Eyeless in Gaza: Sampson lurches on

December 30, 2008


The tragedy unfolding in Gaza defeats rational resolution. Parallels can be found in the insights of the great classical poets

There is a sense of inevitability about the tragedy being re-enacted in Gaza, as 2008 draws to a bloody close. I have no words that can approach the horrors that continue to rage in the Middle East.

How to express emotions beyond pity for millions directly affected? Beyond pity for each individual? It is not so much anger at the acts of political and military leaders, but anger at the blindness of the protagonists toward alternative actions to those they are setting in train.

Eyeless in Gaza

It is an easy cliché to make a connection between the conflict waging in Gaza and Israel and those evocative words, originally from John Milton’s Sampson Agonistes and subsequently popularised in the title of Huxley’s otherwise forgettable novel, Eyeless in Gaza . But even a clichéd labelling may shift our attention to the moral blindness which has descended among many of those with influence in the conflict.

‘Now look what you’ve made me do’

The cry echoes far beyond Gaza. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do’. I have heard that cry too often. It is a universal cry of despair. The whine of the rapist raped in his own childhood. The bluster of the bully as much as the defence of the bullied. The frustration of the mourning parent or the vigilante at a perceived lack of justice and retribution. The anger of the teacher after one further intolerable incident, and of the student returning with a loaded shotgun.

‘Noise call you it, or universal groan’

Milton takes us away from the whine of despair without sparing us the comfort of denial of its sources. In the poem, chorus notes in Sampson’s blindness the dungeon of the self:

Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)
The Dungeon of thy self; thy soul …
In real darkness of the body dwells,
Shut up from outward light ..
For inward light alas
Puts forth no visual beam

Then, later, as Sampson, offstage, pulls down the pillars of the temple, chorus explains ‘the hideous noise’

Noise call you it, or universal groan,
As if the whole inhabitation perished?
Blood, death, and dreadful deeds are in that noise,
Ruin, destruction at the utmost point.

‘Now I see what I’ve made me do’

It would be wrong to quote from the poem without acknowledging Milton’s religious beliefs, although his genius transcends the context of his writing, as it transcends our everyday notions of good and evil. For me, it points us to the wider issues of human folly in pursuit of victory. Milton helps us approach the condition in which any leader has to say ‘Now I see what I’ve made me do’


Sampson Agonistes is now interpreted as only peripherally associated with it’s author’s blindness. John Milton created a different fourteen lines of poetry which captured his rage at his own sightless condition, and his ultimate resolution of it.

Phil Brown finds a new leadership move

December 28, 2008
Scrodinger's cat

Scrodinger's cat

Phil Brown, manager of Hull City Football Club, finds a new leadership move at half time, as his team faces a drubbing against Manchester City. What leadership lessons can be drawn out of his actions?

Do football coaches make a difference? If they do, one opportunity occurs each match at half-time when the famous ‘half-time talk’ takes place. Much has been written, but the evidence is inconclusive. It hard to find a satisfactory way of analysing the impact of the half-time talk. It would be valuable to students of football and maybe to students of leadership more generally.

Our story this week [December 30th 2008] concerns a manager who has been receiving praise for his first few months in charge of a Premiership Team. He had already gained recognition for his part in guiding the unfashionable Hull City into the Premiership at the end of the 2007-8 season. His team had performed beyond expectations since arriving on the Premiership scene.

The background to the story

Unfashionable Hull travel to Manchester City, a club of considerable pedigree. Until recently it was mostly seen as the poor relations of Manchester United, but even that changed dramatically as a takeover promised unimagined middle East wealth. The team quickly broke the leaguer transfer record for Real Madrid’s Robhino. (Local joke by City supporter Noel Gallagher: every time a United supporter buys petrol it helps pay for Robhino’s wages

Since the blissful start to the seasonb, City has spluttered, and beyond a few sparking displays failed to impress. Brown’s team has over-performed and he appears to have instilled a rugged determination in a team that reminds me of the much-lamented Wimbledon FC , among whose players Vinnie Jones was hardly a stand-out hard man.

Even Mark Hughes, a favourite manager of Leaders we deserve, has not been able to help the team fulfil its potential.

Until Boxing Day, 2008. Which was when Robhino and the newcomers together with City’s earlier squad members of mostly solid citizens got it all together. The Hulking Hull Tigers didn’t so much shine as fade away.

Half-Time: Man City 4 Hull City 0
What happened next was widely reported. You can see a (short) BBC video here.

As the half time whistle blew, Phil Brown advanced towards his players and physically led them away from the direction of the dressing room. They must have been dreading and wearily waiting for that. What happened next was a transcendent moment. Brown led his battered and unquestioning band towards the pocket of Hull supporters and sat them on the cold ground there. You must see the video. On the longest of short walks, he acknowledged the fans, hands held up to the heavens. You must see that video.

What happened next?

The second half of the match was anti-climatic. According to eye-witness reports Hull lifted themselves to avoid the feared humiliation. Manchester City did not sustain their first-half sparkle. On the basis of the score, Hull fought out an honourable draw conceding one further goal, and even snatching one themselves. Full time: Manchester City 5 Hull City 1

What we have learned?

Phil Brown is a very unusual manager/leader whose recent success may be partly due to a sense of the dramatic and symbolic gesture.

An act of leadership act ‘works’ if ‘makes sense’ for the intended recipients. The immediate act may be to have a short-term jolt mobilising players out of some state of vulnerability and into in a more desired one. The accounts smuggled out of dressing rooms suggest that fear and terror are more common, but that the less common and carefully chosen words of encouragement may also be applied. Unsurprisingly, the stories tend to be of successful half-time talks. It seems plausible that the manager who loses the dressing room may well have become seen as the unsuccessful deliverer of half-time talk. Members of successful football teams, just as members of army platoons learn to respect maybe even cherish the rollockings.

But Phil Brown arrived at a decision sometime before half-time. Let’s work on the observable facts. Here the intended recipients are not just the players but also the Hull City supporters in the stadium. These can be considered representatives of the mystical and mythical creature the football fan. The supporters at away games are the ultimate fans, taking pride in being part of and winning the choral battle each week; the Samurai who will not disgrace their honor code. The chosen ones bearing witness for the wider communion of fans.

What sense can we make of it?

Bazarre, and brutal were terms applied by some commentators. The Independent ran a (non-sporting) editorial leader which appeared to be lauding Brown for going across the currently fashionable approach which is building up self-esteem. But be warned, The Independent has to be studied for its enthusiasm for quirky irony.

It was great but was it good?

I have written this in the heroic narrative mode. In this style, the episode is up there with other great leadership stories. But as a student of leadership I want to get underneath the flow of the story. It was great drama but was it good leadership?

The more I reflect, the more I arrive at surprising conclusions. Here are some possibilities:

(1) Yes, it was great leadership. Brown found a creative and spectacular way of snatching ‘defeat with honour’ where only humiliation seemed possible. Brown’s reputation as a promising young leader was reinforced

(2) No, it was an indulgent gesture, humiliation in the hands of the enemy was transformed into humiliation in the hands of a vengeful leader

(3) Maybe. It did no harm. It may have helped avoid a bigger loss. The team may have learned a painful but valuable message. Brown may have stored up trouble for the future.

Then there is

(4) Schrodinger’s cat

This is a a version of the ‘maybe’ response, and is based on a concept from theoretical physics not often connected with leadership. The great 20th century scientist Erwin Schrodinger developed a philosophic and scientific conundrum in the form of a thought experiment. The logic pointed to the possibility of conditions in which a ‘theoretical’ cat can exist in a state that was both alive and dead at the same time. Einstein and other greats took the experiment serious enough to explore the nature of scientific reality.

The point applied to leadership might be developed in this way. Suppose the reality of Brown’s leadership action is both good and bad at the same time? Goodness or badness can only be established through its emergence into existence, at which point other realities (or realities) cease to exist simultaneously with it.

Bizarre? That’s how Schrodinger described the thought experiment. Come to think of it, that’s how one commentator described Phil Brown’s act of leadership In the spirit of Schrodinger, for the moment, the act remains one of both mystery and mastery.

On defining leadership

December 20, 2008


Leadership is notoriously difficult to define. So how do you deal with that in writing an essay on leadership?

I recently assessed a large number of essays on leadership. A proportion of the students struggled with defining leadership. This makes it a good topic for a blog, as it may be of interest not only to students, but to anyone who wants to become a more effective leader.

I will distinguish between working definitions and theoretical definitions, illustrating the point from a current Wikipedia article on leadership

Why do we need definitions?

This is a question which has exercised philosophical thinkers down the ages, who have attempted an answer under fearsome titles such as epistemology and ontology.

Fortunately, the student can side-step the more mind-boggling complexities of philosophy and think instead of the metaphor of carrying out a personal journey of discovery, and in particular the (still metaphoric) processes of map reading, map testing and map making.

As the journey is to explore leadership, the maps will be those of leadership, and the process will develop understanding of different kinds of ways leadership is defined on the maps.

Working definitions

In everyday life, we do not define every word uttered or written. So we might want to say something about Barack Obama’ leadership qualities assuming that our ideas can be communicated without further definition. For example, you might begin writing with the statement

“Barack Obama showed his leadership qualities in appointing presidential rival Hilary Clinton to his top executive team.”

The context of the statement may be enough to explain what we mean by leadership qualities without any further definition.

Different kinds of definition

More often than not, you may feel the need to build your essay around a definition of leadership. In which case, you need to understand something about different kinds of definitions

The search for a definition is in some ways like selecting a map. The decision depends on the journey you expect to be making. The American philosopher Charles Leslie Stephenson devised a scheme for classifying definitions. You can find an easy-to-understand summary in Cline

What separates a good from a bad definition? That’s a difficult question to answer, but a general principle to keep in mind is that it depends a great deal on context — specifically, what the purpose of the definition is. To answer “is this a good or a bad definition,” one must first answer “what are we trying to achieve with this definition?” Thus we must examine the specific situation in which the definition is given and what sort of definition it is supposed to be.

For the student writing an essay, he or she has to decide which particular definition ‘works’ . This is likely to go beyond common-sense and a theoretical definition is called for. Cline points out that definitions are called “theoretical”

…because they attempt to construct a “theory” about the nature of the thing in question. Thus, a theoretical definition of “justice” is not simply an attempt to point out what justice is or report on how people happen to use the word, but instead an attempt to create a theory which argues for a particular conception of justice.

Starting your essay on Leadership

Textbooks on leadership are good starting points, as the more respected ones such as Yukl’s provide a of short-list of definitions which you should now be able to study so as to distinuguish between different kinds of definition, and decide which ‘works’ for your purposes.

The vanilla option

The vanilla option for any essay avoids literary elegance in favour of straightforward communication. A popular version is to have a simple introductory paragraph which is a ‘map of the map’, followed by a paragraph which gets straight into definitional treatment you intend to provide.

I can illustrate this with reference to the Wikipedia entry on leadership [December 19th 2008], which can be studied as an example of the vanilla option. Please note I am not suggesting you start your essay by cutting and pasting from wikipedia. You will probably be penalised on grounds of plagiarism.

The article begins

Leadership is one of the most salient aspects of the organizational context. However, defining leadership has been challenging. The following sections discuss several important aspects of leadership including a description of what leadership is and a description of several popular theories and styles of leadership.

Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” … A definition more inclusive of followers comes from Alan Keith of Genentech who said “Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.”

Does the first paragraph provide a convincing “map of the map”? Can you see in the second paragraph a theoretical definition, and a working definition?

If so, you are on the way to ‘map reading and testing’, as well as understanding the nature of definitions and how they might work in your own essays on leadership. (You might even feel like improving the Wikipedia article.)

Are leaders and followers driven by biologically-ancient structures?

December 17, 2008

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

A recent article takes an evolutionary psychology approach to explaining leadership. The authors propose that modern human behaviors are fundamentally influenced by ancient evolutionary principles. The claims have considerable appeal in light of everyday experiences, but do they stand up to more careful scrutiny?

The article, in American Psychologist, has captured the attention of organisational theorists such as Bob Sutton.

The study, Leadership, Followship and Evolution: Some Lessons from the past suggests that theories of leadership have paid insufficient attention to followers.

A wide-range theory requires wide-range questions

The authors draw on evidence going back millions of years, while raising important questions for contemporary times:

Why are there followers as well as leaders? How might modern organizational structures contribute to poor perceived quality of working life for many people? How might ‘selfless’ social behaviors be explained? And as well as these contemporary issues, they throw in an evolutionary question: How did leadership promote survival among our ancestors?

Hint to students of leadership

Any student of leadership would be advised to pause here and decide what sense you make of these questions. There are no straightforward answers. Conventional wisdom has struggled with an answer to the question on followership. We no longer accept that you either have ‘the right stuff’ or you don’t, to be a leader . The evidence (cited in this paper) is that leaders can not be identified solely on genetic attributes. Followers may be ‘leaders in waiting’ some of whom will seize opportunities as circumstances change.

The evolutionary case

What is the evolutionary case for explaining leadership? Van Vugt and colleagues assemble an eclectic range of materials from biological and sociological studies. Some of it is now familiar through the popularizing of pioneering work (Richard Dawkins, for example, was a research student of the much revered Niko Tinbergen). The authors assemble a natural history of leadership with four stages.

All ‘Pre-human’ leadership (ca 2.5 million years and beyond) is classed in stage one involving ‘situational or dominance’ hierarchies.

Stage two sees the arrival of humanoid species 2.5 million years, ago, and persisting until relatively recently (around 13,000 years ago). This is the so-called era of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA) in which hunter-gather cultures developed, with the ‘Big Man’ or head man who led by consensus and trust.

‘Dominance hierarchies are the norm in [earlier primate groups]; for early humans collaboration among subordinates reversed this dominance hierarchy and resulted in a dominant democratic style that may have existed for nearly 2.5 million years’ [p188].

The greater proportion of the time span of Homo Sapiens is located in stage 2.

Stage 3 is where the so-called agricultural revolution occurred, since the last ice age . The analysis is rather critical of the course of evolution in stage three, suggesting that leaders gain more power over followers:

‘The payoff for leadership increased substantially .. attracting shrewd resourceful individuals to those positions for selfish reasons.. a substantial proportion of modern humanity .. still live under these oppressive conditions [p189]’.

Finally (for the moment, anyway), there is Stage 4, seen as emerging at the time of the industrial revolution, around two and a half centuries ago.

The authors consider that Stage 4 has brought enormous individual and social gains, while having some less pleasant side-effects.

‘..[E]mployees are relatively free from the predations of their leaders ..[But] in the early stages ..workers were almost slaves. Class warfare [still occurs but is moderated compared to regions still dominated by warlords]’

Evolutionary psychology is a positive science

This article presents a coherent view of human development. It takes the positive view of the ascent of man in the spirit of the enlightenment. Evolutionary development has resulted in advancement of groups with more complex social structures in line with (partly humanly initiated) new and more complex environmental structures such as organizations, cities, states, etc).

Cultural theorists as well as many lay people will take issue in the classification of contemporary cultures, with its assertion that much of the world is still ‘on the way towards’ the superior conditions of the fully-actualized stage 4.

The Mismatch phenomenon

The analysis is not one which ignores the weaknesses of many contemporary business and political leaders. It acknowledges misgivings on the nature and quality of modern working life.

Our evolutionary legacy results in behaviors which reveal our ancestral links. We are still capable as leaders and followers of reacting as Stage one creatures according to nature, nurture, and specific circumstances.

Our biological legacy influences our modern behaviors, This produces a mismatch between the demands of modern societies, and more primitive impulses. The concept offers an explanation of dysfunctional leadership in our times, suggesting such leaders cope in the short-term, with the expectation of replacement through survival of the fittest (genes?) in the longer term.

Leaders we deserve [Oct 2007] took an evolutionary perspective in examining leadership behaviors, arriving at a more cautious conclusion that an evolutionary perspective helps explore the meanings we bring to leadership across the animal world, rather than provide a unifying framework.

Footnote illustrating the mismatch concept

Arecent biopic of Lehman’s leadership put it this way

To say he was surrounded with a cult of personality would be an understatement. He was the textbook example of the “command-and-control CEO”. More than that, to many employees and to the outside world, he was Lehman Brothers – his character inextricably intertwined with the firm’s. Fuld inspired great loyalty and, on occasion, great fear. Those closest to him slaved like courtiers to a medieval monarch, second-guessing his moods and predilections, fretting over minute details of his schedule down to the flower arrangements and insulating him from trouble – from almost anything he might not want to hear.
Fuld had become insulated from the day-to-day realities of the firm and had increasingly delegated operational authority to his number two, a long-standing associate named Joe Gregory.

If Dick was the king, Joe was Cardinal Richelieu. If something went wrong, you could be sure that Gregory would be on the telephone in a towering rage. Problematically, Joe Gregory was not a detail man or a risk manager. On the contrary, as Fuld was musing to outsiders about his worries concerning risk, Gregory was doing the precise opposite: actively urging divisional managers to place even more aggressive bets in surging asset markets such as the mortgage business and commercial real estate


A paper adding a relatively ignored perspective to studies of leadership and followership

Innovation leadership: a hard path to follow

December 11, 2008


Innovation leadership offers great rewards, but can be a hard path to follow, as the recent case of Project Red Stripe illustrates

Anyone who has become involved in the fascinating and infuriating business of innovation will find something of interest and value in Inside Project Red Stripe, Andrew Carey’s account of a much-trailed innovation project at The Economist newspaper.

The bald facts. The Economist called for and appointed a team of staff members to, well, to create the next big internet thing. The team was backed with £100,000 to do it. Oh, yes and it had to win GO/NO GO approval in six months.

The challenge captures the imagination. In my case, it took me back to other challenges, some recent, some in a pre-internet age. I’ll come back to these a little later.

The project shares the premise held by many organizations, that the next new winning idea is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered or (more mysteriously) to be created. The premise goes with a few other assumptions of what might help the process: find some creative and gifted people, offer them resources judged appropriate, add a dash of team training and development, and set them an energizing challenge.

As Carey puts it

To me it seems that this whale-of-an-idea was sometimes too much for the team. Too much for any team. They tried to bring it back down to size by playing with it: ‘Let’s divert the Thames through Lichfield’, ‘Let’s make the world square’. But still it became the elephant in the room, to mix gargantuan mammal metaphors. And the team found themselves becoming-whale-of-an-idea-in-the-room. Then they had two ideas. Which one should they choose? Had they chosen the right idea? Then the idea was altered. Was it still good enough? Then it was changed altogether. As time ran out there was an awful dread that they had missed their chance. And, from the moment that they decided to look externally for their idea, there was a pervading sense that the idea lived ‘out there’. Which meant, in turn, that the team would not be the authors or creators or owners of the idea.

The Culture of the group

The print version conveyed the culture of the group. For me, it describes a small group bubbling with energy, sometimes manic, with the kind of mood swings often to be found in team innovation projects.

At its inception, efforts were made to arrive at a diversity of experiences within the team. (Another bit of received wisdom for innovation teams). I wondered whether t ‘mission first, team afterwards’ missed a trick in team selection. If the prize is the ‘next big thing’, what might be the selection criteria? For discovery? For excellence? For delivery?

Carey describes the various dilemmas encountered as he struggled to make sense of the experience. Here’s one to add to his list, the Groucho Marx dilemma: how to assemble a team when the sort of person likely to think the unthinkable are often repelled by the ideas of teams. Might even the mighty Economist be too constraining a culture to retain in its ranks a Bill Gates, or a Richard Branson or an Anita Roddick? And how many such creatives might be good for a team? Before someone else mentions it, let me admit that the business tycoons who bothered with getting a business school education rarely shone on the formal courses, and often dropped out (like Bill Gates) to get on with the important business of inventing, designing, and making money. As for Business Schools, read Private professional elites
such as The Economist

Some lessons from history

Going back to my own extended involvement with various innovation groups, the Moby Dick reference triggered a flashback to a team of four set up within a great global organization. We have three strategic business streams. They are like three legs of an elephant. We want you to find the fourth leg of the elephant. The freedom did for us, more than the constraints.

Some years later I met the leader of another invention-seeking group from a company in a different industry. Again, it was a multi-national, again in search of the big new thing, which they believed could be best delivered a team whose only constraint was to stick to blue-sky thinking. The project manager had the self-confidence of the charismatic leader. He also seemed to be in a state of denial about the possibility that the company might just not have the knowhow to boss the world in a completely alien sort of business. It probably didn’t help that the group had acquired the name ‘the blue sky group’ (worse than red stripe, which doesn’t offer such an obvious hostage to fortune).

Both these efforts eventually sunk without trace. I have retained contacts with the organizations which have survived (no mean feat) but have no corporate memory of their innovation teams of earlier years.

These experiences seemed particularly depressing in contrast to the incredible claims made by Tom Peters and his ilk on innovative companies and their buccaneering leaders. Later the innovation frenzy subsided with more careful studies. Among these, of particular note are the analyses of Jim Collins, and the account by Ketchum and Trist of the benefits of autonomous groups at General Foods and elsewhere. These action researchers had re-discovered a systems perspective that went beyond the linear model of innovation having a ‘fuzzy front end’ where all the creativity rattles around, and the residual stages which make up the boring implementation bit. (Incidentally, the linear model highlights a similar fixation that has led Big Pharma into a misplaced search for the next block-buster drug) Ketchum and Trist re-discovered that organizational creativity is multi-leveled, that is to say a creative individual may not have a significant impact on a team, nor a creative team have impact on an organization.

So what happened to Project Red Stripe?
I think the team made a rather good fist of the challenge, and (they won’t thank me for saying it) at least were a class apart from the Alan Sugar playpen version of project leadership.

You may have guessed how the story is turning out, but you should make up your mind after accessing the website, which demonstrates the emergent and dynamic features of the new electronic media and particularly the social networking elements of it.

A courageous (foolhardy) venture? Maybe, but at least it will repay a visit to the website, which is morphing and hyperlinking its creative way into existence.

Zimbabwe’s plight needs more than regime change

December 9, 2008


When democracy fails, regime change is desirable but difficult. President Robert Mugabe’s regime is a case in point. Which scenarios are the most promising for addressing Zimbabwe’s mounting problems?

When Robert Mugabe refused to accept the results of the Presidential election he lost any claim to democratic support. It became even clearer that the democratic processes in that country were being be dismissed by Mugabe who continued to retain power through military and economic levers.

Economic meltdown in Zimbabwe continues, compounded with personal tragedy. The Aids epidemic is hardly mentioned in external reports, although the outbreak of cholera [December 2008] is reported as yet one more burden visited on a hapless community.

International pressures are not appearing to speed-up change. Sanctions are hurting the most vulnerable.

Regime change is ‘necessary but not sufficient’

However painful the thought to many people, removing President Mugabe will not solve the country’s desperate problems. There are lessons to be learned from recent history. The collective might and will-power of the United States (with not a little help from Great Britain and others) failed to work out a way of achieving regime change in Iraq which resulted in a plan for future stability. The problems in Iraq and in Zimbabwe are not resolved by limited and linear thinking. It is not enough to focus on the first step (First let’s get rid of Saddam, or Mugabe, and then we can really get things moving in the right direction).

Historical lessons

Our historical analyst Jeff Schubert has studied the rise and fall of tyrants. He is in no doubt over the political lessons for Zimbabwe. He points to how the apparatus of power might unravel:

Toward the end of his life, Stalin’s people personnel policies were catching up with him. His long history of picking-off colleagues and lieutenants one, or two, at a time made some of his lieutenants so fearful that they would be next that they began to resist his divide and rule tactics. Sergo Beria wrote: “In 1951 the members of the Politburo, Bulganin, Malenkov, Khrushchev and my father, began to appreciate that they were all in the same boat and it mattered little whether one of them was thrown overboard a few days before the others. They felt a sense of solidarity once they faced the fact that none of them would be Stalin’s successor – he intended to choose an heir from among the younger generation. They therefore agreed among themselves not to allow Stalin to set one against the other, and they would immediately inform each other of anything Stalin said about them, so as to frustrate his manipulations. … This solidarity among the members of the Politburo increased as time went by

Mussolini’s leading lieutenants also jointly sought some mechanism for achieving peace. On 16 July 1943, with Italy at war on the side of Germany, they went to his office. Giuseppe Bottai said: “We are not here to ask to diminish your powers, or rather your power; not to divide, that is dissect, fragment your responsibility. We are here … to ask to share your responsibility. To make of it, that is, co-responsibility, that binds us to you, but also you to us, in ready, absolute and declared solidarity.”

… but Mussolini would not make clear he would share power in the way that was now demanded, and he would not give up the war. [one of his aides] thought Mussolini was wearing a ‘mask’ – that he had lost his will-power, and was actually ‘resigned’ to his fate. In essence, Mussolini seems to have been trapped within his own image as ‘the Man’ and unable to surrender it even thought he clearly recognized that in some way his end was near.

For me, these lessons from history indicate how power drains away, with courageous actions from those directly in contact with the regime. External powers, however well-meaning, have a wider picture to consider: what can we do, even now, to help the people of Zimbabwe?

One day Robert Mugabe will be gone. Whether he was a hero who became confused and began to believe in his right to rule, or a malevolent force is less central to the change process than the material conditions in the country, and what might be done to bring some relief to its people

Scotland’s sporting glory

December 6, 2008
Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Scotland has a brave record of sporting triumphs. It was four years ago this week that they celebrated one of their more unusual world-class victories…

A Quiz question

What world championship was Scotland celebrating in December 2004?

Maybe you think you think the answer concerns a team game played under unusual temperature conditions. You may be on the right track but you may still be mistaken ..

If you want to test your memory, or find out what happened, click on The BBC report of the Scottish triumph

Why not sent the story to a Scottish friend with seasonal greetings, as they prepare to vote for Andy Murray or Chris Hoy as Sports personality of the year?

Next week

Don’t miss our blog post on great climbing achievements featuring the exploits of East Cheshire athletes facing the ultimate challenge presented by the treacherous slopes of Alderley Edge

Roy Keene: Great player, charismatic but vulnerable leader

December 6, 2008


Roy Keene walks out as manager at Sunderland. It was always a possibility that the dream would end that way

‘Told you he would, didn’t I? ’

Hindsight is great isn’t it? But I didn’t write that prediction about the rise and fall of Roy Keene as a football manager. If I had misgivings over the last two years, they were based on the earlier cases of Kevin Keegan, and to some extent of that of Kenny Dalglish. The points of similarity are the vulnerability of each of these three great footballers in face of subsequent leadership challenges.

The differences

Let’s get the differences out of the way first. Keegan and Keene score highly on the charismatic stakes. Kenny was magical on the pitch, but far from charismatic in public appearances off it. Keene was regarded at Old Trafford as one of the most inspirational of team leaders. A violent edge to his game was largely accepted, perhaps on the grounds that ‘it’s what makes him the great player his is’. Keegan and Dalglish were also highly rated international players. It would probably be agreed that on important dimensions of courage and skill, all three would be up there among the best players of their time.

Each had a footballing reputation which went before them, in a positive way, as they began their managerial careers.

But temperamentally, all three were volatile and prone to radical actions. Keegan had form for walking away before he left Newcastle recently. Dalglish, almost certainly deeply affected by the Hillsborough disaster abruptly resigned from Liverpool. Subsequent involvement and departures from football suggested a similar volatility.

Then there’s Roy

Then there’s Roy, bristling with an aggression that prompted comments on his dark and frightening presence in the stands, a smouldering appearance suggesting a violent way of dealing with problems.

One of his most famous outbursts was against the hapless Mick McCarthy who had the unenviable task of managing Ireland when Keene was team captain. Keene had serious problems over training conditions for the team

The dressing room battle

The expurgated version of the dressing room explosion [courtesy of reliable sources you can find through Googling Wikipedia] goes something like

Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a ******* *******. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a ******* *******. and you can stick your World Cup up your ****. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your ********

Keene quits the squad. Irish Fans mostly supported Keene. McCarthy’s days were numbered without a great World Cup performance by the Irish team.

Another figure who earned Keene’s wrath at the time was the would-be peace maker Niall Quinn, who was to figure significantly in the story subsequently.

Even as a player, Roy was an iconic figure, already talked about as an inspirational (if difficult) leader.

One man who weighed up his potential was Niall Quinn, who had moved on to success as a football entrepreneur, before hitting problems at Sunderland. In a remarkable act of leadership he set out to get someone who could deal with a club in near criis. Someone who remained implacable and dismissive about Quinn ever since the McCarthy fracas.

Quinn got his man, and proceeded to build bridges with his volatile rescuer, who at the time was largely untested as a manager. Keene seemed aware of the risks of the situation, and on accepting the job at Sunderland stated that he had learned from his mistakes in the past, although he still had a lot to learn…

What happened to Sundrland through Keene’s intervention will make for interesting reading when it comes out with some ghostly help from the story tellers.

To the football public, Keene worked his charismatic magic on the players. As Quinn told the BBC this week

Roy deserves huge respect for his contribution and the manner in which he guided the club from the depths of the Championship back to the Premier League. His winning mentality and singled mindedness were just what this club needed. Even in his departure he has been more concerned for the welfare of the players and his staff than himself. The board has reluctantly accepted his decision and wish him and his family well for the future.

Leadership Lessons

A gripping story raising important leadership questions. Can some general conclusions be drawn about the decision to bring a charismatic figure in to a football club in near crisis? What credence can be placed on the documented evidence that charismatics are more likely to be accepted in such times, and are able to mobilize the fears of others to achieve radical short-term actions?

How should we assess the leadership contributions of Naill Quinn, the quiet but influential figure who influenced Keene to form an alliance with someone Keene claimed to despise? This was, it seems, a calculated risk on the part of Quinn. A risk which was worth taking as a fix for the short-term crisis. His valedictory comments this week suggest he had foreseen the eventual outcome of the drama which he had helped come about.