When a leader says “I’m listening” why do we assume there’s a dilemma?

April 7, 2011

David Cameron has been insisting that his Government is listening over public views of his proposed changes to the National Health Service. It signals a leader who is prepared to learn while introducing change. So why does he appear to be in trouble politically over his plans?

The listening leader

The story of the listening leader was captured this week [April 7th, 2011] as the Prime Minister used a meeting with NHS professionals to convey two different messages one to the immediate gathering and the other to wider audiences outside the room. We have an example here of the dilemmas facing a leader dealing with such ambiguities.

One news account describes ‘David Cameron’s desperate bid to save his dreaded NHS reforms’ :

The dreaded reforms

David Cameron yesterday launched a desperate bid to convince voters his floundering NHS plans were needed. At a hastily-arranged “listening exercise”, the PM vowed to make changes to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s botched proposals. But he ruled out scrapping the potentially disastrous shake-up.

Mr Cameron hauled bungling Mr Lansley and Deputy PM Nick Clegg along to the Q&A at a hospital, [using] the event to publicly humiliate Mr Lansley – chiding him for “charging ahead” with the shake-up without public support. He faces accusations from a number of medical experts that the reforms would devastate the NHS. His proposals would see GPs given control of much of the budget and the NHS would also be opened up to greater competition.

“I hear what you say”

Managers accused of being poor listeners develop the (irritating) verbal tic of uttering the words “I hear what you say”. Listeners sometimes fill in the dots and assume this means “You can say what you like, as long as you don’t expect me to agree with you“.

“I see where you are coming from”

A similar and more recent expression heard in media discussions and chat shows is “I see where you are coming from”. Like “I hear what you say” the words attempt to avoid conflict and may not always be successful. Here’s what Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary retorted when asked to comment:

“If the Prime Minister is serious about listening rather than PR spin, people will expect root and branch changes to his NHS plans.”

Listening and beyond

A major policy initiative always risks initial resistance at least part because of the difficulty in communicating more than a few broad elements to a wide set of audiences with different concerns.

As we have seen above the dilemma is how to accept that plans have to be modified without appearing to ‘flip-flop’ (an accusation aimed at politicians who are seen as changing their intentions). Dilemmas crop up when leaders face hard to resolve decisions. Creativity is often called for to avoid the most obvious and unpalatable actions. David Cameron may not have found enough creativity to go with his undoubted conviction politics on this occasion.

Leadership Lessons from Rooney’s Football Rant

April 5, 2011

Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney is disciplined by the Football Association for mouthing obscenities into a TV camera during a vital Premiership game. Are there leadership lessons to be learned?

Wayne Rooney is arguably the most talented English footballer playing at present. He has had a turbulent time since last summer, beginning with poor displays at the World Cup, followed by injuries, private life problems, a dispute over his contract at Manchester United. All this has been accompanied by acts of violence on the field. His play last year was outstanding ,even by his own high standards.

Last week, [April 2nd 2011] his season became simultaneously better and worse. MUFC appeared to be losing a chance to win the Championship. The team had gone two goals down to West Ham. The players were signalling their frustration at their own defensive errors which had produced two penalties and two goals. Sir Alex Ferguson, MU’s brilliant and truculent manager, was f serving a touchline ban. At half-time, his on-field changes were quickly shown to be tactically shrewd. Later, it emerged he had been in calm, not fiery (“hair dryer”) mode. Some might say he showed creative leadership, withdrawing a key attacker, Ryan Giggs, to defence, to beef up the attack with substitutes.

There followed an astonishing surge of energy led by Rooney, who scored three goals in fifteen minutes. Rooney kept outwardly calm for the first two goals. Then on scoring the third appeared to lose all composure, and carried out an uncontrolled celebration with his teammates before mouthing obscenities to a TV camera.

A remarkable level of public outrage was expressed in the media, mostly calling for Rooney to be punished as severely as possible. Popular outrage was expressed sometimes in terms which were agrgy, bitter, and ranking with Rooney’s in fury and obscene content. The FA announced [Monday April 4th] that Rooney would be fined and serve a two-match ban.

Leadership Lessons

There are leadership lessons to be gleaned from the incident and its consequences.

Lesson No 1: An incident takes on significance if sense can be made of it in symbolic terms.

The sense-making permits various leaders to seek to influence by identifying a scapegoat as symbolic object of hate and anger. Journalists and football pundits made sense of the action as a continuation of Rooney’s unacceptably violent and crude public behaviour. His immense wealth, his public escapades, his under-privileged background and lack of formal education were also introduced as part of the story. The overall story was accompanied by fury and obscenities which matched Rooney’s, but without the display of football genius.

Lesson No 2: A great football manager is able to influence some events and not others. Sir Alex influenced the team, and arguably its actions at half-time.

Famously, an earlier incident with another football genius led Eric Cantona to be banned after a kung-fu style kick on an opposing fan mouthing abuse at him during a match. There is, as a leadership guru puts it a circle of influence which is smaller than a circle of concern

Lesson No 3: The Football Association has not revealed great leadership skills

Its style tends to be highly reactive: to see the need for strong leadership after a high-publicity incident. Each incident is treated apparently in isolation and the outcome some punishment deemed appropriate but without communication of the wider strategy involved.

Lesson No 4: The media contributes to the process through which perceptions about leaders are co-created.

It is the process which results in the Leaders We Deserve. Commentators increasingly have a style which matches the emotional mood of ‘ordinary’ football fans. This differs from the voices of a decade or so ago which on the BBC tended to be calmer and more authoritative (for better or worse).

Lesson No 5: The selected ‘solutions’ to Rooney’s behaviour suggest a crude map of leadership dynamics

The FA style seems based on a set of beliefs about power and influence, and in particular about the way to discipline out undesired behaviours. . It ignores historical evidence that Sticks and carrots have limited motivational impact. Whipping an enraged dog may stop a dog fight. Fear of another whipping is not enough to stop the dog fighting again.

That is not to say that Rooney should not be punished. It is to say that without wider events becoming part of the sense we make of the incident, not a lot will change into the future as a result of leadership actions.

A leadership dilemma

The dilemma for Manchester United is that the self-motivated fury and energy of Rooney contributes both to his greatest football achievements and (perhaps) also to his reactions to a world in which he plays such an edgy and visible part.


You can see the Rooney Rant on Hoohaa Sports

“I need a new tennis racquet …I’m prepared to pay up to £30 for it”

April 3, 2011

“I need a new tennis racquet” I announced to the proprietor of Jim Halls Sports, Bramhall.

“They’ve changed shape since you bought your last one” Jim said rather unkindly

“Nothing fancy…”

“Nothing fancy. Don’t want to pay money for the branding.” I added.

“You’ll have to. Everything’s branded these days” Jim said “Do you want a Murray-branded one or a Nadal one?”

“Just one I can keep in the back of the car winter and summer. Twice a week, used for social doubles. And with strings that don’t break. I’ve never broken a string with my trusty Dunlop Prince 1975 matchplay.”

Jim started going on again, trying to get me to chose from his assorted collection of 2011 models. “Do you see yourself playing more like Andy Murray or Rafa Nadal?” What kind of question was that? No one plays like Andy Murray or Rafa Nadal. Not even my nephew Connor, who has a Rafa racquet, Rafa headbands, Rafa shirts, Rafa baggy long-shorts, Rafa tennis shoes, and Rafa socks (perhaps I’m not right about the socks).

“Just an ordinary tennis racquet” I pleaded “One to replace my old one. I know there’s been inflation since 1975. I was thinking I could go up to even £30.”

Jim looked downcast. “I think you’d better take a seat for a minute” he said. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

Follow the action

What happened next? Will I abandon my trusty 1975 weapon for some new-fangled over-branded over-priced racquet? Watch this space.