Gaddafi was fooling some of the people all of the time

August 24, 2011

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

Col Mummar Gaddafi’s regime was facing the end as the opposition forces met unexpectedly light resistance to their entry into Tripoli. It seems he had been “fooling some of the people all of the time”.

Sunday [August 21st 2011] the news from Libya was of fierce fighting outside the capital Tripoli. By Monday morning local time, troops had advanced into Tripoli with only light resistance. An announcement was made that the Transitional National Council (TNC) would move within days to Tripoli to form a transitional government.

A Tipping Point?

President Obama was reported as describing the events as a tipping point for Gaddafi’s regime. The term was repeated by other commentators. Perhaps it was. But it shows how much easier it is to recognise a tipping point in hindsight than in advance.

Fooling some of the people …

The tipping point also showed how Gaddafi had created a belief that his support in Tripoli was deep-rooted. It fooled many people including all the commentaries I had read. It was a view even held by the advancing forces according to one of their spokesmen. On one hand, Gaddafi’s statements had become more violent and irrational. Yet on the other hand he preserved the one big myth, of the strong support for his regime in Tripoli.

‘Reading and testing” leadership messages

When a leader speaks, you will always have a chance to test their message. It is easy to dismiss a public speech as ‘just rhetoric’, or ‘only propaganda’. But taking such a bleak view blocks off any deeper reflection. The point always to be remembered is that the most convincing message contains a grain of truth. Most of us swallowed as truth the wrong grain. It was hard to believe his statement that he was successfully overcoming ‘NATO aggression’. But maybe, just maybe, the displays of public support were not entirely orchestrated…

Belief swings?

overnight there was a different sort of tipping point. The evidence before our eyes was that the oppositional forces had swept into Tripoli. Far from meeting whole-hearted resistance there appeared to be minimum support for the regime. Now the belief swung in the opposite direction. Gaddafi had no support whatsoever.
The tipping point (again in hindsight) was in the perceptions of ‘wide support’ to ‘no support’.

The fragile euphoria of liberation

Against a visible background on continuing fighting, one joyful young woman told the BBC that ‘100% of people now opposed Gaddafi’. Her joy was unfeigned. Within hours other realities became clearer. There is a fragile euphoria to a yearning for liberation.

What happened next

What happened next has been widely recorded, as President Obama’s tipping point did indeed have some predictive accuracy. For a while, ‘the fog of war’ further confused matters, as his son Saif al-Islam stood triumphantly outside the compound [Pictured above, Tuesday 23rd August] to demonstrate as false the rumours was of his own arrest. But within days the evidence was of a regime damaged beyond any immediate fight back. Gaddafi’s central fortress was quickly overwhelmed.

The next symbolic act

The next important symbolic act is considered to be the capture of Colonel Gaddafi. Until then, the information available remains in need of serious testing as the world remakes its maps of Libya’s future.

Bill Bratton to advise on London’s gang culture: A test case for creative leadership?

August 14, 2011

by Tudor Rickards

Bill Bratton is one of America’s top police officers, with a record of success as a strategic leader and change agent. His appointment by David Cameron to advise on gang culture offers a test case for theories of creative leadership and change

I have followed the story of Bill Bratton’s leadership methods for some years. The case is written up in the textbook Dilemmas of Leadership and has been revised for a new edition [2012]. It has also figured in an earlier LWD post [Dec 2006] in which it was compared with the efforts in Greater Manchester to deal with gang culture.

In an interview for the BBC Mr Bratton was reported as saying

“I think part of what the government is going to do is to take a look at what worked and what didn’t work during the course of the last week [Aug 2011]. My assignment is to focus more on the issues of the American experience dealing with gangs and what we may be able to share with them that might help them to prevent similar activities in the future. Our success in Los Angeles in reducing gang violence significantly was a co-ordination of very assertive tough police tactics but also a lot of community outreach, a lot of creative, innovative programmes such as a significant use of gang interventionists.”

Beyond Soundbites

The riots last week were accompanied by an outburst of suggestions from experts offering a welter of explanations and prescriptions. They were in part soundbites which tapped into simplistic notions of morality and control. Broadly, they gave comfort to the public mood of hawkishness for dealing with the rioters with debate around whether there was any benefit from seeking to understand the wider social context of alienation and disaffection.

In contrast, Bratton’s comments above links assertive tough police tactics with strategic programmes of a creative kind. This is not a simple concept to convey as a soundbite.

Police training and leadership development

HM Police forces in the UK have an international reputation for selection, training and development of its officers. Its training colleges continue to to provide support for other forces around the world. ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) is far more than a professional trade union (which arguably it is). As an infrequent guest speaker, I can confirm that its annual conference engages with complex strategic, political, and operational matters in a challenging and impressive fashion.

As one ACPO member pointed out this weekend [Aug 12th 2011] senior police figures are in regular contact about best practices with their counterparts around the world including the United States.

Mr Cameron’s Departure Lounge favourites

The Prime Minister has shown an enthusiasm for emerging ideas for management and leadership. He has been known to encourage the reading of such books as Nudge , which outlines a system of social shaping through carefully designed feedback, consistent with Bill Bratton’s ‘zero tolerance for broken windows’ concept.

I have suggested [in the book Dilemmas of Leadership] that one leadership strategy for organisational change is the encouragement of widespread study of a favoured book. The idea was presented as a Departure Lounge dilemma in which a young executive has to evaluate the ideas in such a book rapidly. Mr Cameron’s cabinet presumably has members who pass on that challenge to advisors (some of whom may have drawn the book to the attention of the PM in the first place).

I have some recollection that the works of Malcolm Gladwell have also found favour in the past. Among then, The Tipping Point cites Bill Bratton and directly illustrates how a leader’s actions can trigger radical change.

For further study

The appointment of Bill Bratton has the hallmarks of a symbolic leadership gesture. That is not to say it has no practical value. The story is worth following and studying for its insights into currently popular leadership themes outlined above.

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.

Clijsters the US Open and the Wimbledon Roof

September 14, 2009

KIm Clijsters

Kim Clijsters wins the US Open. The story is hailed as a remarkable example of happenchance. But was it?

A wonderful win for Kim Clijsters at the US Open [September 2009]. The match stood above a seemingly endless sequence of technically correct but stereotyped women’s contests of recent times. Her young opponent Caroline Wozniacki showed enough tennis to suggest she will win major tournaments in the future., and enough charisma to ensure a sparkling career.

Tennis remains a minority sport in most countries. Maybe recently it has grown in popularity through Justin Henin and ‘the other Belgian’ player, Kim Clijsters. Maybe in Switzerland through Roger Federer’s impact globally. Too often, the sport can be upstaged, even during Open Championships by some other sports story from football, golf, or athletics, perhaps accompanied by impact of non-sporting shock-horror chemicals abuse.

Even Kim’s tale this week was in danger of being upstaged by the bizarre end to her semi-final win over tournament favourite Serena Williams, who was reduced to a blind rage over line calls and defaulted at match-point. The media nearly forgot the other story.

Kim’s Tale

Here is Kim’s tale. Clijsters shows precocious talent as a junior, but another junior from her own country, Justin Henin was to overtake her and become world No 1 and a multi-slam winner.

Both retire young to seek more stable family lives. Klijsters has a baby, daughter Jada, and appears to be settling for comfortable domesticity away from the sporting headlines.

Then she took part in a match to commemorate (bizarrely) a new roof. OK, a new roof on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but the event still seems to capture something about the slight nuttiness of Tennis and its promotion. Kim plays a set with three iconic figures, partnering Tim Henman, England’s almost man of tennis, and the sport’s most glamorous couple, and suprstars, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff

The exhibition game demonstrates the special skills of its very top performers. It still leaves the impression that the enjoyment (as with most so-called senior events) has little to do with the chances of the players competing again at the highest level.

Immediately after the display, almost jokingly, Clijsters remarks that she might just give tournament tennis another go.

After a few warm-up tournaments, she gets a wild-card into the US Open. There is some press interest in her early rounds, to catch the dram of her inevitable demise. But there wasn’t an early-round demise. Her progress to the final included wins not just over Serena but over her formidable sister Venus.

Making sense of the story

The story as it is being told (you might say as it is being weaved or spun) is that ‘if Kim hadn’t played at Wimbledon in the roof-opening exhibition, she would never had an opportunity to rediscover her appetite for the game.’ It is a plausible idea, and I can nearly believe it.

It fits nicely into a widespread belief in fate or luck playing a part in our destinies. ‘If only I had done that …’ ‘If I hadn’t caught that particular train…’. ‘If Kim hadn’t accepted the invite to Wimbledon.’

Her’s another possibility. A year into being a mum with an much-loved daughter, Clijsters begins to miss something. She watches women players win events, and thinks maybe she could do better than that. She agrees to play in a event, and starts training hard because that’s what champions would do. She discovers, as with the Wimbledon experience, that she might still be able to get to the top again. Or she figures that a few million dollars might still make a worthwhile nest-egg. And where better than the US Open, scene of her only Open win, and arguably her best chance again? Puts togther a great back-up team.

Another variant: Kim, even while pregant. remained a celebrity. Jada has hardly been concealed from the media spotlight (her arrival on court after her mother’s US Open triumph was a media imperative).

There were quite a few forces which would have been active in urging Kim to come out of retirement.

My point is this. There may be many possible trigger points which produce what appears to be a tipping point change reaction. Such a trigger point is therefore special in one way, but not in another. There is a trajectory of events which is easier to anticipate, even if we can still marvel at the story which ‘all started at Wimbledon at the roof-ceremony’ .


Image showing the publicity machine in action from

Did Gordon Brown’s Problems Start with Europe?

June 25, 2008

The Irish No vote to the proposed European Treaty has thrown the the EEC’s plans into disarray. Ought we to assume that the decision to avoid a referendum in the UK was one of the earliest and most persistent of factors which has damaged Gordon Brown and his Government?

I am wary of arguments that are based on identifying an episode or event which ‘caused’ subsequent changes. ‘For the sake of a nail, the shoe was lost’, runs the nursery rhyme. The implied logic is that of the catastrophe theorist who knows of the mathematical possibility that a flap of a butterfly’s wing can influence the specific path of a Tsunami, half a world away.

That’s why I am cautious in claiming that Gordon Brown’s subsequent misfortunes stemmed from a decision to avoid a referendum on the new Treaty for Europe. Maybe the decision produced a catastrophic change in fortune, ending the honeymoon period, and the so-called Brown Bounce. On the other hand, maybe it didn’t.

The Case for Catastrophe theory

The rise and fall of Gordon Brown’s fortunes seem to follow the pattern of Catastrophe theory. The theory associated with Rene Thom demonstrates how in highly turbulent conditions, unpredictabilities are resolved as a system ‘flips over’ into a more predictable and radically different state. The collapse of a fire-damaged building, the floodwaters that breach a river’s banks, even the apparently calm exterior of a student who wreaks mayhem on an unsuspecting campus are all examples that seem to fit the pattern.

There is much that seems borrowed from catastrophe theory in the newer metaphor of a tipping point.

The basis of both Catastrophe theory and Tipping Point theory is that complex systems may change their conditions in complex and unpredictable ‘non-linear’ ways. Graphs go haywire. As Yates put it ‘The centre cannot hold’.

According to such models, it may be that today’s unpopularity of Gordon Brown reflects a flip-over, after an initial period of pseudo-equilibrium. Subsequent financial and economic woes merely helped demonstrate the new conditions in the system.

The Government will have to find some way to work its way out and upwards in public esteem. This may be through another rare tipping point (Margaret Thatcher may have experienced such a point through the Falklands war, many years ago). Or there may be a gradual readjustment as some of the current anger directed at the Government subsides over the next year or so.

The Case against Catastrophe Theory

The popular understanding of Catastrophe theory is based on one of the more simple versions that has been examined. More complex versions do not easily become represented as having the famous cusp of uncertainty.

There is every likelihood that the political conditions impacting on a Party’s popularity (as an output variable) will require one of the more complex sets of constraints for its modelling.

I hope some more mathematically-skilled colleague will provide a more informed analysis than I am capable of.

My suspicions are more by analogy with the processes of change encountered in processes of change and innovation. The popular theory is that uncertainties (and creativity) occur in a ‘fuzzy front end’ after which the system is plannable and predictable. The chaos subsides into calm. The conventional wisdom of Catastrophe theory is that Systems flip over shift from instability to stability.

Some voices have warned against the dangers of any received wisdom. Systems theorist Ilfryn Price describes this as The Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group (acronym Cowdung).

A second line of thought offers an alternative perspective on change has been attributed to the behavioural theorist Karl Weick. Weick argues that social change is essentially a matter of the meaning attributed to that change.

From this Weickian perspective, Gordon Brown seeks to influence the electorate by offering a coherent ‘vision’ or ‘big idea’. If the leader fails, it is because the electorate makes a different sense of the leader’s vision.

Sense-making theory is not opposed to catastrophe theory. Indeed, Weick has provided striking examples of how sense-making breaks down under conditions of crisis.

The Mann Gulch disaster is one of the best known of his studies.

However, the processes turn out to require a highly improbable combination of triggering circumstances which contribute to a shift or breakdown in sense-making. The space shuttle did not fail only because of a faulty O-ring. And Gordon Brown (on these arguments) is not in trouble as a direct consequence of a bad initial decision over the European Treaty.

What Do You Think?

One of the few undisputed bits of evidence in the tale of Gordon’s rise and fall, is that he scored highly in popular polls when he became Prime Minister, but the popularity seemed to change quickly.

The switch seemed consistent with the mechanism of a tipping point or a catastrophic systems failure. Alternatively, this is the way we make sense of a complex political process, and may not reflect a radical and irreversible disruption in public perceptions.

What was it that Harold Wilson said about a week in politics?