The Nimzowitsch principle: Chess leaders we deserve

December 31, 2006

Aron Nimzovitsch Chess lore is a rich source of insights about Business strategy. A recent story of cheating at Chess brings to mind what might be termed the Nimzowitsch principle. The great grandmaster had accused his opponent of ‘threatening to cheat’, asserting that in Chess, the threat is stronger than its execution. The principle seems to have more widespread applications

A recent case of cheating in Chess continues a long line of stories going back to the first chess computer (which turned out to be concealing a small but very clever chess player).

Leadership Principle
‘The threat is more powerful than the execution’

The eccentric Grandmaster Tartakower was famously known for putting off opponents by blowing cigar smoke into their faces. Once the great Nimzowitsch called foul, claiming Tartakower was cheating by placing an unsmoked cigar beside him. And (as Nimzowitsch asserted at the time) in Chess, as everyone knows, the threat is more powerful than the execution. This is but one example of a leadership principle to be derived from a knowledge of Chess lore.

Other cheating strategies

Bobby Fischer took paranoia to new heights in his claims against the deviousness of is opponents. Later world championship matches involved a host of most peculiar claims and counter claims. Garry Kasparov remains convinced that his match against IBM’s Big Blue computer was fixed.

The most recent match, which settled a Unification dispute, was nearly scuppered with the charges by Veselin Topalov of excessive toilet breaks used for computer cheating by opponent Vladimir Kramnik. (Kramnik defaulted one game as a protest but then carried on and eventually won).

Now we have the strange case of the Indian chess player whose results improved astonishingly after he had a Bluetooth device stitched into his cap, which he always wore over his ears when playing.

At humbler levels, coarse chess players have assorted means of cheating, too numerous to cover, as any organiser of tournaments will attest.

The chess leaders we deserve

After the scandals in cycling, baseball, athletics, we should not be surprised. But whatever shall we do to get the role models and leaders we deserve for the noble game of Chess?


Elephant dust, Police enquiries and the Presumption of innocence

December 31, 2006

The police leadership in the recent Suffolk Murder investigations has been widely commended. It left me pondering on the nature of police enquiries, and the absolute and ultimate necessity of the presumption of innocence in all such cases. The old story of elephant dust turns out to have surprising relevance to the argument.

The Suffolk murders

Over the last few months, the brutal murder of five young women has dominated the headlines nationally and internationally. The headlines stopped under legal embargo after a suspect was arrested and charged with all five murders.

One blogger raised concerns over the media treatment of the case. On further reflection, I began to see the ultimate necessity for the presumption of innocence in any legal case. It is acutely relevant for murder cases.

Elephant dust

Stay with me while I introduce the elephant dust. An old joke actually helped me work my way through this issue. The story takes place on a train in those long-gone days of private compartments.

A traveller gets on, and notices that the only other occupant of the compartment is behaving strangely. From time to time, he takes out a little silver box and sprinkles something around the carriage.

“What are you doing” asks the curious traveller.
“I’m sprinkling this special dust. It’s to keep the elephants away” his travelling companion tells him.
“But the nearest elephant is miles away”

PUNCHLINE COMING UP …

“You see! Elephant dust works really well, doesn’t it?”

Back to Police investigations

Suppose the Police trying to solve a serious a major crime were to go in for sprinkling a little elephant dust? This is how we might translate the old joke.

The police arrest someone and charge the suspect with the crime. “What are you doing?” asks observers of the scene. “We are stopping the perpetrator of these heinous crimes from any more wrong-doing”, say the Police, sprinkling a little elephant dust around.

In time, despite embargoes on further reporting, questions then continue to be asked. “Can you be sure you have caught the real criminal?” Sprinkle sprinkle. “…Well, since we made the arrest, the crimes have stopped. That proves our elephant dust is working.”

Or does it?

Having pursued this particular metaphorical elephant thus far, I was struck by a further thought Maybe the Police have a cast-iron case and have caught the right person. They do not have to point to the fact that the crimes have stopped. The anxieties of the public gradually subside. So they are not deluded sprinklers of elephant dust, they really have kept the elephant away.

And yet, there is another possibility. Suppose the real criminal is still at large? He (probably a he in the case we started from) has to deal with the changed circumstances. In some circumstances he may be in sufficient control over his behaviour to figure out he would be well advised to stop his modus operandi. That way, the rest of the world would go on believing in the elephant dust theory.

The presumption of innocence

Which brings me to the presumption of innocence. We have outlined why an arrest, and subsequent cessation of crimes with the appropriate signatures, do not prove that the suspect is the criminal. We have to fall back on the presumption of innocence, lest we fall into the elephant trap, of believing in elephant dust.

A more hideous possibility

Having taken the flight of fancy this far, I now face a more hideous possibility. The arrest of a plausible and innocent suspect may well be a success in stopping the original criminal committing crimes, at least for a period. This is scary elephant dust indeed. How should we feel about this as citizens. Would we settle for such a temporary ‘solution’ to the problem if it cuts down on a series of murders?

I have had some contact with police procedures over a period of years. No officer has ever suggested in any way that such a strategy has been carried out, or even considered. So there we go. It’s all a lot of elephant dust. But what if it really is keeping elephants away? As in most police enquiries, I seem to have raised a lot of questions.

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man. There is very little in the public domain on which to judge. The presumption of innocence can operate alongside an assessment that the Police investigation has been conducted in good faith, and has led to an arrest on grounds adequate to mount a prosecution. The point of concern raised by blogger PC reminds us that the Police arrested two suspects and released one around whom a lot of circumstantial evidence did seem to be gathering. This suggests that the Police believe their case to be stronger for the person whom they eventually charged. My point is a more conceptual one, indicating why, regardless of appearances, Police and Public alike have to be so rigorous in honouring the presumption of innocence.


Saddam executed: What will we learn from it?

December 30, 2006

Saddam Hussein was executed a few hours ago. But what will be learned from the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East? Perhaps that complex problems are not equatable with the power or evil of one leader. Eliminating a leader never eliminates the problems

This is my first post-Saddam note. I will keep editing to a minimum required for site hygiene, to bracket off the posting from subsequent developing news, views, and comments.

I learned the news a few minutes ago via the BBC. I did not want to get into this leadership issue. It seemed too big to make any sense of, without a great deal more time and effort than I can find for it. But maybe instant impressions are worth recording.

One more death in Iraq

Last night it was clear that sentence on Saddam Hussein was going to be carried out. I had a surprising reaction: Whether you are for the death penalty or not, it seemed better to me that such an act be swift rather than drawn-out. It did not involve decades of additional languishing on Death Row. But better for whom? For the executed prisoner? For family? For political opponents? For political supporters commited to make capital of a single symbolic action?

I set aside the mighty issues of capital punishment, legitimacy of the legal system passing judgment. Whatever. This is one more death in Iraq.

Maybe poets can offer understanding more than politicians. There is a three-thousand year legacy of drama which reminds us of the consequences of human ambition. Shakespeare, from Macbeth to Hamlet ,remains one source of deepest insights. John Donne, Ernest Hemingway and more recently the Bee Gees remind us for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us.

The leaders we deserve

The story remains one of society’s beliefs about its leaders. Saddam’s obituaries have been prepared for months, maybe years. Now we can learn what is in Saddam’s obituary.

For some while I have grappled with the deeper meaning of our leadership stories. Increasingly I am drawn to the notion that we create the leaders we deserve, just as we create other superheroes and super villains. So we create our leaders, and cast on to them our greatest fears and needs. They rule our thoughts by our consent, sometime unconsciously given, sometimes more consciously.

If we find time to reflect on this, maybe some legacy of hope will come from the death of one more Iraqi, earlier today.

To follow

A further examination of this story, the world-wide reactions to the release of video accounts of Saddam’s execution. See What have we learned from Saddam’s execution


Duncan Fletcher: Time for a Verdict?

December 29, 2006

Another crushing cricket defeat in Australia. The mourning and moaning continues and will do so beyond the weekend analyses. Criticism of Duncan Fletcher’s leadership appears to be reaching the levels of vituperation meted out to England football coach Sven-Göran Ericsson, after the World Cup earlier in the year. Are Fletcher’s leadership decisions clear evidence of his incompetence as a coach?

Duncan Fletcher’s run of earlier successes now appear to have been wiped out by the consequences of too many obvious errors of judgment on this tour. I would like to offer a different view of his leadership capabilities. He may have made mistakes. What leader doesn’t? But they were mostly calculated risks. I happen to believe that much the same could be said on behalf of the much-criticised Sven-Göran Eriksson and his leadership performances as England’s football coach.

Fletcher’s strategic plan

Fletcher had a carefully thought-out strategy for competing against a team judged to be considerably stronger than his own. He has explained much of it in media interviews. The plan involved risks and trade-offs. To strengthen weak batting, he made selection compromises at wicket-keeper and in choosing a spin bowler returning from injury, over the people’s young favorite Monty Panesar.

The plan failed. The batting was not strengthened. On their belated return to the team, Wicket Keeper Read and Panesar performed their specialist tasks with distinction, and if anything strengthened the batting.

Leadership Blunders?

This is where leadership becomes difficult to assess. Even Napoleon insisted that what he wanted was ‘lucky’ generals, and he knew a thing or two about picking winners. On this assessment we might say that Fletcher may have been unlucky losing so many good players before the series began. This gave him fewer options.

Perhaps he was stubborn, and suffered from leadership blindness when a favoured strategy was not working. Maybe, but after the fourth consecutive defeat he offered evidence of a flexible approach, admitting to selection mistakes

He explained one decision that has been criticized. This was playing the in-form Kevin Pietersen too low in the batting order.

“We’ve made some mistakes and we will reflect on it when we get back, like we do any other series.. We’ve always wanted [Pietersen] to bat at number four where the top batter should bat. He didn’t want to be batting with the tail all the time so he thought if he went to four he would have better batters batting behind him.. He was a little bit reluctant initially to bat there and in any team anywhere in the world, if you man-manage people it’s wrong to make people play or do things they don’t want to do in tight situations.”

Rationalization in hindsight?

Fletcher’s dealing with Pietersen is only one example of the criticism he receives. However, it illustrates how a different case can be constructed. It can indeed be argued that a strong leader would have played his batsmen where he believed they could do the best for team. However, Fletcher claims to have taken the view that a leader has to help players motivate themselves, encouraging them to reach better decisions. It can also be argued that Fletcher was following the principles of action-centred leadership advocated by John Adair. It could also be justified through the trust-based leadership approach associated with Monty Roberts, and the leadership researchers at Manchester Business School.

To my inxperienced eye, Pieterson has batted with the tailenders appearing to resent having to risk his wicket, exposing them to the bowling. This seemed someone who would have to be encouraged to work out what he wanted to do for himself, rather than ‘arm around shoulder’ or ‘kick up the pants’ tactics by the on-field or off-field leaders.

Monty Roberts, the famous Horse Whisperer, talks of sending uncooperative horses ‘around the round pen’, until they are ready to trust the leader and accept a collaborative relationship. Fletcher’s treatment of Pietersen illustrate’s Monty’s principles rather nicely.

The Leadership question

Many critics are rating Duncan Fletcher as a failed leader. Can a case be made that his recent performances have shown him to have been taking calculated risks within a considered strategy? Has he been in denial over his strategy, or does he seem to be willing to make tactical changes, in light of results?


Creative coppers: Eliot Ness comes to Greater Manchester

December 27, 2006

The French Connection linked the crime scenes of New York and Paris in one of the all-time great films. Now the crime scenes and police practices in New York and Greater Manchester are linked to another movie, the story of Eliot Ness and his heroic Untouchables, in theirbattles against Al Capone’s mobsters.

Times journalist Dominic Kennedy has been investigating why Manchester’s image of Madchester or even Gunchester a few years ago has been reversed. He reports, in The Times of Wed 27th December 2006, that in 1999-2000 nearly half of the nearly a hundred ‘stranger killings’ in England and Wales took place in the Greater Manchester police area.

These figures have since fallen spectacularly. There were five and seven such killings in the region in the last two years.

The New York Times has been quick to see the parallel with the successes of the so-called broken-windows strategy of a former Police commissioner. It has compared Greater Manchester’s chief constable Michael Todd with The Finest’s own William Bratton.

Accountability

Like New York, Greater Manchester has instated a zero-tolerance policy, on the streets, but also internally to its force. Bratton’s famed performance accountability meetings are being replicated, with divisional and branch commanders under the spotlight every four weeks.

Creative Coppers

Assistant Chief Constable Dave Jones “attributed much of the fall in stranger killings to Greater Manchester’s creative fight against gun gangs”. He lists a range of imaginative actions and special crime-busting teams. Potential gang killers are identified from intelligence gained on the street, and likely victims contacted and monitored. Para-medical services have also been coordinated, and valuable medical skills developed in much the same way as Belfast acquired surgical know- how through dealing with the violence over several decades of violence there. When criminals have been targeted, the police “do the old Eliot Ness thing .. we will get them for disqualified driving, just to disrupt them” Jones adds.

Leadership lessons

Bratton’s leadership was acknowledged at the time of seven-eleven. But he had been lionised before then, as an example of achieving change through the tipping-point phenomenon. Leadership works if a strategy is linked to specific and appropriate actions.

Leadership students at Manchester University include officers from within the Greater Manchester and near-by Lancashire police forces. A core text on the undergraduate leadership programme is Dilemmas of Leadership, which contains the William Bratton story as a case example.


Chelsea sets a question of momentum in sport

December 27, 2006

When champions Chelsea ran out at Stanford Bridge, for the Boxing day fixture against Reading, the match could be seen as particularly influenced by momentum.

In October, in their previous encounter, the momentum of a Reading defender in impact on Petr Cech put Chelsea’s star goalkeeper out of action until the New Year. Since, then, sportswriters have been talking about Chelsea losing momentum to table-leading Manchester United.

What is momentum ?

Sporting leaders often talk about momentum – gaining it, losing it, or retaining it. But just what is momentum? In dynamics, it’s the energy possessed by moving objects. It’s an important concept for figuring out what happens when cars hit people (on either side of the windscreen). Big fast objects have a lot of momentum, small slow-moving ones a lot less. Momentum at the point of impact helps sport scientists explain golf swings, tennis serves, Grand Prix shunts and a host more consequences of impact incidents.

Psychological momentum

If we take this week’s sporting stories we see the term used to imply psychological momentum, often in its consequences for teams and their leaders. In Australia, the Aussies were said to have so much momentum after winning back the Ashes that they were expected to crash through any opposition. As a matter of record, that is just what seems to be happening, after two days of the fourth cricket test.

Going back to Chelsea, the team ‘only’ managed a draw against newly-promoted Reading. Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho says that the team has a short-term problem. Its defense has been severely damaged by the losses of Cech and more recently to their inspirational captain Terry. Yet, strictly speaking, a loss of momentum in their bid to retain their title would be reflected in a sudden dip in form, and failure to regain that form. They have suffered important injuries. Yet, over the last few weeks, the results have remained good enough to retain their lead over all the clubs below them and even reduce the gap between themselves and league-toppers Manchester United. Even in adversity they have had players to rescue them from dropping points. Last-minute winners are not a sign of a side that has lost momentum. It is more likely a sign of on-field players showing leadership qualities.

A considrable body of largely untested theory has been assembled around the idea of leadership influence. Psychologist Willi Railo wrote a book about it with former English coach Sven Göran Eriksson. The theory suggests that social groups cohere into high peformance units through social architects. Early in his regime, Sven’s successes were lnked to his application of the theory. See the transcript of a BBC Horizon programme for more information.

Leadership and momentum

So where does leadership come into this? The owners of football clubs seem to believe in the importance of both concepts. The chief coach or manager can help a club develop momentum, or can dissipate it. If the latter, a change of managerial leadership will fix it. Can it really be as simple as that? For a more academic analysis see the article in Athletic Insight by UK researchers Crust and Lawrence

More generally, are there lessons to be learned from the experiences of political and business leaders?


Mystic Merv’s New Year Predictions

December 23, 2006

Mystic Merv is a hermit from the Celtic fringes. He sometimes speaks out ‘from the big chair’, on his mountain fastness. He claims powers of divination in the tradition of a distant ancestor, Mystic Merl, consultant to King Arthur. Merv offers ten leadership predictions for 2007 with news of what will happen to Tony Blair, Google, Gordon of the big fist, Bob Woodward, The Big Green Mac Corporation, and the monster Glaskazep merger.

1 Bye bye Blair. A leader of the Blair tribe will pass over from the Palaces of Westminster, through the cataracts of transition into the land of Amnesia. He will write a book on new leadership, new Labour, and keepy-uppy for the over fifties.

2 Hail to the Chief. And a chief will come down from the North to rule the tribe in disarray at the passing of their leader. The new chief will be called Gordon of the Big Fist

3 A Boy, David by name, will confront Gordon of the big fist towards mid-summer. David is agile and young, but his ranks of supporters will grow in numbers. Gordon will avoid a major battle with David’s troops in 2007

4 Big Green Mac workover. Following advice from culture change experts Senn Delaney, companies work at establishing their greenness. Activists make jokes about the first Green hamburger, code name Solent Lite Green.

5 Woodward shadows Democrat leaders. Merv claims this is an omen for a upsurge in new book-length books applying the famous Bob Woodward WMD of cluster interviewing techniques.

6 Lord Coe hints that Maypole dancing is to be introduced as a sport at the 2012 Olympics.

7 The BBC reverses its decision to relocate functions to Salford, when a Board member discovers he will have to stay overnight with his in-laws in nearby Crumpsell, as an economy measure. A BBC pressure group is said to be pressing for relocation to New Malden instead of Salford.

8 The Glaskazep merger. Top-secret talks proceed for the merger of Glaxo Smith Kline, Astra Zeneca and Pfizer. It is rumoured that the new company is to be named Glaskazep

9 The Google halo slips as the company’s continued growth leads it into increasingly tricky leadership dilemmas in its global alliances.

10 The breakaway alternative Chemical Olympics plan their inaugural event. Their slogan is six conjugated hexagon rings. Competitors work with teams of chemists. There are periodic tables ranking the chemicals used by winning competitors. Columbia, Afghanistan, and Haiti are among the favourites bidding to host the Games.