Sego and Sarko round two: How social identity theory interprets the political process

April 29, 2007

180px-mrs_texas.jpgA Presidential election offers a test of leadership theory. We look to the emerging ideas of social identity to interpret the dynamics of the on-going French contest between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. The theory suggests that the voting decision can be seen as the result of a kind of beauty contest. The vote goes to the candidate which most closely matches a mental image of a prototypical (idealized) leader.

Leadership and social identity theory

A recent entry into the leadership textbooks is social identity theory. The fundamental principle is that social actors make sense of their world through their mental maps, which are open to revision, but stable enough to help decision-making in unclear situations. Within the maps, according to social identity theory, we compare and contrast ‘significant others’ such as leaders, lovers, lenders, friends, followers, fashion-setters, and so on. The process is one of sense-making. The charismatic leader is partly created by ourselves. THis is another way of suggesting we get the leaders we deserve.

The theory suggests that our shared understanding of a leader is a social construction. Also, it indicates that preferences, while partly explicable around rationalistic and logical terms, are also influenced by aspirations and psychological needs. The leader is role model, rescuer, and parent. The leader is ‘the person I would like to be’, or ‘the person I would want to help me’. Much research still needs to be done, but we are some way to understanding older puzzles of the charismatic leader.

Which brings us back to the issue under discussion, the continuing battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal.

This is a beauty contest

Social identity theory suggests that we chose our leaders on more than a rational appraisal of their policies. Rather, we vote on grounds of constructed reality of the candidates, tested against what one leadership school has referred to as a leader’s idealised influence. Metaphorically, voters are engaging in selecting the winner of a beauty contest.

Shared social memories mean that our mental libraries of leaders (that is to say, our images of actual leaders) are
By whatever Darwinian process, we have arrived at candidates with considerable physical appeal. The image-makers have not had to work too hard to produce good results, both from photo-opportunities and from the carefully posed press releases.
They could audition successfully as potential stars within the French film industry. On the other hand, I hardly dare to suggest that they share with Ronald Reagan the characteristics out of which a Hollywood-style President could be invented. Hollywoodification and comparisons with a Reagan or a Schwarzenegger would be considered quite inappropriate …

Nicolas Sarkozy, we read, has the impact of a charismatic leader on his followers. Francois Bayrou, still in the public eye as a possible influence in the final stages of the contest, has similar physical appearance at a distance, to Sarkozy. The defeated Le Pen retains echoes of his own earlier charismatic bearing. All three male contenders in the first round matched requisite standards of what a leader ‘should’ look like. As for Segolene Royal, glamorous is one of the frequently used terms to describe her impact, not just on her followers, but on a wider non-politicized public.

The case is a strong one, that in France today, as elsewhere, an attractive physical appearance is a necessary (if not sufficient) quality for a would-be political leader. Whatever else is going on, we are witnessing a beauty contest.

To go more deeply into social identity

To go more deeply into social identity try Michael Hogg’s review of social identity

And the winner is?

The election is only metaphorically a beauty contest. Our theory suggests that the winner is the more beautiful by popular acclaim.

To guess the winner, we might assume there will be little switching by voters who have seen their prototypic leaders win through. We have to consider what happens to the votes of people whose candidates were defeated in the first round. My crude estimate of that puts Sarcozy a smidgeon ahead, a winner by a closer margin than he obtained in the first round of voting. But that’s a view from a different place.

Stop Press: Le Monde reports a voting intention poll showing Sarco still in the lead, but with a slight weakening of his lead over Sego. But there is still the televised debate next Wednesday. Saro says that he’s ahead in the mountains of the Tour de France, but a single slip and all is lost. Not Hollywood then, but maybe Eurosport.

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.

But leadership IS a team role …

April 26, 2007

Employers are increasingly valuing team players over leaders, says a futurologist. But where does that leave team leadership? We look at the claim from a research perspective

In a BBC interview, BT Futorologist Ian Pearson says that employers are recognizing the virtues of interpersonal skills (sometimes called soft skills, and as a differentiator between masculine and feminine behavioral styles).
The impression left by the article, is that team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers. Also, that women are better team-players, and therefore also more valued by employers than are men. The arguments leading to such conclusions need a bit more examination.

The situation seems to have been reduced to some either-or propositions, such as ‘we either have to chose good leaders or good team players’. It also implies that there is a universalistic recipe out there. If a century of research into leadership has revealed anything, it is the absence of a theory of leadership that provides universal propositions. In other words, we might wish to study the hypothesis

H: team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers

[Or the form preferred in many research methods courses
H: team players are not becoming more valued than leaders by employers]

Either hypothesis when put to empirical testing will quickly be shown to be highly context dependent. At which stage, the researchers begin to mutter about ceterus paribus , or contingent variables, or in everyday terms ‘other things being equal; or ‘it all depends’ . Unfortunately, empirical research catches popular headlines more easily if it can be reduced to a simple statement. We have to work at the proposal to sort out the factors behind he assumptions. So let’s do a little more work on it.

Are team workers becoming more favoured over leaders by employers?

Yup, you guessed it – it all depends. It depends on what the statement means by leaders, team workers, and even (less ambiguously) by employers. It depends on the sorts of employment, and the sorts of team task. As stated, the issue can be tested. Are employers placing team working skills above leadership skills in making their selection and recruitment decisions? Has that become standard practice in BT, to take the specific case with which Professor Pearson is particularly familiar? What is the evidence that the same applies to other private sector organizations in our global marketplace?

For what it’s worth

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is going on, and what sense I can make of it.
First, long-held views of leaders and followers have come under some scrutiny. The old ideas was that leader took the decisions, the followers carried them out. ‘Good’ followers ‘obeyed orders’, but you can see where I’m going there. More recently, this view lead to tricky dilemmas of leadership which have not gone away.

Among the most promising of attempts to deal with the dilemma of ‘followership’ was the search for methods of power-sharing, so that followers all had status differentials removed, and all became members of the same team. (I know a very large organization that actually banned the word ‘manager’ in the height of enthusiasm for a team-based approach). With empowerment came motivation, and the end of the economist’s bane, the economic free-rider. From that perspective it was an easy step to develop the idea of distributed leadership.

But what happens to the ‘old style leader’. This is where I think I can make common cause with the Pearson thesis. The weaknesses of the old style leader have been rumbled. The special one has to become a special team player. More than ever, in team work, the leader is nor more, and no less than a team player. And as such, the team player needs those desirable soft skills.

Gettelfinger in the ESOP pie?

April 25, 2007

180px-the_boy_who_cried_wolf_-_project_gutenberg_etext_19994.jpgChrysler’s future looks increasingly precarious. Union President Ron Gettelfinger has a tough call to make. He may be able to disrupt progress towards a takeover. Or he may soften the Union’s stance over pension rights with the parent company. But that makes Chrysler a more attractive morsel for a predator. ESOPs offer a possible way forward.

The financials make gloomy reading. Chrysler made a $1.5bn loss last year as its US sales deteriorated. Kirk Kerkorian has tabled a $4.5bn offer. Magna is believed to be considering making a marginally better offer. Parent company Mercedes Benz faces 90% loss of the $40bn it paid for Chrysler in 1998.

How ESOPs may be the way forward

An ESOP (Employee Share Option Plan) is an old idea that has found recent favor in Private Equity deals. In principle, an ESOP is a form of worker incentive through participative ownership. As such, it has a distinctly liberal or (dare I whisper the word?) socialistic ethos. Strange, then, that such an idea would be popular in that most red-blooded of capitalistic barbarians at the gate, the private equity consortia.

Unsurprisingly, The Economist takes a mildly cynical view:

If all else fails, hand the workers some equity. That seems to be the new philosophy of America’s private-equity firms, at least, judging by the bidding war for Chrysler [and The Tribune Newspaper]. ..
Anyone seeking in this the spirit of Robert Owen, the father of the workers’ co-operative, or of Louis Kelso, an American lawyer who invented the ESOP in 1956, is likely to be disappointed.

When Daimler bought Chrysler in 1998, it paid $35 billion. Analysts now value it at no more than $8 billion, though Daimler may be fortunate to get anything close to that for a business that some experts think is destined, sooner or later, for bankruptcy, along with Detroit’s other giant car manufacturers, Ford and General Motors.

On April 5th Tracinda, the investment vehicle of Kirk Kerkorian, a buy-out veteran, offered to pay a paltry $4.5 billion for Chrysler .. Mr Kerkorian’s offer assumes that Daimler will retain some of Chrysler’s crippling health-care and pension liabilities and that the firm’s employees will take a big chunk of equity in exchange for giving up some promised benefits.

Overall, ESOPs seem to improve the performance of firms that have them, which may explain why they are increasingly popular. Some 10 million American workers are members of ESOPs, which together control assets worth an estimated $600 billion. However, it is less clear that they help firms in upheaval or confronting possible failure–such as Tribune and Chrysler.

The Economist argues that the move is more based on financial engineering than on the kind of social engineering required to harness the energies of the workforce towards competing globally, and contributing to a change of fortunes of Chrysler, (and by the same token, GM and Ford). In contrast, the rise and rise of the Toyota phenomenon (Toyataoism) is based on production and social innovation.

The view is one shared by those of more leftist disposition, typified by the following quote. I jotted it down from a lecture by a distinguished social scientist who was discussing worker participation schemes: ‘Scratch an enlightened employer, and not far below the surface you will find an unreconstructed exploitative capitalist’ .

But for all the mistrust, the workers at Chrysler may see such deals as offers they can’t refuse. To them, this is far more than an experiment in financial engineering. Magna, with its track record of employee share ownership, could have the better prospect in that respect. The almost forgotten third way of Kelso may attract more advocates.

Leaders we don’t deserve: Met any tyrants lately?

April 22, 2007

stalin_02.jpgBook Review: Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants: Inside the executive suites of Mao, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Ataturk. Jeff Schubert assesses dictators and their lackeys as CEOs and their lieutenants. It’s an appealing metaphor. How far can it be taken?

Other leadership researchers have noted various psychological traits associated with high achievers in general, and influential leaders in particular. Jeff Schubert approaches this fascinating subject from the opposite direction. He examines famous dictators as CEOs, and their inner circles of lieutenants. Schubert publishes on a site where you can find some of the ideas extended into this book-length analysis.

Schubert concerns himself with tyrants on the grand scale. His gang of six are Mao, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Ataturk. Even this group defies simplistic reductionism, or distillation from it of the essence of tyranny.

First of all, the book is an enjoyable read. Who can resist the intimate tales told by those intimates at the very heart of the kitchen cabinets of the six main characters? Certainly not anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of leadership in all its manifestations.

What’s the story?

The book is an exploration of the corrosive consequences of power. In over three hundred pages we have an extended essay around the notion. Although the author does not make the point directly, it might be seen as an exploration of the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The expression has been attributed to the English peer, Lord Acton, writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The six essays are pretty convincing evidence of the primary point, and also of the secondary point, that the process is the antithesis of Portia’s stunning plea in The Merchant of Venice on the essential quality of mercy. In contrast, power is twice cursed, we might say. It damages the person who wields it, and those who are subjugated through its effects. The inner circle of ‘lieutenants’ are forced into a servile role, and reduced to ‘Nodding donkeys’. The author provides evidence that the tyrannical leaders believed (or anyway, asserted) that those under their control needed the certainties provide by the absolute leader. Somewhere between the masses and the leader can be found the inner circle, servile, but seduced into compliance, attracted to the reflected glory, and exercise of their own secondary influence over those further from the centre.

The conceptual leap

The author then makes a more controversial conceptual leap. He suggests that the same process can be applied to understand tyrannical leadership as a more universalistic principle. Conceding that there are shades of grey in ‘motives for seeking power’ he notes:

..the tendency is always the same … power becomes a narcotic … The people who .. allow themselves to be dominated [do so] because of the [personal] advantages… The basic result is always the same individual businesses, business associations, sporting clubs.. institutions , and government bodies of all kinds’.


The academic reader will object that the author has been too rash in arguing from the six central case examples, to a theory of human behavior. If he gets away with it, this is because the broad maxim has considerable appeal. It works, and can be heard whenever there is a discussion (or even a monologue) on the petty tyrants of the state, or the office, or the barrack square.

The academic writer would, more conventionally, have built up the case, providing a descriptive model of the theory, and the inter-relationships within it. As it is, the theory leaps, fully formed, in the introduction of the book, and is subsequently related to the six anti-heroes of its title.

Nevertheless, I agree with the views of several advocates (‘back-cover puffers’ as they are known in the publishing trade). ‘This book cuts across boundaries. Its research methods are far from orthodox. This is why I would recommend it.’

Putting the book in context

The book explores territory that was earlier given a psychoanalytical treatment by Kets de Vries, and more recent studies by Barbara Kellerman. Manfred Kets de Vries focuses on the psychoses he detects in the tyrannical leader. On a small scale we have the petty tyrant of the office place. On a grand scale the tyrants of history.

Kellerman identified a typology with seven categories of bad leadership: incompetence, rigidity, intemperance, callousness, corruption, insularity and unmitigated evil.

The authorities cited confront the fundamental question: Are those few tyrants whose deeds fill our history books truly something special? The Man as Schubert expresses it here, or the Ubermann of Neitsche. Or might they represent extreme examples of ordinary behaviors? Were they illustrating, in an evocative phrase, banality of evil, which was Arnent’s conclusion after witnessing the trial of Eichmann? If so, Kellerman’s schema is a true typology not a spectrum.

At very least we have a compelling metaphor to explore behaviors of some contemporary political and commercial leaders, as Schubert does elsewhere.

Mourinho’s job is safe: Update

April 21, 2007


An earlier post reviewed the prospects of Jose Mourinho staying with Chelsea Football Club. Renewed rumours have broken out at the start of the 2007-8 League season as Chelsea results took a dip. Relations between owner and coach blow from luke-warm to Russian Steppes cold

Original Post

Speculation has been rife for nearly a year that Jose Mourinho will lose his job as Chelsea Coach at the end of the season. CEO Peter Kenyon announces that Mourinho’s job is safe. So why is this unlikely to end speculation? The question takes us into the matter of how leaders in general may fail to convince the press and the wider public of their integrity.

When a politician says “I’m not standing for leader” the message is rarely taken at face-value. I’m most familiar with the UK scene, but it seems a pretty universal reaction. We assume that the politician will find wriggle room so that the original statement did not mean what it sounded like. I suspect that there is widely shared tacit knowledge that the politician is saying something he wants us to believe, while reserving the right to claim that something else was meant, if and when that becomes convenient or necessary.

We can examine this through the highly specific incident in which Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon has denied the story that Coach Jose Mourinho will be fired at the end of the year. Kenyon could hardly have been more specific. In an interview published on the club’s website he was reported as saying

“Jose’s got a contract until 2010 and we’re not going to sack him. He’s got the full support of the board, that’s really important”

There have been no press stories to indicate that Kenyon habitually misleads the public in his public statements. Yet, my suspicion is, that there is something in stories about Mourinho’s future. An earier denial by team captain John Terry did not not prevent the rumors from continuing. The Press is discounting the public statements without having prior cause for doubting the spokesmen.

Don’t ruin a good story

One broader issue is the attraction to many journalists to keep a good story running. Some have made claims to know that JM is going, with ‘exclusive’ claims that yet another international coaching star has been approached. (Germany’s coach Juergen Klinsmann is the latest of a long line of heirs apparent).

There’s little follow-up mileage in a headline that says ‘Jose to stay’. Maybe this kind of wish from journalists helps achieve self-fulfilling prophesies from time to time. It probably contributes to the uncertainties and insecurities of high-profile jobs. But one factor is hardly enough to explain everything. It pays to look more widely.

The Owner’s influence

In Football, the club owner is often one major factor in the coach’s survival. In the case of Chelsea, owner Abramovich has about as much power as any one person can wield. Whatever Kenyon says, even if Jose’s got a contract to 2010, and even if he has the full support of the board today …. well, you can fill in the dots for yourself. How about ‘things might change if Chelsea fails to win the European Cup, or the Premiership, or the FA cup, or any combination of the three’ ? Abramovich’s reluctance to talk with the press simply adds to speculation.

Jose’s leadership record

Mourinho’s leadership record at Chelsea over the last three years has been outstanding. Before his arrival he had already established himself as one of the most successful coaches in world football. This gives credibility to his somewhat ironic self-description as The Special One. He has recently made it clear that he would like to stay at the club, implying that the decision to leave would not be his.

Leadership and trust

Leadership is often said to be the process of influencing others in seeking to achieve one’s goals. An important aspect is shaping the sense that others make of critical situations. Kenyon would like to reassure fans, as well as the media, that there is no ‘Jose Mourinho problem’ at Chelsea. We have also seen how such a statement may not be taken on trust.

In some contrast, Jose Mourinho seems to be achieving that precious asset in his relationship with his players. He has communicated his belief that the players, too, are ‘special ones’ . When needed, a half-time reminder from the Coach (coupled with shrewd and sometimes daring substitutions) has resulted in the second half, a return to the high levels of performance demanded of the players.

Charismatic leaders achieve their results partly through a form of unconditional trust that they induce in followers. ‘Less special ones’ have to rely on force of argument, often against the reluctance of others to believe what they are being told.

If we want to speculate …

We should take a look at the pattern of behaviours of the actors in the past. Kenyon has tended to be a ‘safe pair of hands’, perhaps tending to a parsimony in revealing and addressing inconvenient information. Abramovich has tended to achieve his results in a discrete fashion. Mourinho has tended to push his employers to get his own way, and has been known to put his job on the line to achieve what he wants. Which suggests that if and when Mourinho leaves, it will hardly be a case of ‘going quiet into that good night’.

Correction, but is it better?

The entry was modified to eliminate the earlier misspelling of Jose’s name. It originally referred to someone called Mourhino. I was tempted to retain the accidental error, but decided it was a bit of cheap and accidental graffiiti and maybe it explained why the post was not being hit very often (message to othe dyslectics out there …).

Alliance Boots takeover: An Italian Perspective

April 20, 2007

The Alliance Boots takeover appears inevitable and imminent. The role of Deputy Chairman Stefano Pessina has come under increasing scrutiny. We report the views of an Italian business executive.

[Friday April 20th 2000, Alliance Boots announce acceptance of the KKR / Stefano Pessina offer. other reports indicate that a second offer from Terra Firma, The Wellcome Trust, and banking group HBOS is underway. This post summarizes the exclusive ‘off the record’ comments of an Italian business executive made earlier this week. He suggests that a heady mix of personal as well as economic considerations are in play, as the Alliance Boots takeover reaches its final stages].

Generally speaking, Italians are highly emotional people whose associations are based on strong personal bonds. Business decisions can be based on personal sympathy or positive feelings in one-to-one relationships, sometimes overriding business logic. Pride, especially if related to family business which turned out to be a success, is also a key variable to consider. A lack of humility is not rare, especially for business people coming from Milan, the Italian business capital.

Stefano Pessina

He made his family business grow to the multinational Alliance Unichem. He successfully went through a series of acquisitions in Europe, where he was always driving the acquiring company. During one acquisition, he met Ornella Barra, who quickly became his most trusted ally.

The merger between Boots and Alliance Unichem ended up with the new Alliance Boots board of Directors mainly populated by formerly Boots managers. One explanation could be because Boots was large compared to Unichem. However, Unichem was far more profitable than the loss-making Boots. Even if Pessina was appointed deputy chairman with responsibility for post-merge integration, it could be argued than he felt for the first time “acquired”. This would be difficult to accept for a successful Italian manager, whose company was also more profitable than the “acquirer”.

Leveraging his influencing 15% share in Alliance Boots, strengthened by Barra’s shares as well, he is now ready for “revenge”. Private equity company KKR will support the offer financially. Of course, Pessina can leverage his position as an insider in assessments of due diligence and future company potential.

It could be also argued that Pessina has not met performance expectation for his post-merge integration role. This could be seen as deliberate, and now he can bid for the company at lower price and only later implement the significant changes, possibly with another board of directors …


Even if from the outside, it looks like a friendly takeover, I have the impression that internal tensions and rivalry are playing a major role. If takeover is successful, I am not expecting many of actual board members to retain their positions. This could be justified on business grounds, but I will assume also a great component of personal incompatibility …