The news stream flickers by as Papandreou grapples with his greatest leadership dilemma

November 4, 2011

As the day progressed, news of Papandreou’s struggles with his greatest leadership dilemma seemed to change by the hour…

Thursday November 3rd 2011. The Coffee Shop, Manchester Business School West.

A small group of business academics were holding a meeting, ironically enough, on leadership. Above them, the most critical leadership story of the day, and maybe the year, was being played out silently on a TV screen. Images of Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece, and of the other political leaders meeting at Cannes, were accompanied by a news stream, which was informing us of the rapidly-changing sequence of events

The looming debt crisis

The previous days had seen the tortuous effort of the European leaders seeking steps to reassure world markets they were dealing in a coordinated fashion with a looming debt crisis. This had become focussed on the plight of the Greek economy, and in domino-like fashion, the other weakest States of the EU and their banks.

As agreement appeared to have been reached, Then Papandreou had seemed to catch everyone by surprise, even his own colleagues, by an announcement that he intended to call for a referendum in Greece to ‘let the people decide’ on the matter.

He’s resigned. Or has he?

As the MBS coffee-shop meeting got underway, we learned that the Greek Prime Minister had resigned. Less than an hour later, the news reported that he had not resigned but was preparing to meet the country’s President, to confirm plans for the referendum.

By the time we broke for lunch, Papandreou, facing opposition from his own colleagues, also faced the possibility of being forced to resign. Early afternoon, the news stream reported that the referendum was not now going to take place.

Small potatoes

It made our agenda of reviewing progress on our marking responsibilities feel pretty small potatoes. We ended the meeting with the fate of George Papandreou, and maybe the fate of the European Community still in the balance.

His greatest dilemma

The news from Cannes and Athens continued to change rapidly throughout the day. In the evening, Papandreou was quoted [Sky News] as saying he had been struggling with ‘the biggest dilemma of his life… It was either obtaining complete unity [among his government colleagues], or a referendum’.

With a little help from our friends

Other reports were emphasising the influence being brought to bear by the other leaders, and particularly by Germany’s Angela Merkel, and her closest political ally Nicolas Sarcozy of France:

The linkage between a possible No vote and continuing membership of the union proved too much for many of Mr Papandreou’s supporters, including his Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who this morning [as we watched he news unfold at MBS] withdrew his support from the referendum plan.

Many Greeks still feel they should be at the heart of Europe, and the sharp response to Mr Papandreou’s referendum plan – particularly from France and Germany – put that role in jeopardy.
Speaking to his party in parliament [that evening], the Greek leader said he had been told during those Cannes talks that not only would a “no” in the referendum mean leaving the euro, but that the question of rejoining would be off the agenda for at least a decade.

Even bigger than Steve Jobs

During the day at our tutors’ meeting, we had discovered that our business students around the world had selected one news item above all others to write about recently. That was the sad death of Steve Jobs. At least, one of us commented, the EU crisis would have given them an option with even richer possibilities for studying leadership and its dilemmas.

Willful blindness?

See the comments below for a discussion on leadership and wullful blindness