify his actions in this particular case. and are these principles applied consistently in other situations? Meanwhile Scoble is presenting an alternative moral leadership, whose force depends largely on the support he gets for his position.

Is it appropriate for a large corporation such as Microsoft to put forward its own policies and practices as a suitable baseline for legislation? Is this a reasonable way for a corporation to pursue its corporate social responsibilities.

Is it appropriate for a large corporation such as Microsoft to take sides on any controversial issue - given that there is no consensus among Microsoft's stakeholders (shareholders, employees, customers)? Is there a difference between lobbying for something that directly affects Microsoft's commercial position, and lobbying for something that Microsoft executives happen to believe in? Under what circumstances (if any) is it appropriate for the executives of a large corporation to make political donations?

By what process does a large organization determine its position on something controversial? Should all the members somehow have a say in the matter, or does the boss decide?

Alternatively, is it possible for corporate leaders such as Gates and Ballmer to hold and express personal positions on controversial issues, without these positions being automatically associated with their organizations? Or do we think they are so rich and powerful that their normal democratic rights should be restricted?

I should be inclined to criticize Ballmer, not for betraying the progressive cause of antidiscrimination, nor for being a wimp who has collapsed under pressure from religious groups, but for inconsistency. If Microsoft is going to avoid taking a position on anti-discrimination, where it has the opportunity to provide a good example of progressive policies, then how can it possibly justify taking a position on other controversial issues; and how can it justify diverting shareholder's money into the pockets of partisan interests such as political parties.

Companies often wish to present themselves as socially engaged and responsible, but this potentially brings them into conflict with some key stakeholders. Meanwhile, activists can often exploit the corporate desire to please everybody. What of Microsoft employees (such as Scoble) who regret Microsoft's failure to act on this occasion - are they always happy when Ballmer and Gates take a political position about something? Who is leading here, and who is led?

Update May 2005: Steve Ballmer clarifies the Microsoft position on public policy engagement. This is a different order of leadership. Congratulations to Microsoft, and congratulations to Ballmer, Scoble and the other participants in the debate.

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