The execution of Jang Song-thaek, and the limits of The Great Man theory of leadership

December 14, 2013

The Great man theory of leadership has been gradually eroded by recognition of the ultimate dilemmas of absolute power

The execution of Jang Song-thaek in North Korea this week [December 2013] has been presented outside the state as evidence of the ultimate power vested in its absolute ruler, Kim Jong Un. This assumes that the newly appointed ‘great leader’ acted without being influenced by anyone else. This is generally assumed as the action of someone with absolute power

As The Telegraph put it

In making this very public display of ruthlessness Kim Jong-un probably had three objectives. Firstly, [sic] nobody in North Korea can doubt now that he, and he alone, is in charge. Nor can anybody doubt that he is utterly ruthless in removing absolutely anybody who might, in the colourful language of the indictment, “dream different dreams”.
Secondly, Kim Jong-un has told his country – and the world – that not only Jang the man, but also the vision that he stood for, has been purged. Jang Song-thaek seems to have argued for a less closed North Korea, one that embraced trade and encouraged inward investment.
Thirdly, this is a slap in the face for China. China is often described as North Korea’s only ally but with every nuclear test and every provocative missile launch the relationship has become more strained. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in February China recalibrated its policy to North Korea.

The contradiction

Kim has acted decisively to ‘crush’ his enemy, as recommended by Machiavelli. I always felt this advice requires careful positioning in its historical context. Anyway, the leader who has to crush his enemy can hardly be the great all-powerful leader who is feared but not hated. It seems more like the leader beleaguered by forces internal and external to his regime.

Little wonder that ‘Great man’ theories of leadership are gradually drifting out of fashion.

Who’s afraid of Machiavelli? BBC TV Review

December 4, 2013

Alan Yentob’s programme for the 500th Anniversary of the publication of The Prince by Machiavelli was a masterpiece. Download it from the BBC 1Player now. Watch it. Show it to students

The iPlayer version of this brilliant BBC TV programme [Tue 3 Dec 2013 22:35] is available for a week [until Dec 10th 2013]. A review for Leaders We Deserve is under construction. A must for serious students of leadership.


The BBC blurb was if anything understated :

Duration: 1 hour

With performances from Peter Capaldi, The programme [in the ‘imagine…’ series] marks the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s notorious book The Prince. Famous for lines like ‘It is better to be feared than loved’, The Prince has been a manual for tyrants from Napoleon to Stalin. But how relevant is The Prince today, and who are the 21st century Machiavellians? Alan Yentob talks to contributors including Colonel Tim Collins, who kept a copy of The Prince with him in Iraq; plus Hilary Devey, Alastair Campbell and Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin.

Full Review to follow …

Lord Alistair McAlpine’s story

November 12, 2012

This morning [Nevember 6th 2012] I came across my unpublished notes concerning a story written by Lord Alistair McAlpine. It seems a good time to publish them in this era of scandals concealed and scandals revealed

The notes were tucked away in a book, and seem to have been written sometime in the late 1990s. I must have been collecting materials on political leadership, but I can’t recall completing them for publication.

Political intrigue

In the first of my notes, the author is writing about a political intrigue around a leadership challenge. He warns that the plotters have to be careful because “there was a time when the stalking horse won and stayed there for three terms (in office)”.

Hypocrisy and cynicism

In the second extract, I had marked up the following passage:

“Hypocrisy and cynicism are not uniquely the stuff of politics nor indeed of politicians. They are weapons of the second-rate in all walks of life … the tools of those who would only better their own positions. Those I write of have neither principles nor morals so they cannot be chastised for what they do”.

The trades are completely different

A final quote mused on “how strange it is that politicians have such admiration for those who succeed in business … The delusion explains a lot of the problems suffered by our nation … [because] the two trades are totally different”.


The extracts are from Lord McAlpine’s work of fiction, Letters to a young politician, written around the mid 1990s. I re-read my copy of the book for this post.

You will find an excellent review of the book, by Andrew Marr, who exercises the reviewer’s right to avoid revealing how Lord McAlpine’s story turns out in the end.

Lord McAlpine has suffered from false accusations this week [Nov 6th-12th 2012]. The false allegations, repeated on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, contributed to the resignation of George Entwistle from the post of Director General of the BBC.

Jonathan Powell is the latest advocate of Machiavelli’s doctrines

October 20, 2010


Jonathan Powell created the new role of Chief of Staff for Tony Blair’s administration and was then appointed to the post. He gave a BBC interview to plug his book, The New Machiavelli

Powell was interviewed on BBC five live [by Phil Williams, October 20th, 2010]. He claimed that a Chief of Staff  ‘joining-up’ role can be found in most parliamentary democracies. He sees the role as very much that of serving as a leader’s utterly devoted and trusted creature.  In the interview he revealed that Alistair Campbell called Powell Blair’s Butler, a fine echo of the concept of a valet for whom no great man is a hero.

Machiavelli and the Milibands

Following the wisdom of Machiavelli, that first management consultant, Powell believes that Blair should have sacked Brown early as an obvious potent threat to his power. Brown should have been obsequious until his time came to seize power. Later in the interview, he drew on Machiavelli to justify the departure of David Miliband (his own preferred leader of the Labour party) by his brother Ed as a good political outcome. He cited two other early decisive actions of EM of which Machiavelli would have approved. Powell is a true believer of the big Mach.

Powell’s formidable intellect and self-confidence shines though both his delivery and the coherence of its content. Blair introduces him in his memoirs as ‘brilliant …with a lightening ability to absorb information.’

The New Mach rules?

So there is little doubt that Jonathan Powell has a powerful intellect and is someone who has embraced Machiavelli’s ideas as loyally as he embraced the New Leadership agenda.  I re-read The Prince from time to time.  It is a gripping document which brings to life some of the bloodthirsty culture of 15th Century Florence.  [Machiavelli served as ambassador for Florence to Cesare Borgia, and used Borgia as a case example of leadership of his time.]

On the other hand, serious commentators still debate whether the work was intended as a satire on the implications of undiluted pragmatism applied to the pursuit and retention of power.


The New Machiavelli

Tom Clark reviews The New Machiavelli in The Guardian

McBride’s head revisited: Spads spin and creativity

April 13, 2009


The sacking of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damien McBride raises questions about the moral neutrality of creativity and the implications of this for leadership

Politics, like any sub-culture, has its own dialect and signifiers which are viewed with suspicion by outsiders, and used unthinkingly inside the tent. This week the word spads oozed into the wider public consciousness from Westminster, referring to special political advisors.

Spads, we learn, are functionaries hired to bring in fresh ideas, supplying their political masters with ‘out of the box’ thinking (to use another much-loathed signifier of management and political speak).

If Spads have a patron saint it would be Machiavelli, widely remembered for his handbook of political advice to leaders, a best-seller ever since it was written nearly five centuries ago.
Our story this week deals with the sudden dismissal of Gordon Brown’s special advisor, Damien McBride. Damien’s ideas hardly compare with the wisdom of mighty Mach for the power of their insights. About the only thing the two spads have in common is loyalty to a patron and to the patron’s perceived best interests.

Spads occupy a world which often brackets off moral judgments in its preoccupations with extreme pragmatism. I happen to think it raises another important issue for leaders on the moral neutrality of the creative act (which I’ll get to later).

McBride’s head revisited

First, the context to the McBride story. Seems that while musing on how to support the waning cause of his master’s popularity, McBride hit on the idea of smearing Gordon’s political enemies. In the manner of spads, he ran it up the flagpole to see who would salute it. Or, less metaphorically, he sent the idea by email to a friend and fellow Spad, Derek Draper. Said e-mail gets into the public domain. Let’s spread around some juicy rumours about David Cameron. Oh yes, and George Osborne as well, and what’s her name, that Nadine Dorries. What a wheeze! The stories don’t even have to be true. Brilliant.

Not very clever at all, really. According to Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political correspondent [April 1th 2009]

[McBride] had been by Gordon Brown’s side for many years, paid to try to control the media coverage of his boss. But the e-mails he wrote to his old pal – another former Labour spin doctor, Derek Draper – crossed the line even in the often brutal world of politics.
He is leaving Number 10 with no severance pay, no fat pay off, according to a Downing Street source.

And not everyone appears to be buying Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne’s explanation that this was “one private e-mail exchange between a couple of friends who were knocking backwards and forwards ideas.”

Drearily, the story survives a few days

Something has to fill the headlines over the Easter holiday period. Gordon Brown (with or without spad advice) seems to have acted decisively in damage limitation. It seems likely that without some unexpected twist to the tale, the Prime Minister will endure short-term public embarrassment, the cost of closure of the episode. Why no long-term damage? Partly because of the likeliness that efforts to do so will require political energies as well as media enthusiasm. The conservatives are unlikely to divert too much effort from more promising targets, already identified or hopping into view of their artillery.

In essence, it is a sad and not unfamiliar political story. Remember the tale of the humiliation of a spad who had the idea of a good day to bury bad news, [after the twin towers atrocity of 2001] and who lost her job when the idea leaked into the public domain?

A question of creativity

If we look at the story differently, we see that it raises questions about widely-held assumptions about the nature of creativity.

Creativity is about thinking the unthinkable. Yes. Creativity is often associated with drawing attention to ideas which have been ignored and gone unnoticed. Yes. The touchstone of a creative idea on these grounds is the moment of insight. The emotional charge accompanying the act of creation. ‘Eureka! Why didn’t I think of that before’.

Social conditioning reduces openness to the unconventional so that the feared and challenging and unfamiliar become ‘unthinkable’. The nonconformist serves to draw attention to such ideas. Less concerned with social criticism, he or she presses on. For Shaw, it is unreasonableness that is needed for progress. More recently, for Richard Florida, it is bohemianism which gives added vitality to a creative culture.

I find it more convincing to recognise the dangers of over-rigid and limited evaluation of ideas in inhibiting individuals and groups from accepting the merits of new ideas. Two cheers for Florida’s bohemians and Shaw’s unreasonable man. One cautionary reminder: unconventionality can be a form of knee-jerk rebellion or of eccentricity, both of which may help shake up the over-tight bonds of conventional thinking. We may chose to label all such behaviours examples of creativity in action.

For me, most politicians have accepted the view that they didn’t get where they are through outstanding abilities at coming up with good ideas. This opened the way to spads to do their creative thinking for them. And also to be there to get the blame if something unpleasant results from their subsequent creative actions.

This line of reasoning takes me to the conclusion that Mr McBride was not particularly creative. His moment of inspiration amounted essentially to ‘let’s smear Cameron’. As an idea, its down there with Kenny Everett’s less than inspired cry ‘Let’s bomb Russia’, or more recently Russell Brand’s on-air ravings against another media figure. Novelty is not an adequate criterion for creative productivity.