Child whisperers and big bucks boot camps

April 22, 2014

Wilderness therapy is attracting interest in the USA. We ask what is behind the approach, and whether it justifies the expense

This week, [April 22nd 2014] BBC drew attention to Eddie Curry, whose wilderness therapy sessions are operated in the desolate hills of Southern Utah, and are reported as lasting two months. The story focuses on one practitioner, so that generalizations come with an assumption alert:

The 45-year-old father knows how out-of-control teenagers tick – he used to be one. More than six feet tall aged 15, there was always plenty of opportunity for trouble. By 17, he was drinking a lot and getting in regular fistfights with his estranged father.

Parents at their wits end find Curry through internet searches, the wilderness programmes he works with or just by word of mouth. And they hire him for all sorts of reasons – drug and alcohol problems, violence and trouble with the police are among them. Often, more conventional treatment like therapy has failed or been refused.

“If you have me there, it’s gotten to the point where talking is done. There is no conversation happening or very little. And the little bit the parents are getting is usually yelling and screaming.”
Many families take out loans and re-mortgage houses to get their child help – a British parent will pay up to $6,000 (£3,500) to get Curry to come to the UK.
Almost every child says: “You’re not going to make me go. I’m not going.” Many children get hysterical, many cry. Some go berserk. To Curry, these kinds of reaction are only natural.

“I always put myself in these kids’ shoes. If I had some guy come into my room at five o’clock in the morning and break this news to me, I’d be annoyed.”

That’s not to say that he believes a word they say though.

“Most of the kids I pick up are just liars trying to get out of going. They’ll look you straight in the eye and lie. But I listen to their stories. I show them compassion. These are kids, not criminals. They might be doing some illegal stuff but they’re just kids that are screwing up, making bad decisions and hanging out with the wrong people. They’re not bad kids. I just wear them down. I’m not going to lose. I tell them that not going is not an option.”

Wilderness therapy has existed across the US for decades, and supporters say it results in better communication between the child and parents, increased self-confidence, and even better academic results.

“The key thing is that it disrupts negative patterns of behaviour and allows us to help them learn and establish some new healthy behaviours and ways of interacting with others,” says Steve Demille of RedCliff Ascent, one of the companies operating in Utah.

But Nicki Bush, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, warns that camps are not the silver bullet parents are hoping for and pay a “ludicrous” amount of money for it.
And though Curry only takes children who agree to go, he says, Prof Bush says many children find being escorted to camps a traumatic experience, and often perceive it as an abduction.

Tough love?

The BBC headline of child whisperers suggests that the approach is comparable to the work of horse whisperers. If that is the case, the method is based on tough love, and favouring the non-violent over violent methods of influence. As with horse whispering, it attracts publicity and cynicism particularly about claims for its effectiveness. In that respect, I was reminded of the story I came across [July 2013] of a therapy involving walking on hot coals.


Felix Magath joins Fulham and illustrates the limitations of tough leadership

February 22, 2014

Felix MagathFelix Magath’s career trajectory illustrates the principle that a business or a football club often gets ‘the leader it deserves’

THIS POST WILL BE UPDATED REGULARLY AS THE STORY OF FULHAM’S APPOINTMENT OF MAGATH DEVELOPS

The appointment of Felix Magath as manager at Fulham this week [February 2014] has been greeted in the media with articles with a shared assumption that he will achieve short term results through his legendary tough leadership style and that this will end in his departure after a subsequent decline in team performance and morale.

The historical evidence

The historical evidence is unequivocal. The BBC article gives a historical account There is a clear pattern of Magrath’s behaviour which involves ferocious training regimes and tough personal relations. In animal terms he is a horse breaker rather than a horse whisperer.

Fans of Felix Magath liken him to a demon headmaster. One of his former players claims he was more like Saddam Hussein. Another one dubbed him “the last dictator in Europe”. But it was as a firefighter that Magath made his name. Indeed, Magath was to German football what Red Adair was to the US oil industry, a man who never came across a blowout he could not quell. Having led Hamburg into the Uefa Cup, Magath was sacked the following season. This is a recurring theme of Magath’s career – recovery, boom and bust. After Hamburg, Magath took Nuremberg from bottom of the second tier to the Bundesliga. After a row with Nuremberg’s president – he has a lot of those – Magath landed at Werder Bremen, another club he managed to drag clear of danger.

After a couple of years with Frankfurt, whom he also saved from the drop in his first season, Magath took over at Stuttgart. He transformed them from relegation strugglers to Bundesliga runners-up, delivering them Champions League football for the first time. As a footballer, Felix Magath won the Bundesliga three times with Hamburg between 1978 and 1983, and won 43 caps for West Germany, winning the 1980 European Championship and playing at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, appearing in the final at Mexico ’86

“I would never want to treat human beings like he does,” said Bayern president Uli Hoeness last week, “If you want sustained success, he’s probably not the right man. But he might turn out to be a viable short-term option for Fulham. They’re already bottom of the Premier League table, so it can’t really get much worse for them.”

Magath might just be the man to quell all that rattling and shaking going on down at Craven Cottage. Just don’t expect those smiles to last too long.

The style is effective at removing those unwilling to accept his methods. He symbolizes what used to be called theory X management, leadership by fear and bullying.

The strong leader and the last dictator?

Magath appeals to those who believe that dictatorial leadership can be the method of last resort, a short term fix. At Fulham, the board has a reputation for tough action, prepared to hire and fire rapidly. It is hardly surprising that they might believe that failure on the field is as a result of weak leadership. Ergo, find a stronger leader. If the results continue to be poor, then the leader could not have been strong enough, The board has a vision they pursue single-mindedly. It is to hire the strongest – because toughest – manager they can obtain.

Transformational it isn’t

The style is ultimately transactional, the limited method of punishment and reward. Fulham has acquired the leader the club’s board deserves [maybe under pressures from financial backers].

The leader the fans deserve?

There will be a proportion of fans vociferous in their support of a tough leader. They too will be acquiring the leader they deserve. Other fans will not have their anxieties so quickly addressed. As results settle down, each setback will be seen as evidence of the folly of the board’s decision to appoint the man likened to Saddam Hussein in his leadership style.

What you see is what you get

One aspect of such a style is that what you see is what you will get. Magath has no hidden dark side of his leadership persona. It is up there for all to see.

Beyond charisma?

Other tough leaders are also often described as charismatic. The great Brian Clough comes to mind. In my preliminary searches I have yet to find the term charismatic applied to Magath.

Situational leadership

There is some evidence that a situational leadership ‘map’ might be helpful in interpreting this story. A leader such as Magath is most likely to achieve results with a compliant workforce. The extreme circumstances facing the players contribute to desperate efforts. This is the ageless story retold in the movie The Dirty Dozen. The tough leader offers a last chance for redemption.

Some media reactions

Hell fighter could be perfect fit for Fulham

Magath accuses Rene Meulensteen of destabilizing Fulham

23rd February

First game showed ‘immediate but limited’ impact’ through team performance in 1-1 draw away to West Brom.

1st March

Loss to Chelsea forces Magath to admit defense must strengthen. Signs of reality creeping in?

8th March

Headline says it all after Fulham lose to relegation rivals Cardiff City. Magath believes players not responding enough to tough leadership.

2nd May

Fulham relegated. First criticism that Magath is the wrong man to return Fulham to the Premiership


Tai Chi, Team Leadership and Contented Cows

April 15, 2008

A Metro News article tells of a new angle on motivational methods.

Rob Taverner performs the ancient martial art in front of his 100 cows every morning to get them in the right moo-d to produce lots of milk.

The 44-year-old organic farmer visits the animals at 9am each day to run through his ten-minute routine of slow movements and breathing techniques – dressed in his distinctive overalls and wellies. He said: ‘Tai chi is all about leaving your problems behind and getting into a better zone and my mood definitely transfers to the cows’.

Crazy or What?

This blog has not been afraid to espouse the unusual. In the past we have looked at Horse Whispering, Mandrill management …

But Tai Chi for improved productivity of a herd of cows? What possible justification can there be for taking this starting point for insights into leadership?

Pause a moment

Many ideas start out as being mocked, and then dismissed as obvious. I assume this is item is likely to fall more in the former than the latter category.

Mr Taverner attracted quite a lot of publicity nationally for his tale of Tai Chi. It had the sort of quirkiness that appeals to Brits. The organic farmer also handled the media rather well. In a radio interview he added a further twist to the tale.

The cows were not just happy but their contentment had been accompanied by a measurable increase in milk production. Did all this leave himself open to ridicule? Well yes, a bit, but not enough to bother a diligent student of Tai Chi. And he had an added twist to the story.

Tai Chi and Team Leadership

He had gone down to his local rugby club over the weekend [April 12-13, 2008]. Seems the under-fourteen squad greeted him with their own humorous (as in Rugby club humourous) version of a Tai Chi warm up.

See? I said there was a connection with team leadership. According to the farmer the team went on to win its competition.

Make your own mind up

A momentary bit of eye candy? Or should we be looking more closely at the rationale for applying Tai Chi as part of a sporting leader’s armoury of techniques which help team members generate fierce resolve?

Acknowledgement

To Jonathan Guiliano for introducing me to Bob Sutton’s entertaining and well-informed blog