Leadership lessons from the life of Margaret Thatcher

April 18, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Freedom Fighter

A post on Leadership Lessons from the life of Margaret Thatcher is under preparation. It will include an examination of obituaries and appraisals in the media over the period between her death and her funeral [April 8th -April 17th 2013].

These include the view from The Economist which concluded

This is a crucial time to hang on to Margaret Thatcher’s central perception: that for countries to flourish, people need to push back against the advance of the state. What the world needs now is more Thatcherism, not less.

Subscribers’ comments will be welcomed.


A is for Albatross as Airbus struggles with the A400 project

April 18, 2009
Airbus A400 EADS mock up

Airbus A400 EADS mock up

Der Spiegel continues to be the window into the complex world of EADS and its giant subsidiary Airbus. In a major interview with Airbus CEO Thomas Enders, Der Spiegel throws light on the corporate challenges facing the organization and its leadership.

The double whammy

Der Spiegel was in particularly robust mood in its interview with Thomas Enders recently [March 2009]. The two-part report opened with a series of fierce questions challenging the company’s long-term viability. Ender’s truculence comes through, even in translation and from the printed page. The second part of the interview concentrated on a single project, the A400M and that made the story appear all the more damaging

Technological innovation is notoriously risky, and there must surely be additional risk factors emerging as a consequence of the financial turbulence of the last year. The A400M is becoming known as its albatross. The plane, still yet to fly, is a military transport plane promising payload deliveries over extended distances under extreme conditions. Delays and production mishaps have plagued the project (even in comparison with the more publicised woes of the company’s other high-technology efforts).

Der Speigel as rotweiler

Der Speigel runs excellent and probing articles. One can’t help admire its success in its interviews with Germany’s business leaders. [In style it reminds me of the aggressiveness of England’s Newsnight programme and its chief Rotweiler Jeremy Paxman]. In the issue carrying the Thomas Enders interview, there were similarly tough questions asked of Robin Goudsblom, a Lidl senior manager, over the company’s personnel scandal;and of Nikolaus von Bomhard, CEO of reinsurance giant Munich Re, over banker bonuses.

Enders comes clean

Under fire, Thomas Enders is remarkably direct. He was first reminded of a recent wager.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Enders, on December 31 you won a bottle of champagne. You had wagered that Airbus would manage to complete 12 of your super-jumbo jets by the end of the year. That bottle could cost your company millions because, in the heat of the race against the clock, quality and safety may have fallen by the wayside.
Thomas Enders: No, we haven’t made any compromises here. Our customers are generally very satisfied with the A380. But, as you know, it is an extremely complex aircraft, which now unfortunately — like every new model during the introduction phase, I might add — has some teething problems here and there

Then he faced equally direct questioning on a range of general topics such as Government subsidies. These did not result in subsequent wider headlines, perhaps because they were ‘nothing new’ either in question or reply.

Part two of the report gave a focus to the entire interview in the plight of the A400M. The level of openness from Enders deserves attention from students of leadership:

SPIEGEL: Your biggest worry is currently the planned A400M military transport aircraft, which has been in the news for months. Which countries could cancel as buyers in the future?

[Enders denied the specific charge of cancellations and accepted accusation that the company had to shoulder some blame]

Enders: EADS should never have signed this contract. Our American competitors would never have accepted such conditions. We’ve made big mistakes, and errors have also been made on the customer side. We should now rectify these together.

Enders went on to deal frankly with equally tough questions on ‘[r]ivalries and power struggles between the Germans and the French’, consolidation of the European headquarters in Toulouse [‘maybe a good idea’], and the loss of a major American military contract.

Leadership notes

I was struck by the tone of the interview and by the fascinating technical insights provided into corporate and production management.

How important is the interview to EADS? This is one of the questions open to reflection and debate. I suggest that Der Spiegel is a media leader in news of the Airbus adventures from a European perspective. Its interviews are guaranteed widespread subsequent coverage. A typical example is the report in Aerospace [30 March 2009]. Even The Economist draws on the Spiegel interview, although its piece shows evidence of its own deeper research [bonus points to the Economist for that].

The interview has to be taken seriously by the company leadership. A faulty performance (and it is a performance) would become part of a subsequent narrative developed in the media.

How well did Enders do? You could assess the interview for strengths and weaknesses. A misguided remark might become a hostage to fortune for the company in the future. On the other hand, the impact is mediated by several communities deeply concerned with the future of the company and whose judgments go to make up the ’conventional wisdom of the dominant elite’ . Enders has the responsibility to defend his position without being too defensive, and avoid easy-to-refute claims. Which in this case involved a painful level of openness. If he appeared a bit testy at times, that might be a permissible weakness rather than a fatal one.

Despite tough times, the corporate leadership of EADS seems to have stabilized under the urbane Louis Gallois, and his Airbus CEO, the former paratrooper Thomas Ender.

To go more deeply

We have followed this story in earlier posts. The Economist article on Airbus can be found in its April 11th -17th, 2009 issue.


What can be learned from the ending of the Brown honeymoon?

October 14, 2007

thieving-magpie-tin-tin.jpg

The Gordon Brown honeymoon is over. He has seen his party’s lead in the opinion polls whither away. His handling of the non-election has been branded cowardly and inept. His rival David Cameron scores overwhelmingly in parliamentary debate. What leadership lessons can be learned from the unfolding story?

This is the current situation. Gordon Brown is widely reported as having lost the initiative he held since his appointment as Prime Minister. The fall from grace can be located in time easily.

Prior to the labour party conference, the honeymoon period was continuing, and the main question was whether a snap election could destroy not just David Cameron, by maybe the Conservative party itself.

During the Labour conference, Mr Brown’s speech at worse did not seem to damage his or his party’s prospects. Yet the snap-election story continued to build momentum. At the start of the month [October 2007] it seemed to have been settled. There would be an election within a month or so.

Then the Conservative party conference, a well-received speech by David Cameron, and the news stories piled up full of bad news for Brown. The week following the election added to his woes in and out of Westminster.

You learn a lot from what surprises you

Over the last few months I have been frequently surprised by the ebb and flow of political events. So what were the surprises? What was the learning?

Remember the passing of Tony Blair from office? I was surprised at the time by suggestions that portrayed Gordon Brown as a person psychologically unfit to lead his party, or the country. The contrast with business leaders is quite stark. The literature of the dark side of leadership is mounting, and it is easier to find examples of leaders who do not manifest symptoms of narcissism, with a dash of other fancily-termed psychotic tendencies, than to find examples of well-balanced (‘abnormally normal’?) individuals.

Then I was surprised over aspects of the so-called Brown Bounce. That nice theory was made almost impossible to evaluate, because Gordon’s arrival coincided with a particularly turbulent time, during which the New Prime Minister acted in a competent and reassuring manner. [Remember the joke that had been told about him during his personal campaign to consolidate his election campaign? The trouble with Gordon, the ironic joke went, is that he is all substance. Ho, ho. ].

The honeymoon period is now over. One surprise is that no-one pointed to the curious contrast between the bounce, and the herd-mentality that had dubbed Brown a pathologically-flawed no-hoper for Labour, prior to election. The bounce transcended all those concerns expressed in the media?

Over the last two weeks, I have also been surprised by the speed at which opinions about Brown and Cameron have swung back. The ratings are now [14.10.2007] roughly where they were before Mr Cameron hit policy problems a few months ago. Now, Cameron is as a hot a favourite for destroying Brown politically, as Brown was for destroying Cameron, a few weaks ago.

I was further surprised at the damage politically the Gordon Brown has sustained over his assertion that his decision not to call an election had been nothing to do with opinion-polls in marginal seats. The statement has become taken as evidence that the Prime Minister is irretrievably untrustworthy.

The second event, the afore-mentioned pre-Budget speech by Darling, is similarly taken as a sign of Government duplicity, specifically over Magpie politics. Specifically, like thieving Magpies, the Government has stolen the shiny baubles plucked from the Conservative lips, including inheritance tax from non-doms.

There’s enough mud for everyone to play in

The speech from Alistair Darling infuriated the conservatives, and particularly the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Alistair is in the Brown mould (measured and a bit, how can I put it, non-dom Scottish). Osborne is more of the smooth but menacing inclination, unafraid to take the fight to the muckier side of the farmyard. His immediate response to Darling’s pre-budget statement was a well-mounted piece of aggression at the calumny of his immediate opponent and the forces behind him, all the way up to King Gordon.

The next morning he had simmered down enough to articulate the view that the public would now be able to choose between the party of principled and honourable statesmanlike politicians, (the conservatives) and the cynical duplicitous lot on the other side (labour).

Overall he had had a good twenty-four hours, and is evidently on the way of becoming a dangerous opponent for the new Chancellor. Nice one George. Nice, in the sense of dangerously nasty.

The various outbusts of anger left me conscious of the farmyard metaphor, that there’s a lot of mud out there, likely to spread itself liberally on to all concerned. Voters may find it confirms their suspicions if they are repeatedly told that there are a lot of cynical duplicitous politicians (CDPs) out there.

On the other hand, drawing attention to this will not mean they will buy the proposition that all CDPs are to be found among the ranks of Gordon’s followers, thus enabling the conservatives convincingly to claim the high moral ground as The Principled Party.

Leadership lessons?

Some are immediately apparent. Gordon Brown contributed to the way in which this story developed. I rather think he moved back towards damage limitation in claiming responsibility for the election frenzy. (However tempting it might have been to bang on about the media).

There was another misjudgment when he insisted that he would not have been influenced by opinion polls in his decision, even if they indicated a majority of hundred after an immediate election.

The leadership principle is to retain some of that valuable commodity, wriggle room, whenever possible. Put another way, practice the art of the Delphic Oracle.

Find a creative way of dealing with the question at two levels.
Avoid yes or no answers when these are over-simplifications (which they almost always are).

No-one will get it right every time, but the frequency of poor moves, and the damage sustained, is likely to be reduced. At least, that’s if you believe leaders are made not born, and are strengthened through learning from their mistakes.