Manchester United: Something strange about the Red Knights?

March 28, 2010

The Red Knights announce they are not planning an imminent takeover of Manchester United football club. There is something strange about the announcement and about the Red Knights

Many takeovers take place under conditions of secrecy. There are considerable advantages in such clandestine behaviour. It retains any opportunistic benefits in the potential deal over other investment groups, for example. It avoids unwelcome attention from the target organization towards the threat.

This is what puzzles me over the actions of the so-called Red Knights. Their strategy seems based on gaining as much publicity as possible for their intentions to take over the debts and ownership of the football club. This transparency is not necessarily wrong. Yet, the more typical-goings on in a takeover are suited to insider trading which has sometimes gone on during a financial corporate bid.

The Red Knights are not an established takeover organization. They appear to be an entrepreneurial and virtual set-up whose individual members present themselves as having widespread knowhow and contacts in big players in the financial markets.

A story has developed around the Knights. The BBC version seems the capture the publically-available information:

A group informally known as the Red Knights is plotting to oust the Glazers with a billion-pound takeover bid and they have recruited the Japanese investment bank Nomura to help them put together a deal.

Who is behind the consortium?

The group, who first met in March, is made up of City bankers and lawyers. Among them are Jim O’Neill, a former HSBC investment bank chief executive and chief economist at Goldman Sachs; Seymour Pierce stockbroker Keith Harris; Paul Marshall, a partner at the hedge fund Marshall Wace; Richard Hytner of advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi and lawyer Mark Rawlinson, a partner in Freshfields’ corporate practice, who advised United during the Glazer takeover negotiations.

Does the group have the fans’ interests at heart?

Self-professed United fan Harris, the man brokering the potential takeover, claims the group want “to do something for the good of Manchester United and the good of football.”

On Red Knights and the Age of Chivalry

The Red Knights, whoever they are, have won the commitment of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST). In turn, MUST has created a wellspring of trust as an organization dedicated to the interests of the ’true’ fans of Manchester United. I find their motives relatively clear-cut, and suspect that they may well have influenced the decision at the club to freeze prices of season tickets next year. On the other hand, the fans are one important aspect of the club’s business environment, but not the only interest. There may be genuine differences of opinion, for example, on how revenues are managed, what proportion towards expensive new players, for example, how much to extract from those loyal fans.

Furthermore, I am suspicious of self-proclaimed heroes rushing to the aid of damsels in distress. As Monty Python has helped us realise, the age of chivalry has passed. I just hope the legacy of the legend of the Red Knights will be more than another layer of irony in renditions of an Old Trafford favourite “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” [… de dum, de dum, de dum…]


The Independent: Courageous fight for life ends

March 27, 2010

The Independent, after a long decline, passed away today [March 25th 2010]

Never a healthy child, The newspaper began life as a frail but precocious infant fighting for survival. It survived the tricky period of infancy showing signs of imagination and courage. The laws of the jungle prevailed, as the weak upstart became a target for powerful Canadian and Australian rivals. Despite a range of innovations, some of which were to be imitated by those rivals, the paper went into a terminal decline. Loss of circulation eventually became terminal.

The remains have been acquired by Alexander Lebedev whose offer follows a similar charitable gesture for the Evening Standard in 2009. Press reports confirmed that

The Independent will be the second British newspaper purchase for Lebedev, a former KGB agent, who purchased the Evening Standard for a nominal fee from the Daily Mail & General Trust (DMGT) in January 2009.

As it entered into the last few years of life, The Independent became increasingly disturbed. It began to present a cause for the day, every day of the week, hurling itself into the fray behind evocative front pages. In this election run-up it maintained its cherished independent stance, although, perhaps, showing a few signs of tolerance of the Liberal Democrat position in general, and Vince Cable in particular. It will be remembered as the first broadsheet to have been launched in the UK in the 20th century, and one whose radical design and shift from broadsheet to tabloid format were copied by its competitors.

As peparations for its interment began, The Independent was revealed as having assets of precisely £1, the current cover price of a single copy.


Budget Notes and Car Park Economics

March 25, 2010

Yesterday (March 24th 2010) I missed much of the budget speech by the Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Although, you can’t miss such an event these days, as it remains on line and available unexpurgated except in those parts of the World which have fallen foul of Google, and/or been indulging in a bit of web-censorship

As a matter of fact, I caught some of the budget speech while I was driving back to Tudor Towers (which is how a colleague and sometime class warrior refers to the modest Northern HQ of LWD).

Never mind the dangers of using mobile phones while driving. Listening to AD while driving was pretty damn dangerous too. You can be become far too relaxed by the soothing and gentle monotony. Rockaby baby time. Far worse than a dodgy accelerator pedal.

Then the opposition replies. First, dancing Dave, all sound and fury. I pictured him as rosy-cheeked with rage, but later I saw he had gone white with fury. And then, I’m not just a Nice Guy Nick, almost succeeding in attacking in a way that didn’t sound like an echo of Dave’s rant.

More Rottweiler than Dead Sheep

Those in the know say that Alistair is his own man. Won’t be bullied by Gordon. Not like, say, that equally soothing politician of yesteryear, Geoffrey Howe ,who eventually turned and savaged Margaret Thatcher, more a Rottweiler than the dead sheep he had been cruelly called by another tormentor.

I couldn’t help thinking that Darling’s speech had a charm that would have been lost if it had been delivered by Gordon Brown. There were still the careful constructions which, together with the delivery, created a reality in which Government had pretty-much rescued the country from meltdown. Gordon eventually drives you to sleep with an unremitting hail of statistical blows. Alistair is more hypnotherapist than pugilist.

By the end of the day I had overdosed on the speech and its implications. I didn’t need any more explanations of why not one of the main parties had been specific about what’s going to be cut in order to meet what fiscal deficit based on what assumptions.

A starter for ten

Here’s a starter for ten. Back of a car-parking ticket stuff. Everyone has fewer assets than they thought a couple of years ago. Not just in the UK, but let’s stay local geographically. If we tot up what we own and what we owe, the answer is a bit closer to a nasty red debt figure than a nice blue credit one. No politician is saying, but the change in expectations of personal debt is quite a few percentage points. Anyone arguing it’s less than say 30%? No? OK. So we are all quite a bit poorer than we believed a few years ago. That’s a lot of pain, household by household.

All this talk I heard of politicians not being able to say anything more specific until ‘the books are open’, or ‘the figures for 2010 are available’ is just a bit disingenuous. And another reason why even gentle, honest-sounding politicos like Alistair Darling are lumped together with those found guilty of fraud, pimping, or just blatant self-serving behaviours.


Obama’s Health Care Reform bill wins vital vote. Not even the beginning of the end?

March 22, 2010

The House of Representatives reluctantly reached sufficient consensus for President Obama’s Health Reform bill to win the vote permitting its progress to a next stage of so-called reconciliation. The world watches and learns much more of the complexity of the American political process. The nature of battles ahead is becoming clearer to the outside world

For students of leadership, the story has become a must-study case. It contains all the ingredients of tough game-changing events and actions so often found in business cases. The “facts” are important. But marshalling and evaluating the information can be mind-boggling challenges. Another benefit of a thorough case-study study approach is that it permits refinement of analysis from colleagues and students, avoiding the dangers of instant punditry.

The bill passed by 219 votes to 212, with no Republican backing, after hours of fierce argument and debate. It extends coverage to 32 million more Americans, and marks the biggest change to the US healthcare system in decades. “We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things,” Mr Obama said in remarks after the vote.

“This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction.” The President is expected to sign the legislation into law shortly.


Steps along the way

Events building up to this vote were summarized by the BBC in December 2009

The Senate passed its version of a healthcare reform bill on 24 December [2009]. This must now be squared or “reconciled” with the House bill passed in November, a process that is expected to begin in mid-January. With the various players in the debate all wanting different things from the reform process, the final passage of the legislation will still need much discussion.

The article shows how complex are the forces involved.
The Republicans
Republications were (and still are) presenting a united opposition which has blocked hope of a bi-partisan approach. This may have given Obama a fighting chance to present a semblence of unity among the Democrats, in view of their razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.
The Democrats
But the democrats may be simplistically split roughly into two camps: liberals wanting less dilution of the Bill’s original powers, and the more conservative blue-dog coalition organized enough to build a political base around the proposed bill
[Blue Dog website, downloaded 22nd March 2010: “Currently, the U.S. Debt is estimated at: $12,278,635,997,966.88. Your share of today’s public debt is: $39,934.67”].
Assorted lobby groups
Not to mention assorted big-hitting and lobbying members of the Health Industry: (Insurance companies, The American Medical Association, Big Pharma) and the media, mostly lined up with the Republicans and Fox News. In the Senate, blue dog Ben Nelson had eventually been brought on board after receiving numerous benefits for his home state of Nebraska, along with promises on tighter curbs on abortion, which he opposes.

The Vote Approaches

As the vote approached in mid March 2010, President Obama cancels international commitments to add one final squeeze to wavering voters. The Economist [March 20th 2010] points out the significant political role that was being played by House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“An effective Speaker need not be loved or think original thoughts. Her job is to round up votes and at that Mrs Pelosi excels… So she has been coaxing waverers, calling in favours, breaking fingers and pulling toe-nails.. It will take all [her skill and some] ugly parliamentary manoeuvres. But if Mrs Pelosi succeeds, she will take her place in the Democratic pantheon”.

The Vote

The roller-coaster that is President Obama’s destined mode of political travel screeches to a temporary halt. The President and others in the front car step out wobbly-kneed. They have made it back to ground level. And wearily, he and his entourage head back to the next car for the next ride.


Steven Hester: Villain, hero, or just an outstanding business leader?

March 19, 2010


Royal Bank of Scotland took its turn this week as another giant banking institution paying ridiculous bonuses while still in hock to the Government’s bale-out scheme. Its leader Steven Hester is reviled as another fat-cat financial leader insensitive to public opinion

Contrition is a rather hard emotion for a leader to fake. Akio Toyoda struggled recently to convey his regrets, as he attempted to apologise for the faults in the operations of the mighty Toyota corporation. By and large, leaders of the financial institutions have also struggled when called to account in that Harmanesque court of public opinion. So when one of them appears to be making a good fist of apologising without appearing a pathetic wimp and maybe a bit of a damp rag as a leader, it’s worth taking a more careful look.

The BBC’s Hugh Pym asked RBS’s CEO Stephen Hester, why were there still such big losses for RBS. The (3 minute) video interview is worth looking at. If you are interested, I’d advise you to take a look, and judge for yourself. Make your own mind up. I’d like to know what conclusions you reach, after you have watched the brief video … Comments would be welcomed.

Of course, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions on the basis of a three minute interview. On the other hand, it should be enough to compare and contrast the impression being made with that of the majority of apologists on behalf of an organization (or even of a political party).


Future Leaders

March 16, 2010

Textbooks tell us a lot about the nature of leaders from past history. Some of them give example of present-day leaders. But what might we expect of leaders in the future?


Analysis by Tudor Rickards and Kamel Mnisri

The question was put by a participant on a leadership workshop in Dubai recently. What indeed might we expect from future leaders? Harvard Business Review sometimes permits speculation on the subject to find its way into its august pages. Such articles show a rather worrying absence of any radical shift in beliefs across the period including the global economic crisis which manifested itself in 2008. That is to say, articles about the future of leadership need to be studied as imaginative essays which require constructive testing.

For example, the dominant views of leadership in the most widely-read articles and books on the subject build on work from American leaders. These ideas drew on and fed back into theories of leadership which became increasingly influenced by the American experience, mediated by American cultural norms of individualism and self-actualization. That is not to say that the ideas were sealed off from older influences, particularly from Europe. The economic principles of the free market were retained and developed from the insights of the moral philosophers such as Adam Smith, and through French and German intellectual figures, whose ideas were reinforced in the Unites States by the waves of immigrants making a new life in the emergent super-state.

The re-exporting of these ideas around the world was reinforced by the powerful influence of Harvard Business School which has been attributed as having invented the discipline (and some would say the rhetoric) of organisation studies. By the 1930s, its consulting handmaiden McKinsey was emerging was becoming equally dominant globally through Harvard trained consultants and faculty.

By the turn of the 20th century, the vigorous marketing of the American idea of leadership was firmly entrenched through the most-highly regards journals, textbooks, and more popular best-sellers promising organisational and personal redemption.

A tipping point for leadership theories

Then something spectacular occurred, impacting on leaders and leadership theories around the world. It took the shape of a radical disruption of normality for economic systems. As banks failed, their leaders were accused of corruption, incompetence or both. Even the so-called new leadership model of the 1980s looked rather inadequate. Where were the transformational leaders, believed to be transforming followers into less-selfish actions for the good of the wider social system? Where were the ethical leaders supporting greater awareness of environmental dangers and seeking to achieve greater corporate responsibility?

Opinion pieces on leadership offered a few possibilities. The harshness of dominant leaders had led to proposals that animal instincts were too close to the surface [Mandrill management]. A more person-centred style was advocated with attention to ‘softer’ skills. The new leader was expected to show emotional intelligence.


Blowing in the wind. Superleadership?

A question for students of leadership: What answers are there blowing in these winds of change? One idea is that of distributed or collective leadership. Manz and Sims offer the concept of a version of distributed leadership which collectively makes up a superleader. Will this help introduce a more evenly shared distribution of power and influence in organizations? Will China’s million graduates produced annually be enthused by the prospect of such leadership?


Map-Making and Leadership

March 16, 2010

Leaders need maps to lead. The processes of map-reading, map-testing and map-making have made important contributions to the development of our leaders and civilizations

Maps and Map-making have played an invaluable part in the advancement of human knowledge and discovery processes. Maps in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) have been dated as over nine thousand years ago. Maps have been found in the archeological remains of early civilizations around the world, supporting domestication trade, exploration, and military ventures

The principles of cartography were clarified in the influential writings of Arthur Robinson at the University of Chicago who emphasized that a map is above all something designed with a particular group of users and for some particular purpose or set of purposes. .

The Map is Not The Territory

A well-known saying in management courses is that the map is not the territory. The idea has been popularised by the distinguished organizational theorist Karl Weick in several of his books and lectures. His accounts are based on a poem by Miroslav Holub about a Hungarian reconnaissance unit lost in the Alps. In the poem, the soldiers faced an icy death, until their leader found a map which he used to lead the platoon to safety. On their return, however, it was found that the map was not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees

“we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.
The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees”

The story has been interpreted in various ways. It has been seen as illustaring Weick’s concepts of sense-making, indicating how a map does not have to be accurate to be a means of finding your bearings.

The saying has also become a fundamental principle in the behavioural theory of neurolinguistic programming, in which it stands for the belief that individuals have cognitive structures or maps which provide differing perceptions of their psychological world.

The processes of map-reading, map-testing and map-making are important elements in the text (map) Dilemmas of Leadership.

To go more deeply

Basbøll & Graham, two Danish philosophers, have been untangling the significance of the Weickian anecdote and provide good primary source references. Karl Weick has replied to their article in the same e-journal.


Toyotas, stones and glass houses

March 15, 2010

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Toyota continues to fight against damaging blows to its reputation for producing safe high-quality cars. But there is one good reason why it may avoid the worse type of dirty-tricks campaigns

The Toyota brand may have been damaged in the short-term. But there are reasons to suggest that the company will escape further damage of deliberate comparative campaigns on its safety record. Throughout the recent crisis months, there have been no catastrophic stories of accidents due to the infamous faulty accelerator. Claims that the electronic circuitry can be programmed to crash the car seem too much like the demonstrations that any computer programme can be hacked into.

More recently there have been further safety problems with brake issues on thePrius hybrid, and a suspension of sales of the Lexus GX 460 model, after press reports suggesting it might roll over. Yes, if you try hard enough it may well be possible to roll the Lexus under extreme conditions. Now, there’s a report that the Sienna Minivan has a dodgy cable holding its spare tyre in place.

A world-wide problem for Toyota. And all the bad news stories pile up to suggest that according to the law of the jungle now is the time for competitors to attack the wounded Japanese beast. But US carmakers, or indeed any other rival in the industry, will be cautious about overtly trying to take advantage of Toyota’s problems by insisting they offer better, safer products.

As the BBC noted:

Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus was rated the market leader in automotive consultants JD Power’s 2009 Initial Quality Study, with Toyota itself in seventh place – well above the industry average.
So while there are signs that Toyota may no longer be offering the absolute best quality, its rivals also know that any insistence that they themselves are immune from problems could backfire. After all, every major carmaker has been hit by large-scale recalls in the past. For instance:

In October 2009, Ford completed a recall affecting 14 million vehicles with potentially faulty cruise control deactivation switches. Risk: fire.
In August 2008, GM recalled some 850,000 vehicles with potentially faulty windshield wiper systems. Risk: fire.
n December 2007, Chrysler recalled some 575,000 vehicles with potential gear problems. Risk: cars could shift out of park without the ignition turned on.

So while both GM and Ford are offering additional $1,000 (£640) discounts for Toyota or Lexus drivers who buy one of their cars, neither firm has opted to change their marketing strategies and allow dealers to make direct [quality or safety] comparisons with their Japanese rival.

Stones and glass houses

As the old saying has it: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or…companies who share production facilities should avoid dirty-tricks ad campaigns.


Is Project Bing a strategic miscalculation or a leadership issue at Microsoft?

March 14, 2010

Global Issue analysed by Dr. Kamel Mnisri

What went wrong with Project Bing? When Microsoft tested Bing, as a decision aid it was positively received by customers as user-friendly and innovative. But when launched as a competitive search-engine to Google, its problems began to mount

Bing’s intention in the short term was to compete with Google, and increase its share in the online search market. However, a few months after it is launched, Bing has faced tough allegations and challenges. In addition to allegations of plagiarism and censoring Chinese language searches, Bing sits in the third position in the search engine market, behind Google and Yahoo.

Bing hits regulatory problems in Europe

Earlier this year [2010] Microsoft was forced to put a time-limit on Bing data to suit stricter European concepts of antitrust and privacy laws. A European advisory group criticised the manner in which search engines collect and retain data on individuals and the way the data was being used for advertising purposes. Faced with this challenge, Microsoft had accepted that it needed to act in accordance with regulators, and discard all data collected on users of its Bing search engine after six months. Microsoft reported that this decision on Bing’s data retention policy would have consequences on users around the world and not only in Europe.

What went wrong?

With Bing, Microsoft had made many surprising advances in search. The Bing team carried out an extensive analysis on the search-engine market from a customer’s perspective, and focused on underserved customers needs. But when Microsoft introduced Bing, analysts evaluated the search engine as having a long way to catch up with Google dominance. In a very small trial by Leaders We Deserve contributors, there was no obvious winning product for their most common search requirements.

The question is what went wrong with project Bing? Could we talk about strategic miscalculation or a leadership issue? In light of Google’s continued dominance in the search engine market, it appears difficult for Bing to rival Google. In the UK 75% of online searches go through Google UK for example, at a rate of 100 million queries a day. In addition, Google is an innovative company that puts much effort on improving search. Google, treating Microsoft as a respected competitor, had reportedly allocated a team of specialist engineers to battle Bing.

Overall, Bing is operating in a very complex and challenging environment where creativity could be applied. But, what are the options for Bing? How might it face the allegations and challenges of reaching its goal of become the number 1 search engine in the world?


Michael Foot (23 July 1913 – 3 March 2010)

March 4, 2010

Michael Foot had a remarkable capacity for passionate commitment. But his zealousness was far more channelled towards his championing of great social causes than pettiness or spite towards political opponents

There was a core of selflessness about the man, and a lack of deviousness which attracted devotion among colleagues. His rather gentle demeanour ‘at rest’ contrasted with an incandescent fury in his public debates. Almost always his fury was directed at injustice rather than against the unjust. He is rightly regarded as one of the great political orators of the 20th Century.

In leadership terms he was untouched by modern concerns for image and identity. His notorious disregard for personal appearance was hardly calculated. It was more than coincidence that his most serious political defeat was by Margaret Thatcher, a leader who had an obsessive regard for image projection.

My personal recollections of Michael Foot are of someone who communicated a Ghandi-like unworldlyness. His was an idealism which earned him the reputation of being utterly sincere in beliefs that were often unpopular. His commitment to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which he helped found would be an example.

There are historical links with two other passionate socialist politicians, Nye Bevan and Neil Kinnock. All three served and were revered in the South Wales mining communities. Foot like Kinnock was all commitment. But it was Bevan, the wiliest of the three who achieved high office and brought about the greatest changes. Foot turned down an offer to serve in Harold Wilson’s government; Kinnock, like Michael Foot, was also defeated by Margaret Thatcher in his bid for power.

Bevan’s contributions to the founding of the National Health Service required compromises in the interests of the wider goal – as he rather gleefully put it requiring that he ‘stuffed the mouths of the doctors with gold’. Michael, like his devoted acolyte Neil Kinnock, would have exhausted himself and the doctors in his quest to elevate their thoughts away from such base metal.