Justin Welby: how a leader deals with news that would devastate most people

April 19, 2016

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The Archbishop of Canterbury discovers his private life conceals a secret that most people would find difficult or even impossible to deal with.  His reaction is admirable

The news headlines promised prurience. The spiritual leader of the Church of England finds himself the product of a brief extra-marital relationship between his mother Jane Portal who was Winston Churchill’s personal secretary, and Sir Anthony Montague Browne (1923–2013), Churchill’s private secretary.

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Avram Grant is a Jim Collins sort of Leader

May 11, 2008

Soft-spoken. Uncomfortable in the limelight. But more successful than many charismatic leaders. Avram Grant fits the description of the fifth-level leader identified by management guru Jim Collins

Got it. I have been wondering about the apparent contradiction between Avram Grant’s success at Chelsea Football Club, and the continued doubts cast on his leadership skills by many people, including Chelsea’s own fans. He fits the description of a successful leader according to a recent theory which I will outline below.

Doubts about his capabilities are mostly attributed to the selection process. Roman Abramovitch is the wealthiest owner of any football club in the world. He has bankrolled Chelsea to acquire some of the best footballers in the world. He even acquired someone of substantial pedigree to manage the club, one Jose Mourinho.

Jose’s tale has been thoroughly reported. The charismatic of charismatics whose earlier successes appeared to be continuing at Chelsea. Jose did well. But in the language of the Monty Python character, what did Jose ever really do for Roman? Did his team win the European cup? No. Did it win the Premier league? Well, not every year. Did it play delightful football like their rivals Arsenal and Manchester United? No. Did Jose show his gratitude when Roman bought him the great Russian striker Shevchenko? Niet.

There’s no mystery about Jose’s departure. Mourinho had a track-record as someone who expects to be in charge, rather than the salary-man of a wealthy owner. At Chelsea there was a great salary, but he was still a salary-man. Furthermore, if Roman wanted somebody different, he could afford to make that happen.

So Jose went. Faithful fans began their period of mourning. But then the story took a surprising turn. Roman had already brought Avram into the club, to ‘help’ Jose. (‘And had Jose been grateful?’ you ask. Enough of that. ) Avram was put in Jose’s place, despite the little difficulty of qualifications.

The Chelsea fans remained mostly in thrall to the deposed manager. The charismatic magic of Jose persisted with them, as with the media commentators who had been capitivated by his telegenic style and amusing quotes at press conferences.

Why did Roman pick Avram?

The popular explanation was that Roman Abramovich brought in a friend, someone he trusted, someone who would not cause trouble. It seemed likely that said friend was a stop-gap until Roman could line-up the best coach that money could buy who wasn’t Jose Mourinho, perhaps at the end of the season.

There is some logic to the suggestion. Roman is playing a strategic chess game that is more than one-move long.

Note to non-chess players. The most powerful fighting piece in chess is the queen. But the most important piece is the king. A player can sacrifice the queen and still win the game. You can’t sacrifice the king, except in a symbolic gesture of resigning the game. In this game, Jose was a valued player, but could always be sacrificed in the interests of the king.

A moment’s thought would at least suggest that Avram might have chosen someone of considerable competence. Friendship was unlikely to be the only factor in the decision-making process.

Avram gets the full treatment

Time passes. Chelsea fans continue to mourn the departure of Jose. The new manager is utterly uncomfortable in public. In press conferences he is ridiculed for his apparently lethargic style. Can this man motivate anybody? Avram gets the treatment usually reserved for coaches of the England football team.

There was one important difference

There was one important difference in the new manager’s performance at Chelsea (compared with, say Steve McClaren’s for England). Avram’s team continued to win.

You could even say they go from strength to strength. There are a few embarrassing losses in cup-games. Then some journalist starts comparing the team’s results with those under Jose. Not bad. Not bad at all. How much is it not bad? A bit better actually.

In the last months of the season, under Avram, the team had caught up on Manchester United. With one week to go, the two teams had the same number of points, and Chelsea were second only on goal difference. Both Man U and Chelsea had also battled their ways to the European Cup Final. On team results, Avram Grant had confounded his many critics. Pundits begin to say that Avram has been badly treated.

Avram Grant is a fifth-level leader

I was one of those doubting his capabilities. I had just about noticed that Grant had made bold substitutions from time to time, after which Chelsea had gone on to win. But I hadn’t credited the coach much for his excellent decision-making. Like others, I had casually assumed that the glittering stars at Chelsea had stirred themselves and played to their capabilities, perhaps urged on by the formidable personality of captain John Terry.

Then, this morning, [May 10th 2008] Eureka! What had I been teaching on that leadership programme recently? The theory of the fifth-level leader. Jim Collins chronicles the successes of fifth-level leaders, and the limitations in the long-run of leaders showing lower-level characteristics. The term implies leadership success over extended periods, and often in a rather selfless way in achieving something permanent for an organization.

This was the theme of an article in Harvard Business Review which warned of the dangers of ‘the Rambo in pinstripes’.

That’s it. Avram is a classic example of the Fifth-level leader, who is unassuming but effective, and more in control of his own ego than many celebrity leaders (sorry, Jose).

In an earlier post, I suggested that in the Premiership, Mark Hughes was another such leader. Grant, like Hughes, presents himself as modest to an unusual extent. Nevertheless, their actions could be associated with what the theory describes as ‘fierce resolve’.

The limits of Fifth-level Leadership Theory

Being modest does not necessarily make you a fifth-level leader. Winston Churchill was dismissive of more modest men than himself. ‘He’s got a lot to be modest about’ he remarked famously about one political rival.

The limits to fifth-level theory may be seen in the famous Churchillian quip. He was referring to Clement Attlee. There is no doubt where history places Churchill as a leader. But on the Jim Collins scale, Churchill would not fit the bill as a ‘pure’ fifth-level leader. Attlee, ironically, would. Attlee was unassuming and successful. He also was uncharismatic, and under-estimated.

Remember that fifth-level leaders are less likely to become public celebrities than are more charismatic personalities. This suggests that Jim Collins is right to the extent that his fifth-level leaders may shun the limelight and be under-estimated. Avram may just serve an example of this bias, as a result of which we overlook the merits of such leaders.

However, I find myself resisting the stronger claim that fifth-level leaders, as judged by their achievements, have to be self-effacing (like Avram Grant and Clem Attlee) and that egotistical and charismatic individuals like Churchill and Mourinho are positioned below them in some hierarchy of leadership styles..

Put simply, Jim Collins helps us see why Avram Grant might have been under-estimated by many football experts. But the case of Avram Grant may also suggest that a theory which puts leaders into a hierarchy of excellence may be a bit too simplistic to explain the characteristics of successful leaders.

Postscript. What happened next?

A few hour after this post was completed, Manchester United narrowly win the Premier League over Chelsea. Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea remains in doubt.


Celebrity journalists as thought leaders: The case of Robert Peston

December 7, 2007

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The Australian journalist Mark Day argues that celebrity journalists today follow far earlier examples. We examine the cases of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill. Parallels with Robert Peston’s role in the Northern Rock drama can be made

Mark Day is the doyen of Australian journalists. He recently raised concerns about the rise of the celebrity journalist, citing cases from Australia, from Rupert Murdoch’s father at Gallipoli to the notorious New York night club story which did the aspirant political leader Kevin Rudd no harm at all. Day suggests TV journalism is continuing the tradition of the celebrity journalist.

It was Mr Day’s reassuringly sage and bewhiskered visage which first grabbed my interest. This, I thought, is the face of someone who speaks with the wisdom of the ages. A role model more callow bloggers. Perhaps it was his headline: Journalists become the news.

Day has his say

Mark Day argues that journalists have always been tempted by celebrity as a route to career success. He cites the example of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and war correspondent at Gallipoli, as well as confidant of the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Murdoch ’s capacity to become part of the story is famously illustrated in an incident in which he was charged with delivering a letter from Gallipoli to authorities in London. When ‘Intercepted and relieved of his letter’ he wrote his own extended version, handed it over, when it appeared to have had some influence on British understanding of the unfolding military disaster.

Another time, another land. He might have mentioned the rise of Winston Churchill, already famed as war correspondent, and by then heavily involved in the Gallipoli campaign.

We can stretch things even further in considering the merging of journalism and social comment. Take Charles Dickens, for example, who would have been a great TV personality born a century later.

In these enlightened times

Has much changed from the days of Dickens? Not a lot, according to Day. He gives various contemporary examples from political life in Australia. One interesting one is the incident in New York some months ago, involving the youthful Kevin Rudd, at the time a wannabe Prime Minister. The story was internationally covered.

According to The Daily Telegraph

KEVIN Rudd’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have been rocked by a visit to a New York strip club where he was warned against inappropriate behaviour during a drunken night while representing Australia at the United Nations. Mr Rudd yesterday issued a statement to The Sunday Telegraph, confirming he went to the club. But he said he could not recall what happened at the night spot because he had “had too much to drink”.

Rudd’s embarrassment was short-lived. He went on to victory a few months later.

Day introduces a further twist to the tale suggesting that the incident which had occurred four years earlier, had been rather sleazily treated by the journalists, who had persuaded the notoriously high-minded Rudd to loosen up a bit. But that’s another story. He concludes that the journalist as part of the story is inevitable, and that blogging is an even more exaggerated process in which each blogger seeks to place themselves right at the heart of the story. I plead the Fifth on that one.

The campaigning journalist

Charles Dickens began his journalistic career reproducing the speeches in Parliament for his readership, a feat requiring phenomenal powers of recall. In the meanwhile, he was churning out hugely popular fictional tales which made up an outstanding social commentary of the times. Dickens as performing celebrity became even more the centre of his stories.

Then there was young Winston, whose exploits seem to have had some parallels with those of the first of the Murdoch dynasty, Keith. Churchill’s reports from the Boar war made him famous and wealthy. His fame outlasted his periodic bursts of affluence. But fame and wealth came from his creative tales in which we wrote himself as the central character. And what about Mark Twain, yet another itinerant journalist whose genius with words excused him from proximity with factual reality as he reported on his journeys?

These were early celebrity journalists. They were at times hugely influential. Another example this time from France, is Emile Zola in exposing the Drefus scandal, In this case, the author used his fame to help promote the story, rather than use the story to promote his fame.

Back to the Rock

All of which takes us back to the still smouldering case of Northern Rock. This appears to have acquired its own celebrity journalist in the shape of the BBC’s Robert Peston. It The story continues to run. Now the BBC is able to maintain a stream of exclusive scoops by interviewing someone right at the heart of the story, namely their very own Robert Peston.

Peston’s influence on events these has been mentioned in Parliament. An overview can be found in a newsletter within which the following quote summarizes the impact of Mr Peston’s journalistic activities

The following press release was issued as Update No. 5 on 18/10/2007: Press049_Northern_Rock_Value (mainly to try and stifle some inaccurate press comment), together with the following notes: Some of you may have seen Matt Ridley and Adam Applegarth responding to questions from the Treasury Select Committee on TV news on Tuesday. Not a lot new was learned from the session except that both the Chairman and the rest of the board had volunteered to resign if required. It was also clear from the evidence given, and comments by Robert Peston of the BBC later that evening on BBC TV, that the BBC announced the rescue by the Bank of England in advance of it being issued in a Regulatory News Announcement based on a leak from someone. I have so far heard three different versions of who leaked it so am not sure which is a rumour and which is the truth. But it would appear that this premature announcement stampeded the company into making the announcement and we know that it was not possibly as judiciously worded as it might have been – the end result was an unexpected rush of depositors to withdraw their cash.

Truth, rumours and Robert Peston

The thought expressed in the above had been nagging away as I followed the Northern Rock story. Clearly, The BBC’s Robert Peston was leading the pack. He must have been the envy of less well-connected political journalists around the land.

But how much is straight reporting, how much highly personalized story telling? He is clearly very much part of the story. Peston is doing no more than the heroic journalists from bygone days, who thrilled the public by not just witnessing the story, but by playing a starring role in it. Not so much communicators as creators.

Stop Press

I was about to publish this post when I heard of a story breaking, on BBC’s radio four, related by a familiar voice, that of Robert Peston. The story? A member of the third generation of Murdoch, young James, is making his mark as celebrity journalist. He becomes head of the Dynesty, and heir apparent.