Greece Demonstrates, Syria bleeds

November 14, 2012

In Greece, Political leaders continue to battle for the country’s economic survival. The ruling coalition is introducing increasingly unpopular austerity concessions. Refugees from Syria find there is little compassion for their plight. Leadership lessons are hard to find

The political and economic turmoil in Greece continues.

Last week [7th November 2012] judges and doctors participated in a general strike. As politicians deliberated, over 80,000 angry protestors including a group of policemen in uniform, demonstrated outside the Parliament buildings.

The Greek dilemma

The Greek dilemma is increasingly seen as misery and decline inside the Economic community, or misery and decline outside it.

If Greece leaves

The most vulnerable members of the Economic community such as Greece, Spain and Portugal all have the most recent history of military dictatorships ‘rescuing’ the country at its time of need. Is there any evidence of that about to happen? It seems at least a possibility, if Greece leaves the EEC.

Meanwhile, in Syria

Meanwhile the national turmoil has implications for the bloody conflict waging in neighbouring Syria. [14th November 2012]. Even the cold statistics make heart-breaking reading.

The Syrian Red Crescent charity says two and a half million people have been displaced within Syria, and a UN refugee agency considers the estimate on the conservative side. Nearly half a million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, the UN says. Figures of more than thirty people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began over the last eighteen months.

Civilians flee in their thousands into camps on the Turkish border.

Life savings for an eight mile boat journey.

I watched a BBC Newsnight report last night, which showed desperate Syrian families prepared to spend their life savings in a risky crossing of eight miles, into Greece. Hardly surprisingly, those who arrive find the bitterness of people at their own plight, and a mood of heightened xenophobia against immigrants in general.

Leadership, what leadership?

I would like to draw some instructive leadership lessons from these stories, but they are hard to find. Perhaps there is the paradox to consider of the weakness of strong leaders and the limits to autocratic rule. Maybe we should think about the inter-connectedness of events which make dominant theories of leadership too simplistic to help us understand events and find actions which protect the interests of those most at risk.

Not a good week for leaders

February 25, 2011

Earthquake damage to Christchurch Cathedral
The news has been full of leadership stories this week. But they have been not so much about heroic figures, as leaders struggling to deal with crises from Libya to London, from Wall Street to Washington. For personal heroism we have to go to rescuers after the earthquake in Christchurch Canterbury, New Zealand

The start of February 2011 has produced global shocks politically, and in their wake economically. The headlines have been reserved for events in the middle east, when attention shifted from Egypt to neighbouring Libya where Colonel Gadhafi has appeared weakened. Events there appear more like an old-fashioned and bloody insurrection than the new-media supported challenges to regimes in Tunisia and Egypt last month.

What appears to be in common to these events is the weakening or termination of authority of a long-standing ruler, charged with being out of touch with the democratic rights of their people.

Efforts to maintain a ‘strong man’ position have tended to be followed by concessionary offers of reform, which have encouraged further efforts to depose the regimes.

Drugged by al Qaeda

Moammar Gadhafi at present has refused to take such a conciliatory stance. In a telephoned speech [24 Feb 2011] to Libyan state television he put the blame for the uprising sweeping Libya on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, saying that terrorist group had been drugging Libyans and thus inducing them to revolt. Western commentators remain unconvinced.


Shockwaves from the region have troubled other leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary William Hague have been under pressure for acting too slowly to support repatriation of British citizens. President Obama continues to take political hits as he struggles to avoid accusations of America being too enthusiastic in favour of military intervention. Stock market speculation was evident in light of uncertainties over oil supplies and prices.

And at Apple

One of the sad leadership tales of the week was at Apple. Shareholders are increasing demands for the company to reveal a succession plan for the iconic Steve Jobs, whose medical condition is seen to be a serious threat to the company’s future prospects. Unlike most political leaders, Jobs’ contributions have been visible, immense, and widely acclaimed.

A real crisis

Events even in Libya have had less human consequences than were produced in the earthquake which has devastated the city of Canterbury, New Zealand this week. There, the response has had less to do with top-down leadership than with community response and personal heroism.


Christchurch Cathedral and the effects of the Earthquake [23rd Feb 2011]. Image from australiangeographic.

Egypt: Tipping point or business as usual?

February 1, 2011

Mohamed el-Bareidi

Egypt’s turmoil prompts questions about the outcomes of this week’s demonstrations. There has been speculation about irreversible change, or business as usual. One possibility is it that it may be both


The post was written originally at the start of the monumentous few weeks which eventually saw the departure of President Mubarak.

The original post follows:

One of the frustrations of theories of change is their frailty as predictive aids. History at best gives a cloudy view of what will happen and particularly when.

In the relatively simple circumstances of boardroom battles, it may just be possible to identify a few promising scenarios. But tipping points, however popular a business school concept, and however well-promoted by management gurus, are much easier to recognise in hindsight. In global political events involving the replacement of a national leader a perceived critical incident may be not much of a predictor.

The BBC identified three scenarios

The BBC has covered the uprising thoroughly. The Mubarak regime is regarded as an essential ally to American and Israeli interests. The army is considered as having more popular credibility with a reputation of avoiding direct action against the populance. The police less so. Nobel prize-winner Al-Bareidi [image above] has stepped forward as a realistic leader in waiting.

The BBC analysis has suggested three possible scenarios:
[1] Mubarak Quits: The escalating demonstrations show that “[many people] clearly want Hosni Mubarak to give up the presidency immediately. The most common demand, shouted and painted on banners, is the Arabic word irhal, meaning simply go.”
[2] Hosni Mubarak may attempt to stay (business as usual): He draws on the support of the police in its various guises. The army is signalling it would play a relatively neutral role.
[3] There is an ‘orderly’ transition to a more open society, free elections, regularly appointed political leaders

Tipping points and domino theories

Political strategists have found comfort in making sense of complex issues as being resolved by critical incidents. President Bush found the nine-eleven attacks such a defining incident clarifying his enemies. In hindsight it was all a bit more complicated. Yet tipping points and moments of destiny can seize the imagination. There is comfort in believing the future is clear. It is sometimes accompanied by a belief in the so-called domino theory in which loss of one strategic stronghold produces a sequence of losses. The concept is paralleled with the old story “for want of a shoe a horse was lost .. for want of a horse a battle was lost”. There has been such stories constructed over the last weeks: First Tunisia, next Egypt, (next the neighbouring states as if the revolutionary forces were spreading geographically like a plague, that other apocalyptic horseman

What will happen in Egypt?

Consider the events over the last few years globally. In Zimbabwe, Mr Mugabe continues to resist attempts to ensure “fair and free elections”. In Iran, the “revolution through social media” has been halted. In Burma, the release of Aung san suu kyi may have been a Mandela moment, but the progress along the road to political freedom seems as long as ever.

What will happen in Egypt? Tipping points may have symbolic power, but more material factors and multiple stakeholders will make each sequence of political events distinct and with its unique set of circumstances. And yet there is also a sense of history repeating itself in nuanced form. There was a Mandela moment in South Africa. The Berlin Wall did crumble rapidly and literally. Mr Mubarak’s options are increasingly limited, but still not completely defined by forces outside his control. He does not yet have to resign his game of life and death chess.

If only because of his age, he will depart, perhaps earlier than he expected a month or so ago. Even then, it is not so clear that Mr Al-bereidi will be a tipping point in the processes of bringing about democratic change. The outcome may be more ‘business as usual’ of a time period longer than the protesters must be hoping for.

MPs face public fury: The morality of crowds?

June 9, 2009

Sharon Bedford

Sharon Bedford

The unfolding drama at Westminster sees British MPs forced to resign after public meetings which have demonstrated the anger of the public against their elected representatives. Are we seeing another facet of group behaviour which could be termed the morality of crowds?

The wisdom of crowds

There is understandable approval for the ideas that crowds exercise ‘group smarts’ that go beyond the judgement of an elite few. This concept was popularised and the opposing view rejected by James Surowiecki who noted

“No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
-H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken was wrong.

In [his] endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

The fury of crowds

The appeal of Surowiecki’s idea should not blind us to the evidence of the fury of crowds, and the potential for this fury to be exploited by popularist leaders. One of the criticisms of the power of charismatic leaders, is the apparent impact of a powerful well-delivered speeches.

The morality of crowds

Crowd behaviour exhibits other tendencies. I have recently been struck by the manifestation of righteous indignation in the public mood against their elected representatives.

Public outrage in the UK, a month ago directed at anyone implicated in the credit crunch, has been partially redirected toward the new villains, our own appointed parliamentary representatives

Perhaps righteous indignation contributes to public displays of anger against the immorality of others and the justification of direct action against the targeted individuals.

The case for tax avoidance

Western society has developed (evolved if you like) mechanisms through which individuals seek to contribute as little as they are obliged to, towards the State. A complex set of scrutinizers are engaged by the State on one hand to oversee the individual payments, and individuals hire another complex set of advisors to help them avoid paying more than they have to. Financial advisors are taught the principles and practice of tax avoidance, as one of their professional skills.

Sharon Bedford, an accountant, outlines the subtleties of tax avoidance in an interesting article on the BBC website.

While MPs have now been forbidden to [claim tax allowances on second homes through their Parliamentary allowances] this tax break is still available to anyone who has a second home, and who has the means to fund relatively short- term property gains … However, the ability to sell a second home, avoiding tax on all the recent capital gains, relies on a new bit of the tax law which was extended during the last recession to help individuals forced to move home to find work.

Bedford demonstrates the way in which the system permitted claims which have been revealed as far too advantageous to those MPs willing to make them. Bedford also shows a rationale behind ‘second home’ allowances, and warns against hasty and ill thought-out new legislation

An ancient morality tale

Once upon a time there was leader who led a revolution against injustice. He was able to channel the anger of his people so successfully that an oppressive regime was brought down. The people called for justice against those who had wronged them. The leader worked diligently to convince the people that there was a path forward which addressed both needs for justice over past wrongs and commitment to shared goals in the future.

But that was just a dream wasn’t it? It couldn’t work today.

…Or could it?

Obama seeks peace, Labour party seeks assisted suicide

June 5, 2009


As President Obama seeks to kick-start the Middle East peace process, Gordon Brown’s labour administration seems intent on committing political suicide

I will reserve comment until later on Barack Obama’s efforts on the world stage. Politicians in the UK have a far more important preoccupation, namely self preservation. The instinct mingles with a mood of self-destruction.

Battle for survival

The battle for political survival is reaching a peak in a week of resignations and political plotting against his leadership. Cabinet members and back-bench MPs had no longer any doubt that their political days are numbered unless something drastic happens. They hope for miraculous rescue through a change of leadership and a revival of voter confidence among voters.

Gordon Brown’s reaction is to plan a much trailled and imminent reshuffle of his administation.

A particularly unfortunate combination of events have contributed to the current outbreak of desperate political actions. Polls have continued to head south for the Government to near unprecedented lows. The public obsession over MP expenses in the UK blots out stories even of celebrity reality shows. This applies to the BBC Newsnight programme. Incidentally, that late night show is not normally noted for innovation, but now it has announced plans [June 4th] to present a new format for modelled on the more popular, but equally confrontational Dragons Den format. Maybe the mood of desperate searching for rescue has infected the decisions of the Newsnight programmers.

The crisis intensifies for the Government

The crisis intensifies as first local election results confirm the Government’s gloomy expectations. There was a certain black humour in an early teletext announcement overnight [June 5th 2009]

The early counts were dominated by Conservative wins, but as the night wore on …

there was no solace for Labour. [I.e. the results continued to be dominated by conservative wins].

The resignations

The resignations of cabinet ministers continued, as commentators assessed the nature of the actions. Hopeless individuals wanting out of an intolerable political situation, or a synchronized plot?

James Purnell’s shock resignation [Work and Pensions] on Thursday night follows news that Jacqui Smith [Home Secretary and Hazel Blears [Communities minister] are quitting. The Lib Dems said it was clear the government was in “total meltdown”.
Mr Purnell’s resignation letter – printed in Friday’s newspapers – calls on Mr Brown to “stand aside” to give Labour “a fighting chance of winning”.

Meanwhile in another part of the world

Meanwhile, President Obama has been as outward looking as the British politicians have been introspective. [So why place it to the end of this blog post? Partly because this a story unfolding over a far longer time period. The political frenzy in UK politics is only worth reporting quickly as events crop up with increasing velocity.]

President Barack Obama has said the “cycle of suspicion and discord” between the United States and the Muslim world must end.
In a keynote speech [at Cairo University] Mr Obama called for a “new beginning” in ties. He admitted there had been “years of distrust” and said both sides needed to make a “sustained effort… to respect one another and seek common ground”.

He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech. White House officials had said the speech was intended to start a process to “re-energise the dialogue with the Muslim world”.

Obama is fast becoming the signature figure of a charismatic leader. But his impact while emotionally engaging is also accompanied by intellectually powerfully developed arguments. The combination will be needed throughout his Presidency and beyond.