The Sacking of Avram Grant

May 28, 2008

The sacking of Avram Grant as coach of Chelsea Football Club was dramatic but unsurprising

Alas poor Avram.

Alas poor Avram. I knew him, but not too well.
He seemed a decent sort of bloke

Honest. Generous in defeat.
Not without ability.
Could command loyalty among his men.

Now he is gone.

The dreamer wakes.
Swots at a circling midge.
Goes back to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream.

Or, as the BBC described the sacking

It is a sign of the cut-throat nature of the modern game that a decent, dignified man is sacked three days after missing out on club football’s biggest honour by the width of a post and on the Premier League title on the last day of the season.

2009 is European Year of Creativity and Innovation

May 23, 2008

2009 is to become the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, with events at regional, national and European levels. Will it also be a year for creative leadership?

Ján Figel, Commissioner for education, training, culture and youth, outlined the proposals [March 31st 2008] stating that

The Year is “an effective way of helping to meet challenges by raising public awareness, disseminating information about good practices, stimulating education and research, creativity and innovation, and promoting policy debate and change. By combining action at Community, national, regional and local levels, it can generate synergies and help to focus policy debate on specific issues.”
The initiative is intended to cover education and culture, and also other policy domains such as enterprise, media, research, social and regional policy and rural development. Encouragement will be given to information and awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of good practices, debates, meetings, conferences and a wide variety of projects at regional, national and European levels.
Member states will be invited to appoint national coordinators who will cooperate through a small steering group at EU level

No extra money

The Commission does not appear to be providing extra cash for creativity and innovation. However, this is still a powerful way of focusing attention within existing institutional frameworks.

Universities, Grant Awarding bodies, Media and Professional Bodies are among the wide range of inter-connected groups who will be looking for good ideas, leadership, and entrepreneurial support to make contributions.

Making it happen

Make a difference. Think about your network and how might you achieve action. Ask the simple question. ‘What are we doing for the European Year of Creativity and Innovation?’ Ask it wherever and whenever it might achieve action. Use the web. Pass on the news in this blog. Write a blog yourself and use that to communicate for action.
This was the message heard at a recent international conference on creativity and innovation.

The keynote speaker made the following point:

The European Economic Community has announced that it has designated 2009 the year of creativity and innovation. Projects are being planned at regional, national, and international levels.

That can only be good. Let me offer a few add-ons to the idea. First, let’s work at making the efforts and practical and impactful as possible. Attention to grounding actions in theory will help avoid ‘the wrong kind of creativity’ (by which, I mean avoiding ‘the wrong kind of leaves’ that clog up train tracks every Autumn).

Secondly, why wait for 2009? We need it now. Let’s go for it now. Before the end of the conference, maybe we can start the process of networking and acting.

And finally, for the community of colleagues around the world, why stop at the boundaries of the EEC (even if these are becoming wider yet and wider)? We are moving into a globalising world. Let’s go global.

That message can be crafted to include leadership within creativity and innovation events.

‘Let’s go for it now’.

Leaders We Deserve: Andrea Williams

May 21, 2008

If leadership is the process of influencing others to achieve your goal then Andrea Williams is one the clearest examples I have come across of that species. In that respect she would be a candidate for running many a commercial organization

This week, political attention in Britain brought into focus issues of the most contested and deeply held kind for many people. Parliament debated the Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Bill.

The Government chose to make it a conscience vote. This was to lead to some differences in how the processes of influence played out. The process of lobbying by interest groups did not disappear, but rather took on a different guise.

Mentioned in Dispatches

The role of one particular lobbyist was captured in a riveting TV documentary by David Modell in the Despatches series.

Modell has won praise and prizes for his work through which he reveals the operations of various groups whose behaviours tend to be labelled as extremist and fundamentalist. Neo-nazis, Animal Rights Activists, Football Hooligans, and now Fundamental Christians. His skill is to win from group members acceptance for his presence as a non-judgmental recorder. While this is an over-simplified view, his filming has a non-judgmental quality, leaving the viewer space to a better understanding of individual behaviours regardless of whether the beliefs and practices are found acceptable.

In this programme one personality dominated by her sheer energy and capacity to make a difference to situations in which she engaged. The central character was Andrea Williams, who seems to be increasingly devoting her efforts to causes within religious networks. Among her roles is that of Policy Director of The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship.

The Lawyer turned Activist

In an interview for The Church Times, she explains how her upbringing had led to her activism. She also explained how her husband’s job as a senior executive of a telecommunications company gives her the opportunity to devote her time to her religious beliefs

In the programme, we follow Ms Williams in a series of scenes in which she repeatedly displayed a capacity to take control of events by her words and actions. Let her loose in many corporate battlegrounds, and she would quickly emerge on top. Or, perhaps more subtly, as the person influencing the top cat.

Maybe this will happen. If not, it is because Andrea Williams has signed up to a different cause. Her motivations are primarily non-secular.

Modell, writing in The Independent describes one recent example of her influencing skills at work on the Conservative Peer, Norman Tebbit:

Lord Tebbit meets us in Central Lobby and takes us to a meeting room. He and Ms Williams perch across the corner of a huge oak table. Ms Williams is persuading him of the importance of laying an amendment to the Bill. “You can get a slot on the Today programme,” she says. “Because you can say, ‘I’m tabling an amendment to reduce the upper limit on abortion’.”

Ms Williams has already written the amendments she wants incorporated into the legislation. Lord Tebbit is asked if he’d be willing to lay one, and he agrees to consider it. Ms Williams doesn’t hesitate in closing the deal. Without missing a beat, she reaches into her bag and pulls out an A4 sheet. The document is passed to Lord Tebbit and he takes it away with him. It seems too easy.

Other examples of the leader captured in action also caught my eye. There is confirmation of the rapid rapport, turning to friendship and political alliance, between herself and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.

Charisma in action, I muttered to myself.

Indeed, Ms Dorries sponsored an amendment to the HFE bill debated in Parliament (May 19th -20th, 2008), and spoke in the debate in tones that seemed to echo those of her close friend Andrea Williams.

In yet another episode in the film, Ms Williams arrived at a demonstration where events were somewhat complicated by a general lack of focus, exemplified by a well-intentioned supporter who was capturing media attention with a ranting performance. Andrea swiftly marshaled the more media-attractive supporters into line, and made a good stab at shifting the ranting one off-stage.

Modell had also been energetic advancing his own cause. Writing in The Telegraph timed to plug the programme, he noted

I met [Andrea Williams] on a demonstration against the Sexual Orientation Rights [gay rights] legislation outside Parliament at the beginning of last year. The protest had been organized by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) – or, more specifically, by Andrea Williams, its public policy director.

Ms Williams believes any law that goes against her strict biblical beliefs must be fought. Her latest target is the Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Bill … Ms Williams tells me why she is campaigning against it. “I believe there’s a spiritual battle going on,” she explains. “These laws reject God, and any rejection of God is the work of the enemy, Satan.”

In yet another cameo within the programme, we heard the evocative use of statistics which characterizes the charismatic leader. (Yes, I encourage my students to bring statistics to life, but I think I’ll not use this particular example). The number of abortions in this country, she told a rapt audience of fundamentalist Christians, has now reached a scale comparable with that of the holocaust. Her mission is to stop another holocaust.

Leadership Watch

I have no hesitation in offering the case for study towards understanding the nature of exceptional leadership behaviours. The performances of the wannabe apprentices in the Alan Sugar series rarely demonstrate the raw influencing skills witnessed here.

The Problems with Charisma

One of the problems with charisma is one which has troubled earlier researchers into leadership. The very elements that had been attributed to transformational leaders turned out to be too similar to the characteristics found in leaders such as Hitler.

The evaluation of any set of leadership behaviours forces an examination of the leader’s beliefs. Here we have a leader who is driven by a deep sense of mission, and of evils to be tackled. In efforts to achieve the ends she so fervently seeks, she resorts to a form of rhetoric that often attracts descriptions such as spell-binding or magical. It appeals to visceral values and fears.

The style worked for President Kennedy and Martin Luther King many years ago. It seems to be working for Barack Obama at the moment. But in its mechanisms of influence, it can not be disconnected from the performances of an Andrea Williams. Nor unfortunately can it be distanced from the style of leaders who have also been labelled with various clinical terms from narcissism to megalomania.

Biomimicry, Rangers in Manchester, and the (Un)wisdom of Crowds

May 16, 2008

Violence broke out at the EUFA Cup Final in Manchester. Rangers fans were reviled for the injuries and damage caused. A new book on biomimicry may throw light on the ‘unwisdom’ of crowds

The day of the EUFA cup-final in Manchester [Wednesday May 14th 2008] was unusually sunny, and quiet. An estimated 200,000 fans, mostly of Glasgow Rangers had poured into the city, and spent a lot of the day soaking up the sun, and the stocks of pubs in the city and surrounding region. The atmosphere was not even particularly buzzy.

A few busses seem to have been used for sight-seeing, and were plying their trade along Oxford Road, bedecked with Rangers flags and standard bearers.

The low-profile policing policy seemed to be working. Providing large screen television also seemed a good idea at the time.

The Mood Changes

A few minutes before the match, the large screen transmission in Piccadilly Gardens broke down. Anticipation turned to anxiety, turned to anger. Attempts to fix the screen were hindered by missiles from the crowd. There followed rapid escalation, arrival of riot police, and more escalation. You can find a much-publicised U-tube via the BBC report. Elsewhere, a Zenit (St Petersburg) fan was stabbed.

Public outcry. Prime Minister demands an enquiry.

Bloodshed and Bioteams

The same day Leaders we deserve received notice of a book which seemed pertinent. It came with the enticing title Bioteams.

The following is from its own publicity release:

Traditional organizational teams [have] just became extinct

With the emergence of global Internet collaboration, social networks and mobile communications, the very meaning of the word “team” has changed –changed utterly. Ken Thompson, former European IT Manager with Reuters and a pioneer of the burgeoning “biomimicry” design movement, has mapped out a fundamentally new model for teams. He teaches organizations how they can look to the natural world to create high performance “bioteams” based on nature’s best designs.

In his just-released book, Bioteams, Thompson offers a way to build exceptionally agile, high performing teams based on a thorough examination of the key communication principles that underpin nature’s most successful groups –from signal bursts of migrating flocks of geese, to the waggle dance of honeybees, to the pheromone trails laid down by ants. Based on nature’s communication patterns, he provides a complete set of practical techniques that have been proven with real teams in the field, whose stories are described in a comprehensive set of case studies in the book.

[According to Thompson] “Using the principles of bioteaming, command-and-control leadership gives way to connect-and-collaborate, where every member of an organizational team is a ‘leader.’ In nature and in bioteams, leaders don’t give commands, they transmit information, trusting the team members’ competencies and gaining accountability through transparency. True team leadership is about cooperation, not control. It’s about acting on opportunities, and letting others lead the leader when they know best about getting stuff done.”

Bioteams offers a vision of what successful teaming experiences look like. More than a book about team dynamics, Bioteams offers stories, principles, and guidelines showing how any individual can successfully participate in almost any work or learning-related situation faced today.

The (Un)Wisdom of Crowds

There has been increasingly attention in recent leadership writings to the wisdom of crowds after the popular book of that title by James Surowiecki

It is an interesting concept. Now I find myself uplifted by the thinking in Bioteams about how I can ‘successfully participate in almost any work or learning-related situation faced today’. So I’ll probably get Mr. Thompson’s book. Any subscriber who reads it before me, will find a place for a review in a future post.

In reading it, I’ll be trying hard to understand the unwisdom of crowds on that balmy night when Rangers came to town.


Image attributed to James Thew

The Search for a New leader: Now its BA and Willie Walsh

May 15, 2008

Update: The post below [May 15th, 2008] was updated [December 16th, 2009] as British Airways faced a highly damaging strike of Cabin Crew over the Christmas holiday period. Original post follows:

When a company starts looking for a new leader, rumours about the incumbent are bound to arise. The most recent case is that of British Airways and its CEO Willie Walsh. Students of leadership succession should keep a close eye on unfolding events.

The duty of a corporate board is to safeguard a company’s future viability, and that must include monitoring of its leadership. While secrecy is desirable, it may suit pressure groups to bring matters to public attention. For example, shareholder activists seek advantage for their narrower interests, which would include getting the best short-term deals on investments, but might also include the possibility of becoming king-makers for a change of leadership.

The Independent reports that

[British Airways] has appointed the recruitment consultants Whitehead Mann to find a new chief operating officer and possible successor for its embattled chief executive Willie Walsh.

The successful candidate will fill a newly created role, devised after the recent Heathrow Terminal 5 fiasco. Both BA’s director of operations, Gareth Kirkwood, and head of customer service, David Noyes, parted company with the group last month [April 2008] . The two roles will now be combined to create the position of chief operating officer.

The airline, which will publish its full-year results on Monday, is believed to have instructed Whitehead Mann to find a senior level candidate who could be considered for a position on the board within two years, and could also be a potential replacement for Mr Walsh within five years.

Opening Sacrifices?

For ‘parted company’ read sacked. Gareth makes an opening sacrifice in BA’s attempts to allay criticisms for a wave of customer service reactions. David will do for the time-being for operational failings, as Terminal 5 lumbers into action.

Later, [May 13th 2008] BAA, Heathrow’s operating organization announced the departure of Mike Bullock, its Managing Director at Heathrow, another victim of the Terminal 5 opening (or non-opening, if you prefer). At least the BBC announced it, beating the BAA web-site to the news.

The departures at British Airways seem more in the nature of opening gambits, if we want to puruse the theme of chess as a metaphor for corporate strategy.

The Times has reported that public sentiment strongly in favour of BA finding a replacement for Willie Walsh.

However, Richard Northedge argues that

Walsh directly culpable too [for the recent Terminal 5 opening fiasco]. Unfortunately, BA cannot afford to lose him. It has other problems that require solutions – from its pension deficit to its industrial relations – and Walsh is the best man it has. But stakeholders require some recognition that Walsh’s acceptance of responsibility is not just hollow words: it would be appropriate if, when the remuneration committee considers bonuses, it acknowledged the need to punish Walsh.

The Walsh Legend

Mr Walsh arrived at British Airways in 2005 already as something of a celebrity. His reputation had been secured as a former pilot who aspired to leadership. He had risen through the ranks at Aer Lingus to be acknowledged as a transformational figures for the fortunes of that company.

Stories accumulated about his hands-on style, and were used to sketch his operating methods.

He was known for negotiating toughness. Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. [saying]”we make no apologies for focusing on profit” … [and that] “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”.
He is renowned for not driving an expensive car and choosing not to take on a secretary, instead writing all his own letters and answering his own phone.

Mr Walsh’s obvious toughness and eye for increased profitability no doubt caught the attention of BA’s board. After the UK airline’s long history of staff disputes, most recently the wildcat walkouts in August 2005 in support of sacked workers at the airline’s main caterer, he must have seemed ideal.

Be careful of what you want…

‘Be careful of what you want. You might get it’ runs an office-wall summary, capturing the myth of the Faustian pact. Maybe that is another version of getting the leaders we deserve. The appeal of a tough leader for BA was obviously appealing, not just to the Board, but to its major shareholders.

Students of leadership succession should keep an eye on events at British Airlines. We will continue to watch Willie, at Leaders We Deserve.

To go more deeply into succession planning

We touched on British Airways in the context of Mandrill Management .

Travolution is a useful site for wider issues of the industry

The Post Office/Royal Mail leadership succession activities were noted including attempts to have a fall-back plan if Allen Leighton were to leave.

Times Warner’s appointment of Jeff Bewkes also makes an interesting succession story.

EADS strategic issues under Louis Gallois
and also its leadership challenges have been covered.

There have stories of the rise and fall of varous sporting leaders. When Liverpool owners approached Jurgen Klinsmann, the story blew-up as a scheme to get rid of the popular Rafa Benitez.

England’s Rugby Football Union eventually appointed Martin Johnson and relegated Bryan Ashton to the bench.

Numerous posts covered the stories the longest leadership succession saga of modern times.

The transition from President Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev is offering further insights into succession issues in internationally important arenas.

Overall, the events covered in these posts indicate recurring themes within recent leadership succession stories. A thorough examination might produce a valuable contribution to understanding of the dynamics of leadership succession. They may also hint at the likely outome to the story of Willie Walsh at British Airways.

Avram Grant is a Jim Collins sort of Leader

May 11, 2008

Soft-spoken. Uncomfortable in the limelight. But more successful than many charismatic leaders. Avram Grant fits the description of the fifth-level leader identified by management guru Jim Collins

Got it. I have been wondering about the apparent contradiction between Avram Grant’s success at Chelsea Football Club, and the continued doubts cast on his leadership skills by many people, including Chelsea’s own fans. He fits the description of a successful leader according to a recent theory which I will outline below.

Doubts about his capabilities are mostly attributed to the selection process. Roman Abramovitch is the wealthiest owner of any football club in the world. He has bankrolled Chelsea to acquire some of the best footballers in the world. He even acquired someone of substantial pedigree to manage the club, one Jose Mourinho.

Jose’s tale has been thoroughly reported. The charismatic of charismatics whose earlier successes appeared to be continuing at Chelsea. Jose did well. But in the language of the Monty Python character, what did Jose ever really do for Roman? Did his team win the European cup? No. Did it win the Premier league? Well, not every year. Did it play delightful football like their rivals Arsenal and Manchester United? No. Did Jose show his gratitude when Roman bought him the great Russian striker Shevchenko? Niet.

There’s no mystery about Jose’s departure. Mourinho had a track-record as someone who expects to be in charge, rather than the salary-man of a wealthy owner. At Chelsea there was a great salary, but he was still a salary-man. Furthermore, if Roman wanted somebody different, he could afford to make that happen.

So Jose went. Faithful fans began their period of mourning. But then the story took a surprising turn. Roman had already brought Avram into the club, to ‘help’ Jose. (‘And had Jose been grateful?’ you ask. Enough of that. ) Avram was put in Jose’s place, despite the little difficulty of qualifications.

The Chelsea fans remained mostly in thrall to the deposed manager. The charismatic magic of Jose persisted with them, as with the media commentators who had been capitivated by his telegenic style and amusing quotes at press conferences.

Why did Roman pick Avram?

The popular explanation was that Roman Abramovich brought in a friend, someone he trusted, someone who would not cause trouble. It seemed likely that said friend was a stop-gap until Roman could line-up the best coach that money could buy who wasn’t Jose Mourinho, perhaps at the end of the season.

There is some logic to the suggestion. Roman is playing a strategic chess game that is more than one-move long.

Note to non-chess players. The most powerful fighting piece in chess is the queen. But the most important piece is the king. A player can sacrifice the queen and still win the game. You can’t sacrifice the king, except in a symbolic gesture of resigning the game. In this game, Jose was a valued player, but could always be sacrificed in the interests of the king.

A moment’s thought would at least suggest that Avram might have chosen someone of considerable competence. Friendship was unlikely to be the only factor in the decision-making process.

Avram gets the full treatment

Time passes. Chelsea fans continue to mourn the departure of Jose. The new manager is utterly uncomfortable in public. In press conferences he is ridiculed for his apparently lethargic style. Can this man motivate anybody? Avram gets the treatment usually reserved for coaches of the England football team.

There was one important difference

There was one important difference in the new manager’s performance at Chelsea (compared with, say Steve McClaren’s for England). Avram’s team continued to win.

You could even say they go from strength to strength. There are a few embarrassing losses in cup-games. Then some journalist starts comparing the team’s results with those under Jose. Not bad. Not bad at all. How much is it not bad? A bit better actually.

In the last months of the season, under Avram, the team had caught up on Manchester United. With one week to go, the two teams had the same number of points, and Chelsea were second only on goal difference. Both Man U and Chelsea had also battled their ways to the European Cup Final. On team results, Avram Grant had confounded his many critics. Pundits begin to say that Avram has been badly treated.

Avram Grant is a fifth-level leader

I was one of those doubting his capabilities. I had just about noticed that Grant had made bold substitutions from time to time, after which Chelsea had gone on to win. But I hadn’t credited the coach much for his excellent decision-making. Like others, I had casually assumed that the glittering stars at Chelsea had stirred themselves and played to their capabilities, perhaps urged on by the formidable personality of captain John Terry.

Then, this morning, [May 10th 2008] Eureka! What had I been teaching on that leadership programme recently? The theory of the fifth-level leader. Jim Collins chronicles the successes of fifth-level leaders, and the limitations in the long-run of leaders showing lower-level characteristics. The term implies leadership success over extended periods, and often in a rather selfless way in achieving something permanent for an organization.

This was the theme of an article in Harvard Business Review which warned of the dangers of ‘the Rambo in pinstripes’.

That’s it. Avram is a classic example of the Fifth-level leader, who is unassuming but effective, and more in control of his own ego than many celebrity leaders (sorry, Jose).

In an earlier post, I suggested that in the Premiership, Mark Hughes was another such leader. Grant, like Hughes, presents himself as modest to an unusual extent. Nevertheless, their actions could be associated with what the theory describes as ‘fierce resolve’.

The limits of Fifth-level Leadership Theory

Being modest does not necessarily make you a fifth-level leader. Winston Churchill was dismissive of more modest men than himself. ‘He’s got a lot to be modest about’ he remarked famously about one political rival.

The limits to fifth-level theory may be seen in the famous Churchillian quip. He was referring to Clement Attlee. There is no doubt where history places Churchill as a leader. But on the Jim Collins scale, Churchill would not fit the bill as a ‘pure’ fifth-level leader. Attlee, ironically, would. Attlee was unassuming and successful. He also was uncharismatic, and under-estimated.

Remember that fifth-level leaders are less likely to become public celebrities than are more charismatic personalities. This suggests that Jim Collins is right to the extent that his fifth-level leaders may shun the limelight and be under-estimated. Avram may just serve an example of this bias, as a result of which we overlook the merits of such leaders.

However, I find myself resisting the stronger claim that fifth-level leaders, as judged by their achievements, have to be self-effacing (like Avram Grant and Clem Attlee) and that egotistical and charismatic individuals like Churchill and Mourinho are positioned below them in some hierarchy of leadership styles..

Put simply, Jim Collins helps us see why Avram Grant might have been under-estimated by many football experts. But the case of Avram Grant may also suggest that a theory which puts leaders into a hierarchy of excellence may be a bit too simplistic to explain the characteristics of successful leaders.

Postscript. What happened next?

A few hour after this post was completed, Manchester United narrowly win the Premier League over Chelsea. Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea remains in doubt.

You Don’t Have to be Posh to get Boris

May 8, 2008

Boris Johnson’s progress as Mayor of London will answer questions about a politician’s honeymoon period, and the consequences of a leadership style dependent on personality and charisma

As we wondered in an earlier post, the voters of London have chosen Boris Johnson. It now seems that they were unwavering in their support from the start of the Campaign. The new regime (‘Beyond our Ken?’) appears to have come to power on more than a protest vote against Gordon Brown, or Ken Livingstone. Defectors from Ken were more heavily directed towards Boris than towards campaigners from other parties.

It is reasonable to conclude that Boris had something about him which contributed to his election. As a leader, he influenced people and ‘made a difference’. A further plausible assumption is that the difference had more to do with Boris as a personality, rather than his policies, which were on the sketchy side.

This principle could be seen at work during the recent local elections. One successful BNP candidate claimed to have been elected on a doorstep promise that if elected he would vote issue by issue on what is best for his constituents. Victory for a no-policy policy.

Whatever happens next to Boris may throw light on the nature of a political honeymoon, and what happens to a leader with a charismatic style as events creep up on the dear boy. This makes London’s future governance interesting outside the Great Wen, as well as to those living inside its boundaries.


The power of charismatic leadership is still widely acknowledged, although leadership scholars continue to predict its decline.

Even if we are moving into a post-charismatic era, political king-makers still seem to favour charismatic nominees. At times of crisis, the charismatic personality is granted preference over less colourful characters, lack of experience in the job on offer is overlooked. In his victory, Boris justified the decision to nominate him.

It’s not clear that Boris was chosen out of panic, and this makes his nomination a rather remarkable one. Perhaps the charismatic aspects detected in David Cameron have carried over in the decision to appoint Boris as the Conservative candidate for London.

Here’s my speculative suggestion of what we might look for as time goes by: The ‘events’ in London will be coupled to those on the national political scene. For example, the ‘Boris for Prime Minister’ story will resurface at the slightest evidence that David Cameron is failing to press home his advantage over Gordon Brown in opinion polls.

The Consequences of Charisma

Speculating even further, I suspect that stories about Boris will illustrate the consequences of a leadership style that exerts its influence more through charisma than through decision-taking that addresses the practicalities of improving the well-being of the wider group (here, the well-being of people living in London). Charisma can be a powerful asset when aligned to effective governance, but it cannot be a substitute for it in the long-run.

Furthermore, disillusionment with charisma operates at a more visceral and symbolic level than evaluations made on more rational calculations of a political policy and its architects. This suggests one of the vulerabilities of a charismatic style of leadership.

Boris and his Achilles Heel

It may overload the metaphoric content of the blog a bit, but I find myself going back to the interpretation of the symbolic world in the great human myths. One that has particular appeal is the supermyth of the leader’s journey.

In one form, Achilles has special powers of leadership which protect him in battle. But the protection leaves him with one vulnerability. The story has Achilles protected after being dangled in the Styx by ambitious mum. But the process missed out on complete immersion of the infant heel. Hence the one vulnerability of Achilles thereafter.

The Achilles heel of Charismatics is the catastrophic switch of opinion that occurs at a moment of insight. This is the personal moment of revealed truth, in which (mixing metaphors a bit more) the emperor is seen to have no clothes. Personal insight becomes the new received wisdom of the disillusioned. The charismatic spell is broken.

According to this story, Boris will enjoy a honeymoon period in which his charisma will protect him. But he remains at risk for that moment of destiny when his Achilles heel is exposed, and his charismatic protective armour vanishes.

Or Again

So what, you may be thinking. Why should we believe in myths? Indeed. My point entirely.

There are no winners in Zimbabwe

May 5, 2008

After its elections of April 2008, the people of Zimbabwe continued to lose battles against inflation, AIDS, and for many of the basic minimum requirements for physical survival. Zanu PF party conceded they lost the elections, but Mr Mugabe continued to cling to the Presidency. There are no winners in Zimbabwe

[These notes were compiled over the month of April 2008, and updated May 2008, Feb 2009, Dec 2009, March 2012 and on 21st February 2014, the 90th birthday of President Mugabe]

Some years ago on a visit to that beautiful country, I found that inflation in Zimbabwe was already taking off. I still have a twenty (Zim) dollar bill from that time. It is now worth roughly one millionth of a US dollar. The inflation is more than a match for that experienced in Weimar Germany in the 1920s- 1930s.

Lucie Powell in The Guardian drew on her direct experience to sketch the scale of the human disaster in Zimbabwe. She arrived at an estimate of two million people who have fled Mugabe’s regime.

David Miliband was to offer an estimate of twice that, in the commons debate (see below).

A Week in Politics

One week after the elections, external reports have widely reported that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had won by a small but decisive margin over President Robert Mugabe. But the six days limit to announcing the result came and went [on Friday, April 4th 2008].

In the UK a Parliamentary debate was the first for a while that seemed genuinely focussed on this issues, and was remarkably free of point-scoring. It was a good and dignified performance from David Miliband .

In essence, the debate accepted that this was no time for political gestures, but one in which behind-the-scenes efforts were going on from the key areas around the world, but particularly within Africa itself.

No one in the House would want me to hand ZANU-PF a propaganda coup by endorsing one candidate or another, or by taking it on myself to announce the result. In truth, in spite of what President Mugabe would want the world to believe, the crisis in Zimbabwe has never been about personalities. … It is, and has always been, about the policies that Robert Mugabe and his Government have chosen to follow and the terrible destruction that has been wreaked on the Zimbabwean people. …The situation preceding these elections was shocking. The conditions for free and fair elections were certainly not in place. The playing field was tilted heavily in favour of ZANU-PF. Up to 4 million people who had fled Zimbabwe’s crisis could not vote. In some areas, [many] who tried to vote were frustrated by an inaccurate electoral roll. We will probably never know how many dead people on that roll cast ‘ghost’ votes. … if a second round of voting is deemed necessary, it must be held in a way that gives far greater respect not just to our standards but to the Southern African Development Community electoral standards. We remain in contact with our SADC partners on the issue

The theme of the discredited leader made quite an impact on me. In my scribbled notes at the time:

‘ In the UK, [David] Miliband argued that the weakened leader in Zimbabwe should now step down. Maybe as they listened, some members of his party were reflecting on whether pressure could also be applied in the UK for replacing another weakened leader …’

The BBC offered a clear summary of why Mugabe’s claims of vote rigging appeared no more than delaying tactics:

In the parliamentary race, the MDC count is almost exactly the same as the official results, suggesting that there was little or no ballot-box stuffing after ballots were cast. Furthermore, in some seats the MDC won by a handful of votes – again suggesting that the count was fair.

A week after the election the delaying tactics that many commentators feared became even more obvious.

The Huffington Post explored two rumours emerging from the country:

[The first rumor is that] President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has agreed to a run-off election. The date that I have heard bantered about is April 19th. There are text messages flying across the continent and various groups ramping up to ensure Zimbabweans get out and vote the tyrant out of the office..

The other rumor …is that [Mugabe] is busy filling bags of currency as he raids the treasury. The suggestion is that he will leave the country. This would be great for Zimbabweans in many ways. Yet if he does this, there are major concerns that he will not leave a single Zimbabwe dollar for the country’s recovery.

I was reaching a similar conclusion, although I’m not sure about the details. Why should the President leave with trainloads of worthless Zim dollars, when the general exit strategy for deposed political figures is to have squirreled away most of what is needed well in advance, in traditionally safer modes of exchange such as gems?

Let’s not assume it was Utopian before Mugabe
According to a 1995 Word Health Organization report on Zimbabwe

“smallholder agriculture expanded rapidly during the first half of the 1980s and social indicators improved quickly.” From 1980 to 1990 infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, under five mortality was reduced [by approximately 50%] and immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population …child malnutrition fell from 22% to 12%, and life expectancy increased from 56 to 64. By 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than average for developing countries”.

The figures also stand as indicator of the plight of the majority of Zimbabweans under the Ian Smith’s regime, and the gains that were initially made after its overthrow. This point is worth making. A common Western view seems to be that the earlier regime presided over a halcyon era for all, and that everything was immediately worse under Mugabe. At the time he was seen as the most promising leader for an eventual transition to a more democratic country with a more equitable distribution of resources.


Nevertheless, the tragic state of the country today [2008] is far worse than when Mr Mugabe came to power. The possibility of a re-birth akin to what happened in neighbouring South Africa seems as remote as the possibility of Robert Mugabe taking a place in history alongside Nelson Mandela, as a wise and successful leader of his people.

Update [Feb 1st 2009]

After many painful and tortuous twists in negotiations, a new unified administration was announced [Jan 31st 2009]. Commentators hope for the best, but remain cautious about its viability.

Update [Dec 2nd 2009]

Foreign journalists are allowed in to the country. They marvel at Harare’s beautiful centre, with its wide roads and buildings, heritage of its imperial past. The US dollar has become the de facto currency. It may be more accurate now to say that there are some winners emerging in Zimbabwe

Update [March 9th 2012] The toothpaste assassins

This curious tale of two visitors from Australia accused of being would-be assassins of Mr Mugabe

Acknowledgement: Image from episcopal website.