Guido Fawkes Blown Up?

April 26, 2008

The influential Guido Fawkes blog disappeared from the blogosphere this morning. Has its author finally succeeded in getting himself blown up?

What I Didn’t See This Morning

I didn’t see something this morning [Saturday April 26th 2008]. I didn’t see a blog on the web. I was looking for the latest posting from a political blogger described as one of the most influential around. The blogger goes under the name of Guido Fawkes, in homage to that earlier revolutionary figure Guy Fawkes.

This Guido Fawkes has acquired a bit of a cult status among bloggers. He has been attributed with breaking political stories which eventually have impact in the real world. For example, he can claim credit for starting the stories about a damaging bit of naughtiness by Peter Hain, during the campaign to replace Mr Prescott (arguably also caught in e-flagrante.

The convenience of pseudo-anonymity was blown most obviously in a Newsnight interview, after which a Mr John Staines claimed that he was indeed the blogging Guido Fawkes.

Guido Revealed

Another blog [‘Tunbridge‘] described the outing of Guido:

Despite the pantomime of the shadowy, unidentified mystical figure sitting in the studio, which everyone in political circles knows is Paul Staines; and Paxman’s usual put-them-on-the-back-foot opening gambit of “Why do you insist on this preposterous charade of sitting in a darkened studio?…” or words to that effect, the central question being raised by Paxman and Michael White, of the Guardian, was a crucial one. That Guido as a blogger can say pretty much whatever he likes and that newspapers, TV and more traditional media have all kinds of pressures and restrictions on them which prevent them from being so loose tongued.

Which remains the central point of the blogging debate and of this post.

In Search of Guido

Anyway, this morning there was an item on the BBC webpages which again referenced the egregious Guido, which prompted me to follow the link to his web-site. Not available. A bit surprising, but it happens, so I tried a few other ways to locate his site. Same results. Guido was no-where to be found.

Conspiracy?

Only if you believe in conspiracy theories. I’m on the opposite side of the world on this one, as far away as possible from believers in Lady Di assassins, cover-ups of alien visitors, Masonic plans to rule the world, and so on.

But I found myself wondering if Guido has been taken out of the game, having gone too far. Something he has done, or was about to do called for swift action. It would have taken some clout to do that. The sort of influence required to ‘persuade’ Google to operate a censorship filter to prevent its zillions of users in China from accessing the sort of information available in the West. A Mr Big has nobbled Guido. Or maybe a Ms Big ?

Guido Restored

Later: [1500 hrs]. Guido is back. But he was worried too, noting

Overnight something has happened. Not sure if it is technical failure, a hacker attack or just a glitch. Everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…

[Later] UPDATE : It was a glitch.

The Importance of Blogging

A debate going on about the merits of blogging, and its willingness to transmit (and create) unsubstantiated, and mainly scurrilous stories. It was touched on in the Tunbridge post above on the kind of virtual world whose inhabitants can write ‘pretty much what they like’.

The BBC Story

The BBC story prompted me to take a look at the Guido Fawkes site was about a hoax purporting to be reporting the resignation of a government minister.

Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman is the latest MP to become a victim of internet hacking. An item was posted on her personal site for several hours announcing her defection to the Conservatives. It began: “To friends, foes and fans, below is a copy of the resignation letter that landed on Gordon’s desk this morning.”
Beneath it was a link to a spoof Harriet Harman blog. The site ..appears to have been taken off-line following the discovery of the rogue message, which was highlighted by the widely-read Westminster gossip blogger Guido Fawkes.

The story also pointed out that

Last year, Conservative housing spokesman Grant Shapps was targeted by hackers who broke into his YouTube account to post a message under his name saying the party could not win the Ealing Southall by-election. In 2006, David Miliband [environment Secretary at the time] was forced to shut down an experimental wiki site after it was bombarded with surreal and abusive additions.

Games People Play

These examples seem to be indications of assorted behaviours, including creative if malicious japes, to the web equivalent of graffiti, passing off, and evidence of the wisdom or otherwise of the crowd.

The Bloggers we Deserve

One of the few clear aspects in the debate is that no simple answer seems to be adequate. At present, bloggers have a well-earned reputation as purveyor of unreliable stories.

In keeping with the interests of this particular blog, I find myself arguing that the development of the blogosphere comes with its particular context of social action.

Through it, in ways we are still trying to understand, ideas gain credibility in the old world of modernity, with its traditional concerns about truth, reality, and morality. Some ideas take hold. This happens probably because of what people are inclined to believe, which itself indicates something about deeply-held fears and hopes.

On this line of reasoning, celebrity bloggers like Guido Fawkes are the bloggers we subscribe to, and are the thought leaders we create and deserve. The hackers, and jokers come as other denisons of the new blogospheric territories.

Something Old, Something New

For what it’s worth, I find connections with various old and newer ideas about innovation and change. I’m reminded of Rosabeth Kanter who developed a visionary picture in the 1980s of a future in which the most successful organizations operate with open access to information

More recently, a similar ‘freedom is good’ theme can be found in the ideas of Henry Chesborough under the catchy rubric Open Innovation

These ideas present the case for the virtues of cherishing freedom of expression in the interests of social and economic good.

However, I wish I could agree with Guido that ‘everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…’ That would be very nice.


The Reinvention of Apprenticeship: Alan Sugar’s Variation

April 25, 2008


Apprenticeship has ancient origins, and has reinvented itself as time goes by. Alan Sugar’s celebrity version for the BBC is a recent modification. Its viability as a leadership development approach is examined

I have expressed reservations about The Apprentice in earlier posts. It seems unlikely that many more series will be commissioned.
Nevertheless, it has had enough social impact to warrant some critical attention not as entertainment, but as a possible template for leadership development.

I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of apprenticeship, and compare its dynamics with other approaches for identifying and developing potential leaders.

A short history of the apprenticeship model

Historical studies sometimes only hint at the justified reputation that apprenticeship was often exploitative and one of the targets of social revolutionaries.

Since time immemorial, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth. The records of Egypt, Greece, and Rome from earliest times reveal that skills were still being passed on in this fashion. When youth in olden days achieved the status of craft workers, they became important members of society. Their prestige in England [sic] centuries ago is reflected in a dialog from the Red Book of Hergest, a 14th-century Welsh [sic] Bardic manuscript:

“Open the door! “I will not open it. “Wherefore not? “The knife is in the meat, and the drink is in the horn, and there is revelry in Arthur’s Hall; and none may enter therein but the son of a King of a privileged country, or a craftsman bringing his craft.”

An excellent historical review from the 1920s traces the origins in England to the 11th –century. It cites Ricart’s Kalendar (I like that) from the 14th century thus:

It is said that any man having an apprentice may sell or devise his said apprentice in the same manner as his chattel

The article further notes that

Subsequent legal cases tested the principle which eventually became accepted as the right more precisely to dispose of the office or apprenticeship not the apprentice as a chattel.

Phew. That’s a relief.

Sitting with Nellie

Wasn’t that a bit like the 20th century approach fondly remembered as Sitting with Nellie?

Turns out the origins of the term still defeat blog surfers. I remember it in the context of apprentice training in Northern engineering and textiles organizations. Steve Holden reports that the widely-used phrase can also be found in the USA, where he links the term to the apprenticeship model, but also suggests its value for 21st Century work requirements the open-source world.

Another insightful summary comes from the Institute of Physics

Organisational knowledge creation takes place when knowledge acquisition is managed to form a continuous cycle. This happens particularly effectively in self-organised teams, where members share tacit knowledge and talking brings it to the surface. They exchange thoughts and experiment with new methods and ideas; they initiate problem-solving routines and manage and repair the social context within which they work. Concepts are refined and redefined and then shared with other staff, developing and emerging in more concrete, explicit form through an iterative process of trial and error.
Knowledge can then be transmitted by a process of internalising, of learning-by-doing so that tacit knowledge spreads within the company. The distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge helps to explain why, up to a point, “sitting by Nellie” (now an unfashionable concept) can work where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not.

The Apprenticeship Model Revisited

The Apprenticeship model is not without merit. We might agree with the Knowledge Management argument that it is a version of Sitting with Nellie which works ‘where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not’.

The self-referential frenzy whipped up by the BBC during The Apprentice run involves increasing number of interviews with ‘losers’ and even panels voting on ‘Was Sir Alan right to fire ….?’ thus keeping the story going from day to day.

These exercises are a bit too voyeuristic for me, and arre anyway open to a more detailed cultural analysis than I have time to make. (Anyone out there interested?).

My impression is of a number of captivated cult-members who make sense of a deeply meaningful experience in terms of a close encounter with a charismatic cult leader.

The robust feedback meted out by the all-powerful Sir Alan is accommodated by his devoted acolytes. If you belief in the virtues of a swift sharp shock as a trigger to learning, the process arguably ‘works’, and a reflective and introspective process of self-learning occurs. It appears to be, at least in the short-term, a developmental experience.

We might reasonably consider if there are longer-term impacts of such experiences on the self-image and social identity of participants. Cary Cooper carried out one of numerous subsequent studies of the impact of such social shock doctrines in his PhD, many years ago. I can’t remember the detailed results, but in general Cooper found, as have workers since, that the impact of developmental leadership programmes on individuals is difficult to assess for longer-term consequences (See Rickards & Clark, 2005).

It’s only a game, isn’t it?

Yes, The Apprentice is obviously entertainment, and hardly intended to offer a leadership role model. However, if the antics of Sir Alan make him the best known among Britain’s business leaders, and if he also is involved in a business development institution, there is at least justification in examining the consequences for public perceptions of business.

Beyond the Apprenticeship Model

But what other models of leadership development offer something aspired to as conversion of tacit knowledge into personal development? Labels abound: Action Learning; Group Relations Training; 360 degree feedback; Communities of learning; Experiential learning; Mentorship; Appreciative Enquiry; The Manchester Method.

What they share is a pedagogically justifiable rationale. Providing individuals with some direct feedback is part of it. (Remember the gentle irony of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor, a wondrous take on the teacher who ducks out of providing honest advice). No one can accuse Sir Alan of failing to give direct feedback.

Sir Alan’s shock-treatment may yet be treated as a wake-up call to those advocating alternative approaches … So let me be direct. Sir Alan, it’s become too tacky, you’ve been captured by the process of becoming a celebrity. I can’t fire you, and there may still be time to get out of the pantomime before someone else does. Walk out of the house. Or am I mixing up my celebrity reality metaphors?

Notes:

In preparing the post I was reminded of the work of Graeme Salaman.
and studies by his Open University colleague John Story for concerns about unreflective exercise of organizational power


Gwyneth Dunwoody: This One is Personal

April 21, 2008

Gwyneth Dunwoody [12 December 1930 – 17 April 2008] never placed personal ambition above public service. So she avoided the more fatuous trappings of high political office. Her undoubted leadership talents may have been seriously under-estimated

If Gwyneth Dunwoody had followed personal ambitions on the road to political advancement, she would have challenged for the highest political honours. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in the process.

We would probably witnessed very lively and uncompromising campaigning battles. There would probably have been one of those dubious market research investigations beloved of Newsnight producers. Maybe a representative panel of voters would have been assembled and quizzed for their views by a remorselessly cheerful American. ‘If we had to choose between Gwyneth to Tony, which car would be more like Gwyneth? ‘

If so, the panellists would almost certainly have been more likely to opt for a no-nonsense, tough and reliable model. Maybe a modern Skoda. Certainly not a flashy and sporty job. They would certainly not have nominated a sporty Austin Healey, trendy Smart Car, or posh Porsche Testosterone.

Crusty Integrity

She developed a media style of humouring the more fatuous celebrity journalists. It seemed to reflect a crusty integrity. But a leader?

Maybe she was too likely to place ethical considerations even above party political advantage. I suspect she would have been more than able to combine integrity and competence, but the suspicion among the king-makers and queen-makers might have been enough to preclude her as a serious contender for the top job.

Maybe a different culture facing different problems would have recognised her leadership attributes. Yes, I could just about see Gwyneth not as a Tony Blair middle-east mediator but a Middle East leader of Golda Meir stature working tirelessly towards a just resolution of the region’s problems.

But that’s all a fantasy. Crusty integrity does not generally play as well in the leadership dramas as polished insincerity. Or, maybe even the rarer commodity, polished sincerity.

Why didn’t I think of Gwyneth before?

So have I fallen into the tradition of praising the recently-departed figure? Possibly. In compiling case examples of political leaders I have been aware of a dearth of female candidates. Has habituated prejudice blinded me to the possibility among those in public life in The United Kingdom? POssibly.

But I don’t think even now of Dunwoody as a female politician, but as an unremarked but able politician who happened to be female.

It is a pity that her story is less well-known than would be the case from a more determined self-publicist. I vaguely remember her father Morgan Phillips as a General Secretary of the Labour Party. I did not know that her political pedigree went back to her grand-mothers, who were both suffragettes, and her mother who became life-peer, and Lord Lieutenant of London.

The tributes today brought back other incidents that briefly hit the political headlines.

In December 2007 she surpassed Barbara Castle’s record for the longest unbroken service for a woman MP .. Mrs Dunwoody was also a Member of the European Parliament between 1975 and 1979, at a time when MEPs were nominated by national parliaments. Her most famous victory over those within the party who would shut her down came in 2001, when backbencher Labour MPs defied the party hierarchy to back her as chair of the House of Commons’ powerful transport select committee.

Under her leadership, the committee had produced several [frank] reports on government transport policies – which many saw as a factor behind the government’s desire to replace her with a more pliant chairman.

Gwyneth and Shirley compared

It is still tempting to compare and contrast the background and careers of Gwyneth Dunwoody and Shirley Williams. The association comes to mind in examining their backgrounds. Williams hailed from the intellectual and more privileged Fabian wing of the emerging socialist movement. Her mother was the distinguished novelist Vera Brittain.
Vera and Shirley graduated from Somerville College, Oxford (as did Margaret Thatcher).

Gwyneth, The Skoda; Shirley, perhaps like some car out of a movie fantasy, maybe on of the most famous of all, Genevieve herself.

Genevieve is fondly remembered for symbolising some gentle unself-conscious former beauty. Quintessentially English, of course. Except Genevieve in the film was actually not what we always believed. Genevieve, unlike Shirley Williams, was in truth of distinctly non-English heritage (a veteran twin-cylinder Darracq).

Shirley Williams was also a rather glamorous and romantic figure in an earlier era. Not that you’d think so from the rather prim version available on her current web-site.

She became a more notable political figure in British politics for her membership of the gang of four now demonized for its contribution to the decline of the traditional Labour party, and eventually to the formation of today’s Liberal Democrat party. Her break was with the values of Old Labour to which Dunwoody remained faithful to the end of her days.

In contrast to Gwyneth, Shirley has shown an intellectual pragmatism throughout her career. Quite recently she accepted Gordon Brown’s invitation to work within his ‘Government of all the talents’ while retaining the Lib-Debs whip in House of Lords.

Gwyneth has always demonstrated her convictions as unshakably as did Margaret Thatcher. That is not to suggest that Williams is less genuine or firm in her beliefs. Rather, her upbringing, and scholarly professonal career shaped a more nuanced political philosophy.

This One is Personal

Bloggers tend towards the detached or the involved. In general I have favoured the detached style, dealing with people and issues which I nevertheless find personally important.

This one is different. Gwyneth died on the day I shared with my family in South Wales services of thanksgiving for Mabel Goldsworthy Rickards.

‘… In loving memory of Mabel, devoted wife of Tom; much loved mother and mother-in-law of Tudor and Susan, Philip and Kathryn; proud nan of Lloyd and Catherine, Paul and Theresa; adoring great-grandmother of Morgan, Alun, Joanna, Evan and Freddie.’

That’s why this is a very personal blog, and utterly influenced by not one, but two remarkable women.


Martin Johnson: Bigger, Stronger, Braver, Better?

April 17, 2008

The much-rumoured appointment duly occurred. Martin Johnson replaces Brian Ashton as England Rugby Coach. But is his unrivalled credentials as winning captain on the field adequate for the wider leadership role he now assumes?

The issue has been simplified to a mantra. Martin Johnson was England’s most successful Rugby captain of modern times. This seems enough for some commentators who argue that England Rugby needs a winner like Johnson to rescue it from under-achievement.

Two inter-related issues. The selection process has involved a group of administrators which as had its fair share of criticisms for lack of grip of essentials of sporting management and leadership. The most famous criticism by former Captain Will Carling likened them to a bunch of boring old farts.

The second issue faced was what to do about current head coach Brian Ashton.

On the eve of the World Cup final last June [2007] I shared the wider doubts among rugby fans about Ashton’s future as England coach.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell [who had resigned before he could be fired by the Lib Dems] The performances of Ashton’s teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is Paris from Agincourt?

Which was a bit high-falutin’, but the drift was right. England had turned around a dreadful run of results under Brian Ashton. As ultimate success against South Africa was unlikely, the case for firing Ashton was a strong one. Rumours that the turnaround came from player power subsequently added to the ‘Sack Ashton’ campaign. This week’s sacking has been generally acknowledged as bungled, but not necessarily a bad decision.

Martin Johnson, Superhero

As a one report put it

Martin Johnson has been appointed England team manager from 1 July to the end of 2011 in a shake-up that sees Brian Ashton removed as head coach. The World Cup-winning captain, 38, will have full control of team selection and the appointment of the coaching team.
Johnson will report to [Rob] Andrew, but have “full managerial control” of the England team.

He remains a sort of Chief Operating Officer to CEO Rob Andrews. (I translate the roles into Business Speak).

Experience

That an under-performing England team have been crying out for leadership — and that Martin Johnson is the ideal man to provide it — ought to be beyond question, even if his detractors decry his lack of coaching experience.

Or according to The Telegraph

Is Martin Johnson the right man?
Yes, he is. We all know he’s straight-talking and hard-nosed. But his greatest qualities are his intelligence, his perception and his sensitivity. A growl and a stare don’t frighten anyone these days. Not on a rugby field, nor off it. Johnson has integrity, shrewdness and decisiveness.
Does it matter that Johnson hasn’t managed before?
No. If you’re good enough, you can learn on the job.

Discussion wages around whether the exceptional on-field performances are an adequate rationale for making Johnson such a nailed-on candiate for the wider managerial role.

Beyond LCD

These are not accounts from Lowest Common Denominator media sources. But the arguments are little better than LCD opinions, taking us no further than pub talk. They illustrate how difficult it is to construct analysis in a theory-free zone.

Over the last decades, studies of leaders have become regarded as less fruitful than studies of leadership processes (‘Situated leadership’ as one of my colleagues calls it).

We have a long way to go, even in this little corner of social science. But there are a few emerging principles which may be worth introducing in this specific case.

Leadership involves several inter-related components. Building a great organization or a Rugby team involves a distribution of leadership responsibilities. The responsibilities are shared among a ‘top echelon’ of individuals including Martin Johnson, but also including Rob Andrews, and key figures from within the governance system so graphically described by Will Carling.

From there, we can better see the roles and responsibilities for those involved, and their inter-relationships.

This process of concept-building permits us to test assumptions and beliefs (formally propositions and hypotheses). We can introduce evidence from other cases.

To make such analysis requires a lot of hard thinking, creativity and judgement. For example, can we draw on examples of leaders in other sports, or even in business or politics to inform our new model of leadership of England’s rugby team?

Theorizing Martin Johnson

What’s the point of theorizing Martin Johnson? Partly because we can adjust our expectations about what difference he might make in his new leadership role, and how.

It is almost certainly reveal uncertainties more than specific predictions regarding his success or failure. Less enthralling than the dreams and visions in the headlines at present, but maybe more grounded in reasoned evidence.


The Charismatic Campaign: Will Boris become London’s next Mayor?

April 16, 2008

Boris Johnson takes an early lead against the incumbent Ken Livingstone, and eight other candidates in the contest to become London’s mayor. It promises to be a campaign running on charisma and celebrity

The Charismatic Candidates

Think of a larger-than life political figure in the UK. Someone who has acquired a reputation of an outspoken and somewhat eccentric individualist. A person who can cause himself great political harm by intemperate remarks. Untrusted by leaders of his political party. A media celebrity with a reputation for acerbic humour. A bon viveur.

The description could come from press accounts of Boris Johnson, new darling of Conservative politics, and contender in the battle to become London’s mayor. They could equally well be applied to Ken Livingstone. That’s what makes the current leadership contest so fascinating.

Boris Launches his Campaign
At the launch of Boris Johnson’s campaign to become the next Mayor of London, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the endorsement made by David Cameron.

Boris Johnson would “do a brilliant job” as London mayor and is “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, Tory leader David Cameron says. He was “twice as charismatic, twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

At the launch, Boris was on his best behaviour. His foot was away from his mouth and from the humour pedal. He offered a concise statement of the policy on which he would run.

Mr Johnson, who polls suggest is in the lead for the 1 May election, said that tackling crime was his top priority. If elected he would set up a fund to encourage London’s “wealth creators” to support voluntary sector projects tackling the city’s social problems… [adding that] he believed it was possible to get more police on the streets and [that] creating a safer city was central to everything else that he wanted to achieve.

You can find a neat sketch of the launch in The Telegraph.

Mr Cameron [warned of] the “real risk” if people who want a change don’t come out to vote that Mr Livingstone will win another four years in power, after which the Tory leader arrived at the heart of his message: “Fortunately, there is an alternative to that dismal prospect. Boris Johnson.”

There was a time when such a statement might have produced titters even among the pro-Johnson audience assembled in the deliberately unglamorous setting of Bounces Road Community Hall, Edmonton, north London.

But now that Mr Johnson has shrugged off his undeserved reputation as a purely comic figure nobody dreamed of laughing.

The Rise and Rise of Citizen Ken

Boris has to overcome the formidable figure of Ken Livingstone. When he was first elected mayor in 2000, it was as an independent who had come to power as a rebellious outsider. Red Ken had become a symbol of the political leftie, kicked out of the Labour Party, and standing as very much his own man. His political power grew out of his leadership of the Greater London Council, during which time he had acquired an image of an outspoken individual and eccentric newt-loving revolutionary. An introverted personality, and a rather flat and quiet delivery did not prevent him appearing successfully on television shows as a witty entertainer, a useful asset towards celebrity status. The very unusualness of his life and escapades increasingly gave him the additional label of charismatic.

Charismatic Credentials

Churchill, Castro, Jose Mourinho, Mandela, have all had regular mentions in this and many other blogs. While it seems a bit of a stretch to add Ken and Boris to the list, they fit into the wider category. Livingstone, like his mayoral rival Johnson, has been the centre of self-generated controversies which have reinforced suspicions that politically he can be a liability.

Nevertheless, Ken’s success at the ballot box and continued popularity resulted in a pragmatic decision by Tony Blair’s labour government to reinstate him to the party and endorse his campaign for re-election. That was also to prove successful. Now Boris has received a similar kind of reinstatement in his endorsement from David Cameron.

An Earlier Analysis in The Guardian covered two of the three defining stories of the Livingstone’s time as mayor, his acknowledged part in bringing the Olympic Games to London, and his much admired public reaction to the terrorist bombs of 7/11 when London was still celebrating the winning of the Olympic bid. [Note to leadership students: the speech stands comparison to those classic political performances of Martin Luther King and Churchill. Yes, it’s that good.] The third defining story is that of his controversial transport policy, in which he has shown determination, commitment, and vision.

So Why isn’t Ken an Odds-on Bet?
That’s the next fascinating aspect of the race. Polls suggest that Boris quickly moved into a surprise lead.

Charisma can compensate for lack of experience. We are seeing it in the currently successful Presidential campaign by Barack Obama (and arguably by the John McCain, who is relatively inexperienced the highest levels of political office). David Cameron himself swept to power as Conservative leader in similar charismatic style, as did Tony Blair for the (New) Labour party.

But the charismatic success often emerges out of a distaste for and rejection of the status quo. Ken has to operate within the general climate of discontent with Gordon Brown’s Government. He may be a somewhat luke warm supporter, but he is officially the Government’s candidate.

The Challenges Ahead

The next mayor of London will have several mega-challenges threatening the well-being of one of the most vibrant and complex of the world’s great cities. He or she will have to make decisions that will influence the security, comfort, and well-being of upward of ten million residents, and countless others indirectly affected. The Olympic Games will compete with the logistic and financial complexities of moving people and goods around the metropolis. Wealth generation from its financial operations is expected to be more bumpy into the foreseeable future (which is not very foreseeable even into next year, as the campaign for mayor starts).

Ken’s Policy Manifesto states

London is leading the world with 21st Century solutions to the challenges that face all of the world’s great cities. My priorities for a new term will be clear – transport, crime, housing, the environment and good community relations.

Boris Leaps into Action

In search of more information about Boris and his policies, I went to his web-site

At the time of my visit, [April 1st 2008, but no joke] the day after his endorsement by Cameron, I found nothing on the site about the election, but a lot about local concerns such as the possible closures of post- offices. Surprising, and not consistent with the ringing endorsement from his leader about how his energy levels will be deployed in the forthcoming campaign.

Even more unexpected, I found the biographic details somewhat familiar. Boris, (yes it must be he, rather than an aide) had extracted the good bits from his Wikipedia entry. Like the journalist he is, he acknowledged his source as his Wikipedia entry, but suggested that further unmoderated comments can be found via the wikipedia site.

Yes, there are quite a few of those, and a few more substantiated ones which will no doubt come into play as the campaign unfolds. But the same can also be said about Ken’s Wikipedia bio. My point is whether Boris is confirming suspicions about his political frailties in dealing with controversial aspects of his past in such a fashion.

Will Boris become next Mayor?

If he does, the logic of the electorate will require the skills of an undercover economist to explain the manner in which fear, loathing, and hope were components within the process. The election is already promising to be one to explore the concept of voters searching for the leader they deserve

Note:

See blairwatch for an extended review of London Transport problems, and an examination of Boris’s proposals for dealing with them. Also the useful observation that the four key responsibilities of London’s Mayor are for transport, culture, emergency services and development.


Tai Chi, Team Leadership and Contented Cows

April 15, 2008

A Metro News article tells of a new angle on motivational methods.

Rob Taverner performs the ancient martial art in front of his 100 cows every morning to get them in the right moo-d to produce lots of milk.

The 44-year-old organic farmer visits the animals at 9am each day to run through his ten-minute routine of slow movements and breathing techniques – dressed in his distinctive overalls and wellies. He said: ‘Tai chi is all about leaving your problems behind and getting into a better zone and my mood definitely transfers to the cows’.

Crazy or What?

This blog has not been afraid to espouse the unusual. In the past we have looked at Horse Whispering, Mandrill management …

But Tai Chi for improved productivity of a herd of cows? What possible justification can there be for taking this starting point for insights into leadership?

Pause a moment

Many ideas start out as being mocked, and then dismissed as obvious. I assume this is item is likely to fall more in the former than the latter category.

Mr Taverner attracted quite a lot of publicity nationally for his tale of Tai Chi. It had the sort of quirkiness that appeals to Brits. The organic farmer also handled the media rather well. In a radio interview he added a further twist to the tale.

The cows were not just happy but their contentment had been accompanied by a measurable increase in milk production. Did all this leave himself open to ridicule? Well yes, a bit, but not enough to bother a diligent student of Tai Chi. And he had an added twist to the story.

Tai Chi and Team Leadership

He had gone down to his local rugby club over the weekend [April 12-13, 2008]. Seems the under-fourteen squad greeted him with their own humorous (as in Rugby club humourous) version of a Tai Chi warm up.

See? I said there was a connection with team leadership. According to the farmer the team went on to win its competition.

Make your own mind up

A momentary bit of eye candy? Or should we be looking more closely at the rationale for applying Tai Chi as part of a sporting leader’s armoury of techniques which help team members generate fierce resolve?

Acknowledgement

To Jonathan Guiliano for introducing me to Bob Sutton’s entertaining and well-informed blog


Harriet is no laughing matter

April 10, 2008

hague-baseball-cap.jpgharriet-harman.jpg

When Harriet Harman crossed swords with the dangerously witty William Hague in the House of Commons, the encounter raised an interesting question of the power of humour in political exchanges

The trouble with political jokes is they don’t get you elected.

I wish I’d thought of that. Recently, my attempts to influence colleagues in the value of ideas of a rather well-known economist were met with the scornful riposte, ‘but he’s only a journalist’.

If only I had argued from the way Simon Carr analysed the Harman/Hague tussle.

His sketch in The Independent goes some way to addressing a few questions that have been niggling me for a while.

How come David Cameron’s victories over Gordon Brown are not (even more) reflected in the opinion polls? Why did William Hague’s mastery in debate over Tony Blair not lead to electoral success?

Background

The background to the story was the Press reaction to Harmon’s photo-opportunity appearance in her constituency in a stab-vest, earlier in the week. Her willingness to make some point for the police resulted in opportunity for political damage.

The story was bound to be picked-up when she then stepped in for the PM on Wednesday [April 2nd 2008]. Gordon Brown was away doing stuff with high-powered NATO types. Perhaps coincidentally, William Hague stepped in for David Cameron.

Carr’s account introduces a sub-plot developed around whether the Conservative lead speaker should have been Teresa May, as shadow Deputy PM. It also tells of the riposte touching on Hague’s own earlier moment of media misjudgment, when he appeared in public as an ordinary guy in a baseball cap.

This is how Carr reported the exchange between the two:

Hague began as brilliantly as ever by observing she was the first female Labour MP to answer at Prime Minister’s Questions. (Knowing chuckles at the word “Labour”). Yes, she was following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher (outright laughter at the name of Labour’s anti-Christ), “whom we on the Conservative benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire.”
Coup de grace! Tory cheering.
Ms Harman stood up, and goodness knows it takes nerve in that packed and unforgiving chamber. But why was Hague asking the questions and not the shadow Leader, Theresa May? Was this the modern Tory party where women were “seen and not heard?”she shouldn’t let him get away with it!” Labour roars. Cries of “More!”
He needled her about the stab vest she had worn in her constituency… She had a prepared answer. “If ever I need advice on what to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap.” … There were more quips from Mr Hague but his timing was out [and] he fell victim to the shaft: “On today’s performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker”.

Harriet was able to bat back her ladies-tennis answers and in the event it was all she needed to do. And perhaps most importantly, she resisted the temptation to quote Mrs Thatcher’s last remembered parliamentary words, “I’m enjoying this!” That would have been a joke. And therefore a mistake.

Carr’s insight

Carr’s main point was

Very high quality jokes, in fact, from Parliament’s wittiest performer led his laughing party to defeat in 2001. The ruin of William Hague began when Blair developed the line, “We all like the honourable gentleman’s jokes but …”
The Government in reply used the laughter (which had risen from every bench in the House) to dismiss Hague’s arguments. Why does it work like that? Jokes give opponents somewhere outside the argument to sit and pass judgement. The humorist is trying to be funny. An ulterior motive is fatal in politics: it presents as insincerity.

If that’s ‘mere’ journalism, I wish I had more colleagues able to provide such journalistic insights for further scholarly examination.

Postscript

For a somewhat different treatment see the news that Harriet always wears a stab-vest to cabinet meetings


BBC’s Newsnight Plumbs New Low in Mayoral Debate

April 9, 2008

The declining fortunes of Newsnight were illustrated in an abysmally staged debate between candidates in London’s mayoral contest. The clumsy and faltering efforts of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Brian Paddick were only matched by the antiquated format of the programme, and a predictably offensive and blustering performance from Jeremy Paxman

I bought-in to Newsnight’s marketing of the debate ever since it was trailed last week. The leading candidates to become next London Mayor were to appear in a Presidential style debate, anchored by the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.

That seemed a good chance to see what early form the runners were showing. So I decided to watch, trading off the experience against the chance to watch the highlights of Chelsea against Fenerbahce. It was a bad decision.

Boris Johnson for the conservatives, and incumbent Ken Livingstone, long re-admitted into the New labour fold, are already high-profile public figures. Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems comes with an interesting and controversial reputation and many years of service in the police service.

Boris was recently acclaimed as “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, according to David Cameron, the candidate who was “twice as charismatic, and twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newsnight provided a rather jolly snap of the three candidates for the family album. [I show it above. My excuse for a possible abuse of its IP rights is that the image completely misrepresents what actually happened on the programme. It induced me to watch something completely different to the way the programme was advertised by that charming and jokey photograph.]

The format was the stilted and clumsy one of the so-called debate between the candidates for the Deputy Leader of The Labour Party last year That was when each candidate stood rather foolishly and gaukishly answering questions such as ‘if you weren’t standing, which candidate would you vote for’. It was hard to imagine Newsnight could ever do something quite as bad again.

Well, they did. Monday April 8th 2008. This time there were three candidates not six. But the cheap lecterns were brought out of storage again. The hectoring blustering style from Jeremy Paxman was if anything even more deranged. ‘You must be living in a parallel Universe if you think that people …’ [can’t remember what followed. My notes just read ‘grey, witless, dire’ and that was just the questioning].

The candidates fell into the trap of squeezing as many words as possible into each time-compressed reply. From time to time they were allowed to snarl at each other, but they didn’t try to snarl at Mr Paxman.

Mostly the statements made little sense. Among the breathless platitudes there was one almost interesting and surreal bit about bendy busses and how many people were killed by them. But that didn’t make much sense either.

Its fifteen minutes seemed to go on, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop for a very long time. But it was hard to concentrate. Boris seemed determined to avoid letting the most engaging part of his persona shine through, less his exuberant sense of fun be too closely connected with buffoonery. Ken’s drier wit was also under lock and key. Mr Paddick may have made some concession towards the existence of an audience, but if he did, I missed it.

The missing audience

That’s it! No-one seemed to be acting in a way that might engage an audience. Mr Paxman, the old warrior and professional trooper is still able to perform his roaring and ranting bit. But even he had trouble with the epilogue to camera. You can watch it again he said. Then added, as if with a glimmer or irony and self-awareness, again and again, thanks to the shiny new podcast service available from the BBC website. But that was about the only concession to the needs of an audience. All four were performing an intense tag game. Once they got into the ring, awareness of the need to win the favours of an audience out there somewhere was lost, as the combatants grunted and groaned to the final bell.

Questions we deserve

Turns out the BBC had been encouraging people to suggest questions. Not sure if that absolves anyone from the general crassness. Question Time seems able to collect enough people to ask some worthwhile questions to its panels of politicians on a weekly basis.

What did the charisma go?

Where did all that charisma go? I could only see four adrenalized alpha males in identikit dark grey Business gear engaged in mock combat. Conclusion. The format all but snuffed out any insights into the ideas or personalities of the candidates. I am as unenlightened as ever about their competences relevant to being the next London mayor.

Wish I’d watched Chelsea. Still, I can always upload it (or do I mean download it?) from the BBC website.

Postscript

The image above came from the BBC website. So sue me. And I’ll make a counterclaim using the image as evidence that I had been mislead into watching a programme of such dismal format that it succeeded in sucking all the vitality out of three able people (four if you count Jeremy Paxman) and in misrepresenting them as unfit for office. Perhaps Ken, Boris, or Brian could be called as witnesses for the defence. Jeremy would presumably be a witness for the prosecution.


Governance Issues at Marks & Spencer: Clarifications or Concessions?

April 5, 2008

Departing Chairman of M&S, Lord Burns

For an update to this post, July 9th 2008 : see the news item on the shareholders’ resistance to the dual role of Sir Stuart Rose.

Original Post

Lord Burns, the departing chairman of Marks & Spencer, writes with the clarity of a former Whitehall mandarin. But his message to shareholders seeking to clarify the company’s succession plans has been interpreted by the BBC as acknowledging concessions after protests from its major shareholders

Last Month [March 2008] Marks & Spencer announced that Stuart Rose would stay with the firm for an extra two years, until 2011. In view of Sir Stuart’s reputation, the move was seen as one aimed at reassuring various groups of the future of the firm under difficult trading conditions. However, the move was also seen as raising governance issues of one person as chairman and interim CEO. In a letter to shareholders, Chairman Lord Burns subsequently clarified the situation.

The BBC reported the statement, with quotes from the M&S chairman Lord Burns, but an examination of the original document suggest the BBC report should not be taken as a reliable summary of its contents.

In somewhat picky fashion, I’ll comment on the BBC report, point by point, which shows how much of such a report derives from an assumption which goes beyond the established facts.

I am now writing to provide some detail of the Board’s deliberations prior to making that announcement [over the interim appointment of Rose as executive chairman and CEO].

[All O.K. so far. No problems with the BBC report]

Marks & Spencer has offered shareholders concessions over controversial plans to name Sir Stuart Rose as executive chairman.

[Wrong. The letter offers clarifications not concessions].

In March, M&S said chief executive Sir Stuart would stay with the firm for an extra two years, until 2011, and be made executive chairman from 1 June.

[Correct. Well done, BBC]

But shareholders criticised the plan saying it gave too much responsibility to one executive.

[Wrong. See above. Nothing in the M&S statement. ]

There are speculations around that have been picked up by the BBC when it suggests that

Legal & General Investment Management have aired concerns that corporate governance standards should not be diluted “particularly in leading UK companies”.

[Maybe. It would have been nice to learn where the BBC obtained the information.]

…Concessions include yearly elections for Sir Stuart and no pay increase.

[Wrong: The M&S statement does not mention concessions]

Other measures proposed in the letter to shareholders, include appointing Sir David Michaels as deputy chairman while maintaining his position as a senior independent director. The retailer also said two new executive directors would be appointed and “significantly enlarged responsibility” would be given for the group finance and operating director. And to ensure the board has a majority of independent directors, the firm would hire an additional non-executive director

[That assumption again. As the BBC writes it, we are following the assumption that these are new concessions to shareholders, rather than clarifications of the status quo. Maybe I am missing something?].

Sir Stuart was initially appointed for a five year term in 2004, to turn around the business. But no obvious candidate emerged to take over in 2009 said M&S and given the recent uncertainty in the retail environment, the firm decided to extend and expand his position.

[Correct. Well done, BBC]

But leading investors opposed the move, with Legal & General Investment Management, which holds 5% stake in the firm saying corporate governance standards should not be diluted “particularly in leading UK companies”.

[As mentioned above, this is dodgy. In the letter released on the M&S website, fLord Burns acknowledged the plan would give cause for concern, and goes to some lengths to explain how the decisions were reached, and what safeguards were included to deal with any concerns about governance. But there are no specific details of shareholder opposition in the letter.

As the BBC writes about it, the letter is a response to events after the recent announcement, rather than clarification. The mention of Legal and General leads to the possibility that the BBC has acquired some information that they are reluctant to provide in a manner that reveals its origins]

What’s Going On

The Telegraph’s Damian Reece gets far more deeply into what happened. He outlines an explanation based on leaks and fear of leaks. There clearly has been a lot of activity behind the scenes since the original announcement by M&S. It would have been helpful if the BBC had found a way of differentiating between signalling what was believed to be going on, and what could stand scrutiny as substantiated facts.

Does any of this matter?

Maybe I am being pedantic. I am concerned that the BBC appears to be dropping below the standards I expect of it as a leading component of the Brand UK

Who owns the problem?

In preparing this blog post I wondered who was credited by the BBC for its report. Interestingly, it has no names attributed to it. Nor did the earlier BBC report a few weeks ago

Disclaimer

After my snidy remark about the anonymity of the BBC reporting I thought I’d do the honourable thing by accepting authorship of this blog, which is claimed by Tudor Rickards. Views expressed are his own, and have been made on a personal basis.

The post was prepared solely from information available in the public domain.


Diamond Bob bags bumper bonus

April 3, 2008

bob-diamond-barclays.jpg

Bob Diamond, head of Barclay’s investment banking division, earned £21m ($42m) in pay and bonuses last year. His basic salary was about 1% of this. Tim Harford shows how rational expectations theory can be used to explain the process

In the popular reports, Bob Diamond’s recent remuneration has been contrasted with Barclay’s drop in profitability. However, as President of Barclays PLC, and Chief Executive of Investment Banking and Investment Management, which was the most profitable part of the company, Diamond Bob can make a case for being its highest earner, if not the highest among executives in the FTSE 100 this year.

Where’s the logic of it?

Don’t ask me. Rather, take a look at Tim Harford’s analysis in The Logic of Life. The intrepid Undercover Economist is, as ever, elegantly pungent. Particularly relevant is the chapter entitled Why your boss is overpaid

According to expectation theory, It’s partly a matter of the cost of hard-to-obtain information. In business life

…it is hard to pay people as much or as little as they deserve [p89] …

Added to which is the assumption that the human inclination for players within any system is to achieve stated criteria in order to maximize personal reward. This is an inconvenient point for remuneration specialists.

He illustrates how very large leadership rewards can be explained ‘rationally’. He takes the case of Michael Eisner and his $800 million acquired in his thirteen years as CEO of Walt Disney. Was is a good deal for Disney?

According to Harford, the golden carrot might not have been one open to precise calculation, but it might still have been cost-effective, assuming the Company had been unable to find merit in seeking a lower CEO compensation deal.

He outlines the incentivisation arguments for linking the CEO’s pay to share price, and therefore to monster stock-options. The deal he secured did not need even to motivate Eisner directly.

‘ …if Eisner’s pay motivated his underlings to add more than the $ 800 million [of value], then it would have [still] been rational for Disney’s shareholders to pay Eisner …to spend all day with his feet up on his desk watching Tom and Jerry’.

The ingenious Mr Harford goes on to outline how competition, so beloved an element in economic theory, can lead to game-playing directed against internal rivals. So Watching Tom and Jerry, and acting as a figure head, are rational things for a CEO to do.

Harford draws on high-profile intellectual bodyguards to provide him with further sophistications (‘suspicious aspects’ [p106]] of reward schemes. He concludes (more gloomily than elsewhere in his lively book) that there is great encouragement for boards of directors to pay up, as long as they ‘avoid provoking shareholders too severely’ [p108].

[M]ost CEOs are “paid for luck”, skimming hefty bonuses that are due not to their own efforts but to external factors.

It’s a hard life at the top

Meanwhile, Diamond Bob has to suffer whatever discomfort he receives from criticisms of his compensation package, comforted only by the hundred-fold bonus to his basic salary.

Note: See Tim Harford’s website for more about the celebrity journalist and his latest work.

For an earlier analysis of rational expectations and much more beside, see Matthew 25:14-30.