Chelsea’s Fixture Shift Reveals Football’s Governance Problems

March 30, 2008


Chelsea argues that the FA has puts at risk the club’s title bid through the rescheduling of its upcoming match with Everton. Muddle, incompetence, or the unavoidable complexities of football’s governance?

April 1st, 2008. A curious dream for All Fools day. It was about a football phone-in programme. It involved a radio broadcaster. I thought he said that his name was Alan Greenspan, although he don’t have much of an American accent.

His first call in my dream came from a Chelsea supporter named Dave.

Dave: Hi Alan, How are you?

Alan Greenspan: I’m fine Dave …

Dave: …Good good, Alan. I’m fine too.

Alan: What’s your point, Dave?

Dave: I’m calling about the atrocious and unfair decision by the Muppets at the FA. They’ve done it again. It’s madness.

Alan: Dave, Before you go any further… can you turn your radio down? It’s distorting the signals from the marketplace… That’s better, thanks, I can hear you now. Where are you calling from?

Dave: Sorry. Right. Yeah, I’m back home in Peckham.

Alan: What’s your point Dave? We’ve got thousands of fans trying to place their calls.

Dave: What’s my point? One stupid thirty kick-off. that’s my point? What sort of time is that Alan? Who decides these things? What’s going on?

Alan: You mean the decision to switch FED policy to prop up the financial markets?

Dave: No Alan. The switch of the date of Chelsea Everton game. I can make my point in two words. Big business. No-one cares about the real fans any more… Football always used to be played three o’clock Saturday. Every week of the season. Home games, a couple of drinks with the lads, then down The Bridge for kick-off. My dad used to take me. Now it’s any time except 3 o’clock. It’s late morning, or eight o’clock in the evening, Alan. It’s every day of the week.

Alan: Dave, Dave. No one’s been saying that louder than me. Call me a life-long libertarian republican if you like, but I’ve been consistent. I’ve been banging on since the start of The Premier league… So what’s your point?

Dave: My point is this. As I said to your researcher. This disgraceful, crass, stupid, malicious decision over Everton. That’s my point. Even the morons at the FA can’t have got it that wrong. It’s put our entire season in jeopardy. What’s going on? You tell me, would they have done it to Man U. ? I don’t think so. Ferguson wouldn’t let it happen.

Alan: Listen, Dave. I’m the first to say it when I see attempts to influence market forces. But I don’t agree with you on this one. It’s not Fergie influencing the FA. (And it’s the Premier League actually).

But you got it in one, when you said it was all about Big Business. Everything is about Big Business. You have to think credit conditions. They aren’t good at the moment, Dave. And credit is the real engine of capitalism.

Dave: My point entirely, Alan. And why do they leave it so late to tell us? Now we get to play Wigan. No big deal I grant you. But that’s on the Monday night and then we got to travel up to play Everton on the Thursday for an eight o’clock kick-off. It’s crazy. It’s lunacy. They’ve gone bleeding barking out of control.

Alan: Not to mention the ridiculous Easter Sunday timing of your game with Arsenal. So that turned out fine, when you won. But we can’t say a postiori it was a rational decision.

But we must move on. Thanks for your call Dave.

We’ve got Sadiq on the line. He’s waiting patiently in a traffic jam on the M1. Hello Sadiq. What’s your point …? ’

Then I woke up

As the Chelsea announcement put it:

Chelsea is extremely disappointed with the announcement regarding the Everton fixture. We believe the decision to hold the match on Thursday April 17 undermines the sporting integrity of the competition by giving our rivals for the Premier League title an unnecessary competitive advantage at a critical time of the season, with more recovery time from their previous match and preparation time for their next fixture when we have to play two games during the same period. Secondly there has been no consideration given to our fans who will be presented with serious travel, work and other issues. And lastly, the decision sets a dangerous precedent in changing match days still further when fixture congestion does not exist and when a sensible solution regarding other television matches that weekend was suggested.

Football has benefited greatly from the backing of television and Chelsea as much as anyone else. However this decision is one step too far and we reserve all rights on our position.

The announcement threw no light on to who decides what here. It turns out that police, fixture complexities, fan’s travelling arrangements are less significant than the juggling of rights claimed by the competing television broadcasters. This year, the Premiership rights have been split between Sky and Setanta.

A little digging reveals that the fixture changes have already been announced on the Sky schedules. As complex as the matter seems, it In the deal, all matches played at 3pm on Saturday are protected from live television broadcasts. But Sky (and this year Setanta) have first call of an agreed number of other matches which can be switched to other days, other times…

A Premier League spokesperson defended the decision.

The compilation of the fixture list is a complex procedure.
It faces enormous pressure from international match and European competition dates, as well as the need to balance the important requirements of the police and our broadcasters.
We are also required by the European Commission to televise 138 matches per season, which brings its own inevitable pressures.

Which may have some relevance, but only indirectly addresses Dave’s more specific point about the change to the date of Chelsea’s fixtures.

Leadership and Governance Issues

Set aside the conspiracy theories. You have to look no further than the consequences of a struggle between competing interests of the media, the Premier Clubs, The Football Association, the European Footballing interests (EUFA).

You could think of it as the struggles of Premiership Clubs (and their representatives), Sponsors such as Barclays, and media. They conduct their commercial negotiations having to attend to Governance issues, exercised by the FA (looking after the wider interests of Football in the UK), EUFA (likewise in Europe), more rarely but sometimes significantly FIFA (itself rather dominated by European influences and money).

The (European) Commission impacts on this complex mess through its employment and related legislation, for example leading to the famous Bosman ruling.

When you think about it, the whole thing makes the Governance issues within the sub-prime crisis easy enough for someone like Alan Greenspan to be able to sort it all out on his own.

Why British Business Leaders won’t appear on TV shows

March 28, 2008


In the US, appearing on the right news shows is part of a business leader’s job. In the UK, there is far more reticence by business leaders to court such publicity. Which culture is better served by its leaders and celebrity news presenters?

In one of his recent blogs, Robert Peston draws attention to an interesting difference between American and British business leaders.

When a chairman or chief executive appears on BBC television or radio, he or she is typically talking to millions of people in the UK and across the globe via our assorted programmes and channels and platforms. That’s appealing to a minority of business people, such as Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer or Justin King of J Sainsbury. Their visibility, they believe, sends out a strong message of confidence in their respective businesses to their customers, employees and shareholders. Other executives are more reclusive, they cherish their privacy – which is understandable. It’s part of my job to persuade them they have a duty to be accountable, via the BBC, to the many different groups which have an interest in their respective companies

Well, yes, up to a point. As one of the BBC’s celebrity business journalists himself, Robert Peston has taken an understandable perspective. But methinks he doth protest a bit too much. Or, anyway, glosses over a very interesting difference in the way in which the media interact with business in America and the UK.

Hollywood invented the star system as a brilliant marketing strategy. The image of the star was supported by the studios and developed the image-building techniques and principles.

Off screen, the Holllywood star had to have an impeccable public life. On stage, the image was also that of the heroic figure. The male lead is exceptional, and yet someone who is also recognised as role-modelling important cultural norms. These include self-reliance, championing the oppressed against the forces of evil or morality. The faithful lieutenant knows his place, and his place is to perform well but not to upstage the star.

Every Lone Ranger has his Tonto …

The drama creates the world in which the audience suspends disbelief in the artifice. When successful the production helps generate popular demand for more of the same. For sequels and even prequels. The images replicate themselves.

We do things differently

Pursuing the metaphor, we can detect cultural differences. If Hollywood produced its heroes capturing and arguably helping create the American dream. While influenced by Hollywood, The British Film industry developed its own cultural mores through its own golden era of war-time propaganda firms in the 1940s, Korda, and Rank were driving forces behind the studios at Ealing and Pinewood.

These centres of creative film-making also helped establish the courageous and modest British hero with intrepid sidekick.

Every Holmes had his Watson …

Propaganda films reinforced the rigid class stratifications of the 1940s, although if anything the class divide between hero and chirpy sidekick in the war dramas strengthened the notion of an officer class, leading a nation of cheerful and indomitable lower orders.

Fast forward

In their related ways Hollywood and Pinewood found space for the rebellious hero. They also celebrated the progress of the self-made man.

Let’s fast-forward to a world of multi-media communications. California has provided a former American President, and its current State Governor.

The candidates for the next president of The United States are a charismatic young man making good; the dynastic successor of a former charismatic leader: and the veteran war hero. More than ever, media presentation will be vital in deciding the way the non-party voters move.

A similar context can be seen around the image-making of commerical figures. With some honourable exceptions, American TV interviewers of business leaders tend to be far more respectful.

The encounters are more obviously a performance in which each of the actors knows his or her parts. There is little difficulty in seeing how that old sociological metaphor of role-players applies. The business leader acts out the role of the able, honest, trustworthy figure. The interviewer acts out the role of able honest, trustworthy lieutenant.

The convention permits some variations in the playing of the roles, but there has also been a lot of convergence towards what is box-office.

Meanwhile, something quite different has happened in the UK. There has always been a theme of the revolutionary and rebellious hero. In the UK, the theme has developed into the celebrity newscaster taking on the establishment. The lawyer, politician and BBC journalist Robin Day was an early proponent in the 1960s.

Fast Forward to Modern Days.

The trend-setting Robin Day has been followed by another generation of celebrity journalists. The dominant themes of drama has all-but-been inverted, with the action reverting to the ancient Greek dramas in which vengeance is meted out to evil leaders by the avenging nemesis as played by the interrogator. It’s Tonto punishing The Lone Ranger. For episode after episode.

The star-system now builds up the image of the studio or channel’s new stars. Competition is fierce. As the Guardian recently reported, the stars are really battling with each other.

The paper was commentating on a public spat between two of the snarliest beasts in the media jungle, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman.

To help decide the issue, perhaps we need a Celebrity Newsreader [contest] , scoring the two on Aggressive Interrupting, Exasperated Repetition and Curmudgeonly Books about England …

The problem with superhero battles, as any comics fan will tell you, is that it leaves the way clear for an arch-nemesis to clean up with nefarious schemes. Have you seen how much work Sir Trevor McDonald is getting these days?

Quite. It is hardly surprising that business leaders and politicians are avoiding the roles offered them in the dramas.

Leadership lessons

If the increasingly dated style of Humphrys and Paxman were to be seen and compared with interviewers with a less confrontational, yet engaging style, we may well get more glimpses of our business leaders.

Would we be better off as a society? The American system offers more showings of their business and political leaders. They are not particularly popular as prime-time material. As with the president’s well-managed press conferences, they are too rehearsed to be particularly revealing.

Perhaps in the UK, a successor to the much-missed Antony Clare would be worth seeking.

Free Choice, Religious Conviction and Political Leadership

March 24, 2008

Our political leaders have to confront dilemmas of a kind that have defeated the greatest minds since the dawn of civilization. In the UK, a case in point is The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill

Over Easter there have been signs of a coordinated campaign by Catholic Church leaders in the United Kingdom.

The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh released the text of his Good Sunday sermon in advance (in order to reach the media more effectively).

..[T]he possibility now facing our country is that animal-human embryos be produced with the excuse that perhaps certain diseases might find a cure from these resulting embryos.
What I am speaking of is the process whereby scientists create an embryo containing a mixture of animal and human genetic material.

If I were preaching this homily in France, Germany, Italy, Canada or Australia I would be commending the government for rightly banning such grotesque procedures. However here in Great Britain I am forced to condemn our government for not only permitting but encouraging such hideous practices.
…It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill. With full might of government endorsement, Gordon Brown is promoting a bill that will allow the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.

Further it seems that Labour MPs are not to be allowed a free vote on this bill and consequently are denied the right to vote according to their conscience – a right which all other political parties have allowed.

Action and Reaction

The Government Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, reacted swiftly to the Bishop’s broadside, telling the BBC:

“If it was about the things the cardinal referred to, creating babies for spare parts or raiding dead people’s tissue, then there would be justification for a free vote ..but it’s not about those things. He was wrong in fact, and I think rather intemperate and emotive in the way that he criticised this legislation.

This is about using pre-embryonic cells to do research that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of people in this country. The government has taken a view that this is a good thing.”

Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders plan to allow their MPs to have a free vote on the more controversial aspects of the bill. The BBC indicated that no decision had yet been made by the Government concerning the possibility of a free vote for its members.

Such a Moral Maze

Such a moral maze. Or is it? In the UK we have become accustomed to very serious and disputatious people demonstrating how to turn an issue into a moral maze. Or fog.
According to philosopher Jamie Whyte such debates are often crimes against logic. Whyte is a refreshingly uncomplicated philosopher, whose case against the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders is worth remembering.

[Thanks to blogger Tom Kyte for reminding me about Whyte]

Whyte suggests that there are bad arguments out there, often offered in the noblest causes of democracy, morality, economic well-being, health, welfare, and the environment.

Crimes against logic?

The debate has already assumed the rhetorical heights (or do I mean lows) of The Moral Mazers. But can it really be about the principle of a free vote? Or might it be that a free vote is less a moral principle to be defended, than a pragmatic bit of special pleading?

Almost all commentators seem to be reporting without access to direct documentation of the bill. As I understand it, the primary issue concerns clarification of new methods of generating stem-cells for medical purposes.

The methodology involves taking human tissue material in much the same way as is already done for DNA analysis. The samples can be obtained from skin scrapings or hair. Any connection with the creation of human embryos is by a strech of the imagination. The logic if not criminal then a bit of a misdemeanor.

The inference is that the scientists are engaged in creating embryos by a version of artificial insemination attempting to penetrate an egg of a non-human species by sperm from a human male. In the process, the human tissue is developed within a protective overcoat from a non-human source.

The relevant authority has to work with its institutional label, the human fertilization and embryology authority. That must have seemed such a logically neutral and scientific label once upon a time. However, the distinguished commission describes the proposed experiments in terms of ‘pre-embryonic’ entities.

This is where vocabulary can be so difficult. What does pre-embryonic mean? To the arch-bishop it means an entity that has the potential to become a human embryo, and (according to his beliefs) deserving of the same rights as other human embryos.

The defensive argument

A great deal has been written about how a dominant belief forces opponents to use the dominant language. There is no level linguistic battle field. This particular skirmish seems to be found in the vocabulary of the secularist forces. Furthermore, the debate clearly influences the sort of research which becomes sanctioned.

For example, medical researchers have to devote time and effort to demonstrate as far as possible their work does not offend beliefs about how ‘living’ cells are to be treated.

Leadership Issues

There are complex and important leadership issues at play. The debate is already finding its way in to the upcoming American Presidential election. President Bush recently announced a veto on legislation that would permit stem-cell research. The vocabulary of this debate is similar to that found within the current UK debate. As it turns out, Republican and Democratic front-runners are appear to be against a blanket prohibition of stem-cell research.

The religious statements can be studied as examples of how leaders seek to influence others by offering a visionary view of right and wrong (or how right and wrong is being revealed to us through our spiritual leaders). In absence of conviction politicians, the democratic process is more about deals, compromises and trade-offs.


A thorough timeline on stem-cell research can be found in a post I unearthed after writing the above.

Who Will Save our Post Offices?

March 19, 2008

The entire British Post-Office network is under threat. This has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s policy for the coal industry. If so, who will rescue our Post Offices?

Make no mistake. The prospects for the Post-Office workers of the land are as bleak as those that faced the miners under Margaret Thatcher.

In a brilliant polemic, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian puts the case against closures. His prose is as vibrant as it is compelling: Arguing that closure mania ignores the real cost of axing post offices he continues:

The state’s pursuit of shortsighted savings is ripping the heart from communities. No wonder Britain is up in arms …What causes a third of the cabinet and one in five ministers to break ranks and campaign against their own government? Is it faith academies, a massacre in Iraq, or the suspension of habeas corpus? None of these. Go out into the highways and byways of the nation and ask what moves the political soul at present. It is the threatened closure of some 2,500 local post offices. The village post office evokes the age of Hovis and prison mailbags, of bicycle clips and little red vans. It is the Miss Marple public service, the acceptable face of nationalised industry.

So why should the Government hit such a culturally precious icon?

There are echoes of the battles fought by Margaret Thatcher, who had an appetite for social pain in pursuit of economic gain. Not that she would acknowledge any such fuzzy concept as social pain, I suppose. The fundamental similarity today is the belief by Gordon Brown’s Government that there is no alternative strategy to savage cuts in the Post Office network.

Ministers point to the estimates losses of £4m a week by the Post Offices, and two minnion fewer customers over the last two years, The removal of contracts in earlier efficiency moves have contributed to the drop in ‘footfall’ .

This is used to explain the decision that 2,500 of the country’s 14,000 post offices are likely to close in 2008 .

TINA stalks the land again

TINA. There is no alternative. Is there a need to explain what TINA has come to mean? It was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite aphorisms. For her, it was a weapon of defense to brush aside attacks on her proposals.

TINA is implied within performances of charismatics of all kinds, in the board room as much as the political debates. It helps create a sense of helplessness in thos most affected. There seems nothing to be done against such the overwhelming force of argument.

But There are Always Alternatives

Let’s take one step back for a moment. Suppose the expression of an absolute espousal of a belief is no more than a signal of a conviction-based perspective?

This is one of the fundamental canons of human creativity. Its importance is based on recognition that one of the most powerful bocks to creativity is rooted in what is sometimes called functional fixedness, sometimes mind-set, sometimes the ‘one right answer’ syndrome. Google it, and you’ll find a lot of popular practitioners supporting the view. I’ve written about it from time to time. Another more recent example is in an article entitled How bad habits kill creativity

The Voices of Protest

There are voices of protest. As Simon Jenkins suggested, these come from unlikely comrades in arms. Or maybe not comrades but associates. Victoria Wood, a much loved comedienne, says she is prepared to barricade herself, suffragette style, to appropriate railings.

The BBC reports

Essex County Council has said it could make a profit by combining postal services with council services. The stated aim is for any investment to be used over three years to help each branch to move towards becoming financially self-sufficient and “cost-neutral”.

The Government found muted support from unlikely sources
The TaxPayers’ Alliance described the plan as “extremely risky”, adding that councils should focus on providing basic services.

Conservative MP Peter Luff, who chairs the Commons business and enterprise committee, told [The BBC’s Daily Politics Programme]: “It [the Essex scheme] may be a good idea that perhaps is being done in a bit of a hurry [because of] the “very rushed nature” of the national consultation over which post office branches should close, he added.

On Wednesday March 19th 2006, political efforts were made to weaken support on the Government side.

Shadow business secretary Alan Duncan said 90 Labour MPs, including seven Cabinet ministers, had campaigned against the closures…and that Business Secretary John Hutton could make himself “one of the most popular” ministers if he stops the closure of 2,500 post offices. But Mr Hutton claimed the Tory motion to suspend the closures was based on “false hopes, flawed economics and opportunism …”Postponing difficult decisions is rarely a sensible course of action to take… There was an “inescapable fact” that had to be accepted, “however difficult” – the role of the Post Office has changed because of technology and consumer behaviour – he said.

So there you have it. TINA.

Neither David Cameron nor Gordon Brown is showing much enthusiasm for leading from the front. This makes it a sad case, as I suggested in an earlier post about the industrial dispute at The Royal Mail, of which The Post Offices are a part.

From a leadership perspective the lack of a vision is painfully apparent. Perhaps the question is not ‘who will save our Post Offices?’ but ‘What is worth fighting for here?’

Is it the cosy image ruefully presented by Simon Jenkins? Or the nostalgia front with Victoria Wood and Essex County Council?

Or the betterment of the lot of those who have become habituated to their treatment they receive as recipients of benefits and other social services at the nearest (but increasingly distant) post-office.

The answers require something a bit better than might be found in TINA : The Sequel.

Image acknowledgement: Victoria Wood from the BBC website

Distributed leadership and collaborative publishing

March 18, 2008


This survey is for use by research students at The University of Manchester to support their career decisions on publishing. It draws (loosely) on theories of situational leadership

Responses from other visitors to the page are welcomed, and will help us provide a wider reference set. Please note that the inventory is primarily designed to encourage discussion, and is not tailored as a research instrument.

If you want to see the survey

J P Morgan is always willing to help

March 17, 2008


During the American civil war, John Pierpont Morgan helpfully arranged a deal to buy U.S. rifles and sell them back to the federal government at a whacking personal profit. One hundred and fifty years later the firm founded by J P Morgan has arranged a monster deal acquiring Bear Stearns, aided by Federal money

Several weeks on, J.P. Morgan increases its initial offering for troubled Bear Stearns by 500% to 10$ a share.

I make no claims to being an expert in high finance (or even low finance). I rely on excellent sources of information and insight, but from time to time I find myself out there more as an outsider looking for unexpected parallels between contemporary business life and historical accounts.

It is in such a spirit that I offer an observation on this week’s monumental financial news. The historical aspect as told by Zinn [and summarised in wikipedia] in his quietly revolutionary account is that during the Civil war Morgan

was approached to finance the purchase of antiquated rifles being sold by the army for $3.50 each. Morgan’s partner re-machined them and sold the rifles back to the army for $22 each. The military knew it was buying back its own guns, so the so-called ‘scandal’ turned out to be more about government inefficiency than any chicanery by Morgan (who never even saw the guns and acted only as a lender). Morgan himself, like many wealthy persons, including future Democratic president Grover Cleveland, avoided military service by paying $300 for a substitute.

Back to the present day deal

If B-S had flopped, the entire banking system would have gone into meltdown. B-S credit assets had increasingly been seen as less credible and thus less credit-worthy.
Hence the fire-sale.

Rather than have them declare bankruptcy, the Fed engineered a plan to have JP Morgan “buy” Bear Stearns for $2 per share. A price of $2 per share means the market was too optimistic in the last 14 months when Bear’s stock fell from $169.33 in January 2007 to $30 per share as of Friday’s [March 14th 2008] close.

The Fed smoothed the way for the take-over by cutting its interest rates, and offering other guarantees for inter-bank lending. This is believed to be calming the process of what is becoming known as deleveraging in the globalised financial services industry.

I am reminded of the arms-length fashion in which European governments involve in institutions in the national interest. Specifically, the role of the German Federal States in the matter of Volkswagen effectively protects the company from foreign (i.e. non-German) take-over. EADS is not a state-owned institution, but is thoroughly dependent on wishes of the French and German governments. So much so that it affects the increasingly difficult working relationship between Sarcozy and Merkel.

The bigger picture: Canute reversed?

One financial commentator quoted in the Wall Street Journal suggested we are seeing a case of Canute in reverse. The Fed appears to be acting not by erecting flood defences against an advancing tide, but trying to put up barricades against a retreating one.

In a bear market, as asset prices fall, leverage is reduced. This causes lenders to ask for more collateral on existing loans, and borrowers to sell assets so as to reduce the need for such loans, and for additional collateral … The credit crisis is unfolding as we expected, but more slowly than anticipated, because of the actions taken by central banks (mainly the Fed) and the U.S. government to allay its effects. The wholesale socialization of credit has meant that government and central bank measures account for 70% of new credit since last summer…total credit losses of $1.4 trillion will cause a contraction in world GDP of 2.5 percentage points, or half the current rate of global growth. So the global economy will become a gray, dull world of semi-recession and sticky inflation that will last a long time. Without major policy blunders, however, it won’t be a 1930s-style depression.

Leadership Lessons for the Quick-sands

It is probably of minor significance that Bear Stearns has not shown signs of effective leadership of late. The departure of James Cayne had been seen as finding a scapegoat rather than solving a problem:

Cayne has been pilloried since in news reports as a chief executive more interested in golf outings and bridge tournaments than one working diligently to get his firm out of its problems.

tTaking the wider financial picture, the Canute image may be a suitable and chastening one for those crying for stronger leadership. By someone. By anyone.

Come on Hillary, Barack, John, what might you do differently?

An honest answer might be. ‘A bit here and there.’ Avoid foolish claims of a New Deal or any other relatively quick fix to rescue the world from the global financial quick-sands.

There is a case for transformational change efforts financially and politically. But when in a hole, the sensible course of action is stop digging. In quick-sands, wrongly applied energy just makes things worse.

Cheltenham Revives the Carrot Stick and Whip Debate

March 14, 2008


The annual Cheltenham festival produced another debate on the use of the whip in horse racing. Does it have anything to offer on the question of carrots, sticks, and motivational leadership for humans?

The Cheltenham festival is one of the year’s racing highlights in the UK. It is sometimes described as Ireland’s greatest racing event, so powerful an influence is exercised there from horses, trainers, and above all punters, from across the Irish Sea. It tends to coincide with parliamentary matters, and MPs often wrestle with split loyalties attracting their attention.

This year the festival suffered from the storms sweeping the South of England. Wednesday’s racing was completely postponed, which at least helped politicians keep their minds on Alistair Darling’s budget, about which enough has already been said.

Katchitt’s Triumph

One the previous day, Katchitt won the Champion Hurdle, a rare British success in recent years in a race where has been a frequent success for the Irish in recent times. Much scatological mirth over name. General agreement that the horse needed ‘firm’ handling. The controversial Robert Thornton was considered the ideal jockey for such a horse. Katchitt, and jockey Robert Thornton are pivotal figures in our story.

The race was described in The Times on line

Tom Scudamore had set a strong pace on Osana … under pressure a long way out but rallied to all his jockey’s urgings and was closing again at the line. Katchit, though, is an implacable opponent and, understandably, has a special place in his jockey’s heart. “He’s not the classiest horse in the world but he gives you everything,” Thornton said. “If they were all like him, this would be an easy job.”

Thornton was leading jockey here last year and is repeating his routine of refusing to have his long fair hair cut until after the meeting. His liaison with King is now one of the strongest in racing and the trainer insists that he “would not swap him for any other stable jockey”. Things, though, have not always been so cordial. Both previously worked for the late David Nicholson, where King was an authoritarian assistant and Thornton a rebellious young conditional jockey. “I was a snotty-nosed kid,” Thornton conceded, with King adding: “We didn’t speak much in those days but I think we have both grown up for the better.”

The Guardian [Wednesday march 12th, 2008] picked up on the debate on use of the whip:

Robert Thornton rode two winners at Cheltenham … and received two consecutive four and three-day bans for his excessive use of the whip only hours after a top-level summit aimed at stamping out the practice … New shock-absorbing crops are in use but it was conceded that horses can still be harmed if the whip is abused, and there appears to be a real desire across racing to improve the sport’s animal-welfare image … [although] the disqualification of horses was ruled out as a possible punishment by the representatives of the racing fraternity who attended yesterday’s meeting, and Thornton’s status as a double winner still stood despite his breach of the rules.

I had trouble finding it mentioned at all in most accounts in the sports and racing press. The issue warranted two lines in The Scotsman’s report

…Thornton’s battling display did not go unnoticed by the stewards, who suspended him for three days for using his whip in the incorrect place

The Times article above was as concise on the matter:

Thornton acquired whip bans, totalling seven days, on both his winners yesterday, though neither horse was needlessly berated.

The Great Whip Debate

It turns out that a debate is developing again around the use of the whip in horse-racing. I came across this topic some years ago through the contributions of champion jockey Kelly Marks and her company Intelligent Horsemanship, and her mentor Monty Roberts at Manchester Business School. These were influential to us in the development of a managerial concept of Trust based Leadership, in which a leader operates ‘by invitation’.

Trust-based leadership has elements of earlier concepts such as people-centred leadership. It adds a notion of influence through invitational means, rather than transactional ones such as sticks and carrots. The connection to the horse-whip debate is clear.

A recent textbook account can be found in Dilemmas of Leadership.

The debate is a highly emotive one. In her books, Kelly Marks tells of prejudice against the idea of whipless horse-training, as much as the idea of female jockeys like herself competing against men.

The charismatic Monty Roberts is much in demand around the world for help with thoroughbreds showing remedial tendencies. But owners and others still see him as something of a curiosity for such bizarre ideas by owners and riders. His reputation as a horse-whisperer works both for him and against him in the campaign for pain-free horse training.

At Cheltenham, the debate was rekindled with advocates of banning the whip including former champion jockey Johnnie Francome, now a racing pundit and best-selling author who probably dislikes being described as a sort of Dick Francis. Francome argued that a month’s trial would demonstrate that racing could be as exciting, as demanding of skill, as fast, and less stressful to the horses. He also admits that as a jockey ten years ago he would have been opposed to it, and that almost all the jockeys will go on opposing it until they tried out racing without whips. He mutters darkly about the dinosaurs in charge of the sport.

Meanwhile, at the Jurassic headquarters of horse racing, plans are being examined for whips that can not cause such evident after-effects on horses. (‘Pain-free whips’?).


Implications for organizational leaders are clear. Our posts have suggested how bullying by dictatorial methods can be one way to produce nodding donkeys in organisations or in political cadres.

The same level of intensity of debate whirls around issues of bullying, and the rights of parents to smack children (abuse, or a valuable aid to discipline and development?).

Francome’s suggestion of a trial period of whip-free racing seems sensible, but probably too dangerous a threat to established thinking to be a favourite runner at the moment.

Budget leak theory confirmed?

March 13, 2008

Pre-budget predictions in the media this year were remarkably accurate. Was this a triumph of journalistic detective work, or evidence that The Chancellor and Gordon Brown, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat, had gone to sea in a spinning sieve?

Yesterday’s pre-budget post listed predictions of what would be contained in the Budget. These were based on contributions I received from colleagues, and from comments published in the press.

I am now sated with the post-budget fare of reactions. The experience has left me feeling that I’ve been fed from a pretty predictable and unexciting menu.

But there is one leadership angle which has not received much attention, and to which I now return. It arises from the remarkable accuracy of the pre-budget predictions.

Didn’t we do well?

The results of the budget predictions have surprised me. Take the evidence I compiled for the post. This can be split into roughly a dozen items. An assessment of the post reveals these predictions:

(1) He has little wriggle room for major surprises
(2) I think he will dodge the big issues …and go for technocratic adjustments in most popular areas like taxation …
(3) …environment …
(4) …and mortgages
(5) Mr Darling has no option but to downgrade his forecasts for the economy
(6) The surge in oil prices may be just the event for the Chancellor to seize upon.
(7) Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to introduce measures to encourage the use of cars with low CO2 emissions
(8) The chancellor is likely to accept proposals from a report commissioned by the Treasury from Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University
(9) Plastic bags taxed
(10) Beer up [penny on pint favoured]
(11) Wine up
(12) Spirits up

These seem to be remarkably accurate, although just twenty four hours ago they seemed more plausible than of high probability. I didn’t feel confident enough to place an electronic bet.

The list can be seen to contain very few ‘false positives’, and the only obvious errors were of assessing the level of an item, rather than getting the item wrong. For example, booze taxes were under-estimated, and the ‘plastic bag’ environmental tax was made provisional on self-regulation by the supermakets.

My colleagues in the forecasting game always add cautions about the uncertainties which weaken any confidence to be placed in predictions whether they be political, strategic, or technological.

In that light, the overall accuracy seems impressive. Even the weakest of the predictions erred only on the precise level or timing of a change introduced (booze was taxed more severely than was predicted; plastic bags is held back to assess voluntary actions from the supermarket giants). Some were rather obvious and had been pretty-much signalled.

What’s going on?

I argued yesterday, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the Chancellor and Gordon Brown, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat, had gone to sea in a spinning sieve.

But is there something here to get the conspiracy theorists interested? In a recent post, I suggested that Alistair Darling and his aides were following a strategy in planting information with Robert Peston of the BBC, about Treasury plans for Northern Rock.

But neither the Owl nor the Pussy Cat would to jump to conclusions on such flimsy evidence. That would be imprudent. And the Owl and the Pussy Cat would not approve of that, would they?

The Budget: Has the Chancellor Gone to Sea in a Sieve?

March 11, 2008


Alistair Darling faces his first budget with little wriggle-room to protect his future prospects. Is there some event that he can turn to political advantage? Might he be accused (like the Owl and the Pussy Cat) of going to sea in a spinning sieve?

A typically cool view of the budget prospects from Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times. He captures the complexities of the situation admirably, and pinpoints what he sees as the key issues. I found his economic perspective more enlightening than those offered by more politically-minded commentators.

Pity Alistair Darling. The chancellor of the exchequer has a mere five days left to prepare his first annual showcase Budget, but he is boxed in from all sides. Mr Darling has no option but to downgrade his forecasts for the economy.

There is little room to make progress on Mr Darling’s twin ambitions – simplification of the tax system and greater fairness. Fairness presumably requires tax reductions for the poor or higher public spending. Politically effective tax simplification requires buying off the protests of losers. His botched mini-Budget last autumn was an example of naive tax simplification – a simpler capital gains tax structure was announced without temporary protection for losers, resulting in a humiliating climbdown.

Did I say it was an economic analysis? Chris Giles manages to arrive at a crisp political observation, as well as offering some political advice:

First, he should do everything possible to build a reputation for solidity and prudence on the economy. The credit squeeze was certainly not his fault, nor is the state of the public finances, but he will begin to take the blame if he has to come back to parliament every year with fresh excuses for why things are worse than he set out a year .

The view was shared by one of our correspondents (thanks I.E.).

I do not think he will be able to please most people, like Gordon Brown did in the past. He is in a tight corner. Government borrowing is high which limits his ability to spend on social causes. The global financial turmoil continues and there is no guarantee that another bank would not fail.

Financial institutions and markets are increasingly nervous about policy statements. He needs to be very careful about how the City reacts to taxation and bank regulation, but I think he should not give in to the demands of the City, which I believe is very much de-coupled from the UK economy.

There is a real danger that UK gradually evolves into an economy where a City State (London) which is run by global capital, pulls the rest of the economy with little globally exchangeable skills.

The current financial turmoil reduces London’s contribution to the UK economy and this should be an opportunity to develop competitive skills elsewhere in the economy. High commodity prices and inflation are serious concerns too.

Does he have the vision to address these big problems- falling housing prices, instable financial institutions, less contribution to the economy from the City, and inflationary pressures due high commodity prices? He is in a tight corner and I think he will dodge the big issues and go for technocratic adjustments in most popular areas like taxation, environment, and mortgages.

What about the oil price?

The temptation must be to find a last-minute-dot-com rescue plan for his future prospects in this week’s budget. If so, the surge in oil prices may be just the event for the Chancellor to seize upon.

Commentators are already calculating how much of a budget gift could be made to motorists.

Prudence: The Sequel

In his early months as Chancellor, Mr Darling, for all his appearance of playing the lead part in the political movie ‘Prudence II’, has been seen as a bit light-footed and twitchy under pressure of events.

The budget [Wednesday, March 12th 2008] promises to be as fun-free and measured in tone as Gordon’s performances always were playing the title role in Prudence I. As for content, we already know many of the changes which have been pre-announced. It’s the additional proposals which may tell us a little more about Alistair Darling’s style, and his development into his new starring role.

The pre-announced changes are part of a recent trend by this Government to smooth out its economic measures, through a pre-budget announcements. These became associated with multiple claims of ‘new’ measures, counter claims of the slipperyness of what the Government was doing.

Commentators are writing as if they know quite a bit about the forthcoming budget. Then there are the pundits who like a bit of fiscal detective work. There has been plenty of comments of these kinds around. You can place pre-budget bets on the colour of AD’s tie, number of mentions of Northern Rock, and odds of a 1000: 1 that (pet-owner) Darling will offer a tax-break to pet-owners.

The Owl and The Pussy Cat

There has also been just a suspicion that some of the contents of the budget have leaked out. Has the chancellor, like the Owl and the Pussy Cat in the poem, gone to sea in a sieve?

The BBC retains much of its well-earned reputation for balanced journalism at times like this.

It has arrived at its predictions with whispers from its unparalleled network of political narks, from other press sources and lobby groups such as environmental activists, the CBI, and the Unions.

Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to introduce measures to encourage the use of cars with low CO2 emissions. Weekend newspaper reports say the chancellor might introduce a levy on new, larger cars that could increase their price by £2,000.

Both the Sunday Times and the Observer say the chancellor is likely to accept proposals from a report commissioned by the Treasury from Julia King, the vice-chancellor of Aston University.

Speculation, or evidence of a leaky-sieve?

Does it matter anyway?

Not according to the brilliant contrarian economist Roger Bootle.
He pinpoints the issues neatly for The Telegraph

This Budget will not be a firecracker. They never are nowadays. Indeed, the institution is a bit like Parliament in microcosm.

The outward form is still largely the same, which gives the appearance of continuity, but in reality the life has gone out of it. The important events are happening outside the Westminster bear pit. The Budget should be regarded as essentially a piece of political theatre.

In another telling phrase he notes

…what happened in Brown’s Britain was a gigantic spending and borrowing splurge. Never mind binge drinking, what about binge spending?

Back to the sieve

I still can’t get those lines out of my mind from the famous poem by Edward Lear:

The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.

And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!

A Sieve. Spinning around. A state of denial … Surely there’s a connection somewhere with the budget?

Does it Take a Dictator to Make Trains Run on Time? The Case of Network Rail

March 10, 2008

Network Rail has been given a record fine for its poor operational record over the New Year. It accepts it must improve, and says it has installed military style leadership. Which raises the old question: ‘does it take a dictator to make the trains run on time?’

O.K., here’s a confession. Network Rail doesn’t actually run trains. It looks after the tracks, and gets blamed when the trains fail to run on time, and that’s the tenuous link with the old myth about trains needing dictators to be run on time.

The current case came to a head with the news story that Network Rail

[Network Rail] has a month to haul the upgrade of its busiest line back on track after regulators imposed a record £14m fine and a package of measures to tackle the infrastructure company’s lacklustre planning procedures.
The Office of Rail Regulation yesterday gave Network Rail until March 31 to agree with passenger and freight train operators a new plan for the £8.12bn upgrade of the London-Glasgow West Coast Main Line. The project is due to allow substantial reductions in journey times and more frequent services from December this year but is more than 300 hours of work behind schedule.

According to the BBC

Network Rail’s chief executive Ian Coucher said his company had now put “military-style” command posts in place, and he pledged that the delays suffered by passengers over the New Year would not be repeated.

Let’s say I’m a bit sceptical. About Dictators making the trains run on time. About Network Rail’s changed operating procedures.

The Background

Network Rail came into existence as an emergency measure when in an earlier incarnation, Railtrack, failed to meet its charter. Railtrack was itself part of one of the last efforts to introduce competitiveness into Britain’s public sector transport systems. The plan always had a clunky feel to it. The vision of effectiveness through liberation of free market entrepreneurial behaviours through competition proved too much to achieve.

Competition between the new companies owning trains was always marginal, outside a few fingers of land in commuter territories. No way was found to breathe competition into the operation of the track, which is where Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail came in.

The Government’s Dilemma

The dilemma for the Government was pointed out by commentators such as Management Today.

Network Rail is, to all intents and purposes, a nationalised company (although the government doesn’t technically class it as such, or it would have to take its enormous debts onto the public balance sheet). It’s not run for profit, and it doesn’t have any shareholders. So where exactly is this £14m – a record fine for a rail company – going to come from?

The only possible answer is that either the government hands over £14m of taxpayers’ money to pay the fine (which would basically amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul), or the money is taken from the pot that Network Rail is using to upgrade the railways. And as punishments go, this seems a bit self-defeating – how is it going to do an under-invested rail network any good if the Chancellor confiscates £14m from the network operator for the Treasury coffers?

The Mussolini Myth

So might a dictatorial approach be worth considering? Would the trains then run on time? That may be in the nature of an cultural myth. It arose around the Italian dictator Mussolini. The history-debunking site Snapes will have none of it.

Turns out that there were efforts to improve Italy’s ramshackle railway companies in the 1920s, before Il Duce came to power. Mussolini claimed two things. One that the trains now ran one time. And two, that he had achieved the changes through his leadership. Neither claim seems to survive more careful scrutiny.

So when Network Rail claims to have improved by introducing more military discipline into its operations, we might be wise to exercise some caution about promises and premises.

You don’t need a dictator

A related case illustrates that you don’t need a dictator to run a rail business well. The business is National Express. The rather non-dictatorial leader is Richard Bowker. The story requires a post of its own.

National Express runs the C2C, Gatwick Express and One Rail franchises, bus businesses in Birmingham, London and Dundee, and long distance coaches across the UK. Richard Bowker has been hailed as an effective leader of a complex business.

Bowker, the one-time government rail enforcer, is a graduate of the Sir Richard Branson school of management, his natural style being casual clothes and an easy-going manner. Last Thursday he unveiled an impressive set of full-year results, the first he can claim as all his own work

Reporter David Parsley noted the difference in style in the former rail regulator.

Bowker is a changed man. He’s friendly, open and makes a great deal more sense than he ever did working for the Government. It’s like someone has taken his brain off a Whitehall shelf and put it back in.

Situational leadership? Maybe, but it is clearly counter-evidence to the simplistic proposition that you need a dictator to make the trains run on time.