- Managing in Recession
- Curriculum Vitae
- Why clients use James Cooke
- Dear Harry
- Understanding Leaders
Alpha Males dominate wolf packs, boss baboon troupes and lord it over harems of elephant seals. They, like their human equivalents, are sexual predators, aggressive, and have frequent temper tantrums. In many respects we should not find Alpha Males attractive, and yet we do. Naomi Wolfe told Al Gore that he was a Beta Male, who needed to become an Alpha if he was to win the Presidency. It is clear that most of us need an Alpha leader, just as importantly as they need followers. Feathers get ruffled along the way, because our basic biological drivers have not yet caught up with our more rapidly developing culture. Dr Low of Princeton University‘s thesis is that men are driven to control the wealth or prestige that provides the security women seek to ensure that their children are protected. The male search for power may be independent of any search for sexual rewards, but it is intriguing how often power leads to sexual areas. “I don’t know of a single head of state who has not yielded to some kind of carnal temptation.” said François Mitterrand, and added with a smile “That in itself is a reason to govern”. The irony and hypocrisy of it all is the extent to which so many societies expect their heads of state to shun lust whilst embracing power and statecraft at the same time. Strive to dominate, but deny the very urge that spurs your drive, and rewards it. We may as well demand a lion to eat lettuce!
For all the dreary moralising surrounding such hypocrisy, we all know we need Alpha leaders. But little attention has been paid so far to followers, to followership and to how it is developed and managed, and how it is abused. Followers’ motivations tend to work on two distinct levels – rational and emotional. At the rational level, they are looking for reassurances that their four primary drivers (Bonding, Acquiring, Defending and Learning) will be satisfied. And “status” as well. Woe betide the leader who does not keep all in mind. The results are the unexpected consequences described in The Failed MBO.
Few followers appreciate the levels of stress and anxiety their leaders shoulder, nor the tolerance of ambiguity and risk they need to sustain. Most followers instead inhabit a relatively cosy world of comfort zones. Here their framework for operating has already been proscribed, their authority and status has been legitimised, and key deliverables are known and understood. It is the role of the leader to ensure that the framework, authority and key deliverables are indeed clearly understood. The leader then motivates, by ensuring each worker has the skills and the space to succeed, by praising and rewarding that success, and by continually supporting, reassuring and helping. An Eden before the Fall – or is it? There are several problems with this prelapsarian picture of a simple life of happy leaders and followers complacently pottering into a warm and certain glow. Unfortunately life just isn’t like that. Let’s look at three problems in particular:
“He’s a dedicated follower of fashion” wrote Ray Davies of The Kinks and, at one easy-to-see and fun-to-be level, so are we all. That is why the great style houses of Ralph Lauren, Armani, Gucci and the rest spend so much money investing in their brands. Our followership can be measured by the increasing number of style magazines about clothing, cars, interior design, gardens or cookery, on the shelves or mailed direct to our homes. In "The Ancestor's Tale", Richard Dawkins suggests that “following fashion” is of even greater significance, it is responsible for the very start of mankind as we know it.
“Our ancestors, like other apes, walked on all fours when not up in trees, but reared up on their hind legs from time to time, perhaps ... to pick fruit off low branches ... or wade across rivers, or to show off their penises, or for any combination of reasons: Then something unusual happened. A fashion for walking bipedally arose, and it arose as suddenly and capriciously a fashions do.” Dawkins then goes on to refer to his own experience in school at Oundle in England. Styles of walking have a kind of contagiousness all of their own, he explains.
“The boarding school that I attended, Oundle in central England, had a ritual whereby the senior boys paraded into the chapel after the rest of us were in our places. Their mutually imitated style of walking, a mixture of swagger and lumbering roll (which I now, as a student of animal behaviour and a colleague of Desmond Morris, recognise as a dominance display) was so characteristic and idiosyncratic that my father, who saw it once a term on Parents’ Day, gave it a name, “the Oundle Roll”. At the time of writing, the abject sycophancy of the British Prime Minister to the US President has earned him the title “Bush’s Poodle”. Several commentators have noticed that, especially when in his company, he imitates Bush’s macho “cowboy swagger”, with arms held out to the sides as though ready to reach for two pistols.” (see Chapter 6).
The concern here is not with Prime Minister Blair, so much as with the underlying unconscious motivation that induces such mimicry. It may be insecurity, it may be a sense of personal indecisiveness. It is no coincidence that Blair, a socialist leader, frequently holidays with the most powerful and wealthy elite in Europe. By “rolling along with Dubya”, he may feel better about himself, he may be transferring Bush’s aura of power to himself by “aping” his physical gait, as a younger brother apes the walk of his elder sibling.
Michael Maccomby has summarised the origins of the concept of transference:
“Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was the first person to provide some explanation of how a follower’s unconscious motivations work. After practicing psychoanalysis for a number of years, Freud was puzzled to find that his patients – who were, in a sense, his followers – kept falling in love with him. Although most of his patients were women, the same thing happened with his male patients. It is a great tribute to Freud that he realised that his patients’ idealization of him couldn’t be traced to his own personal qualities. Instead, he concluded, people were relating to him as if he were some important person from their past – usually a parent. In undergoing therapy – or in falling in love, for that matter – people were transferring experiences and emotions from past relationships onto the present. Freud thought the phenomenon was universal. He wrote “There is no love which does not produce infantile stereotypes,” which, for him, explained why so many of us choose spouses like our parents.
Freud called the dynamic “transference,” and it was one of his great discoveries.” (HBR September 2004. See also “The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership”: Broadway Books 2003)
In the workplace, people can be followers for a range of deep-seated, often irrational, and even fanatical reasons. Leaders can be seen as father figures and their employees motivated, and almost obsessively loyal and dedicated, SO LONG AS THEY FEEL THEY ARE FAVOURED. Leaders can no less be seen as the only arbiters of power, never to be crossed, blindly to be followed by acolytes who unquestioningly carry out their orders, and bask in the often fickle sunshine of their boss’s gaze. Followers will even suffer persistent bullying, because it allows them to avoid confronting the really uncomfortable truths of their own humdrum lives. Transference can take place within close relationships (a secretary for her boss, for example) and within “relationships” so distant as to involve no physical contact at all. The extraordinary way in which Stalin came to be seen as a protective, all-knowing and benign, though distant, father figure for Russians, is an example.
The great danger in all this is that “transference” becomes a two-way street. Just as the followers project their particular past experiences and needs onto their leaders, so the leaders respond in kind by reflecting back this needed role, or indeed by acting out their own internal needs. Either way, what can be an emotional glue that can bind useful relationships, becomes a dangerously explosive compound that threatens objectivity and the give-and-take of adult working relationships.
The paternalistic nature of transference, or at least the sense of kow-towing as a junior to one who is older, all-knowing and experienced, lies behind much of the flawed veneration for hierarchical structures and for the almost tribal ritual dance of male boardroom deference. This is part of the status quo that makes challenge so difficult.
It is hard to break a long-entrenched and almost unacknowledged hierarchy of paternalistic and absolute authority. This is itself a strong reason for encouraging more women into the male-dominated sanctum. Hierarchies are useful, they help to restrain the anarchy that might come with not knowing and acting within our role and our relative position in society. But the danger is that this quickly becomes a question of “knowing one’s place”, and from there it is an easy step to suppressing open and frank debate about issues that really matter. Topics become undiscussable. Bosses expect and reward “transferential veneration”. Mrs Thatcher talked of her followers being “one of us”.
I am sure that, as the new generation of women rise to become CEOs, we will see a no less marked growth in maternal transference. Instead of the fairy godmother, we will see the evil stepmother. Instead of the expected warmth, tenderness and sympathy we had hoped for, we will meet the reality of entirely justified, hard-headed and objective decision making, and we will be both shocked and hurt by it.
There is a further, perhaps unexpected, aspect of transference that leaders need to understand. It is all too easy and, in most other respects, valuable to instil a corporate ethic into the culture of a firm: “This is how we do things here”, “we take pride in being part of this great firm”, “you are an IBM man now” and so on. Increasingly, however, corporations develop innovative and bespoke services for their clients, the requirement is for employers to co-work inter-dependently with their clients. The concept of the home or parent company shifts to a far smaller relationship between the specialist and his or her client. Where they had expected to be fostered, they are now on their own.
How should we react to the phenomenon of transference? In large part, like all the themes of this book, the most potent response is to be aware of this phenomenon, to put it squarely on the table, and to confront it with sympathy, empathy and good humour. We spend far too little time and skill openly discovering and learning about each other, our motivations, who we are and how we work. Here is yet another vital role for the coach, and for the inner circle of open critics.
Here too is a defining moment to look at how the leader needs to hold on resolutely to the clear and objective need to confront the truth – what Jim Collins described as the “brutal facts”.
However much followers want comfort, security and paternalistic benevolence, reality, in a highly competitive and fast-changing world, is very different. It is important that leaders do not get seduced into protecting their employees / children. “Tough love” could well be the watchword of this chapter. Leaders are not all-knowing shepherds protecting their flocks from harsh surroundings. Those who really care for their followers expose them to the realities of their circumstances and demand that they make relevant and useful responses. “Good enough” is a cop-out; handouts for effort are a cover-up; “you did your best” is to be nowhere. There should be no “shoot the messenger” culture, no blame, only the search for the truth.
During the 1980s, I worked with Mrs Thatcher’s government to deal with the aftermath of her much-needed efforts to transform the British economy. I saw at first hand the destructiveness of the political leaders before her giving their followers false hope. Gradually, as the nation’s performance declined, Britain experienced the collapse of the pound, the three-day working week, power cuts, high interest rates and galloping inflation. The country had lost competitiveness. Its leaders before Thatcher were concerned only with short-term electability, increasing government investment and placating the unions. No one explained that the investments were made with our money from our taxes. No one had the courage or the understanding to see that unemployment can only be papered over for a short while with make-work schemes funded from taxpayers’ funds. No one was prepared to look at the challenging need to solve the real problem – a fundamental improvement in competitiveness leading to long-term growth in GDP and to real, sustainable jobs. Achieving that turnaround marked Mrs Thatcher’s greatness as a peace-time leader. Leaders ask hard questions, they knock their followers out of their comfort zones and they do not collaborate in the beguiling and seductive world of transference.
"Exampled of 'Brutal Fact' thinking" illustrates some examples of the flawed leadership of UK politicians concerned only with achieving the immediate affection of their electorate, rather than managing any lasting change for their country.
In business today, change happens quickly, and it takes place often in unexpected ways and in different places. It is no longer just the all-knowing CEO who gives the instructions – the challenge has to be accepted throughout the business. This means leaders have to hear and respond to ideas from all levels of their firm. Like Clemenceau, Wellington, Ulysses S Grant, they have to listen and be receptive to what they hear. True leadership becomes a razor’s edge between setting the framework, providing the template of “the way we do things here”, establishing values and norms and, at the same time, watching for the moment when these structures need to be challenged and overturned. Heifetz and Laurie (“The Work of Leadership” Heifetz and Laurie: HBR December 2001) have described three fundamental leadership tasks in order to maintain a productive balance along this “razor’s edge”.
The first is to create a “holding environment” in which challenge, re-thinking and debate become legitimised and understood;
The second is to develop the “incubating conditions” that will direct the firm towards the key issues, manage the pace of change, oversee the emergence of new roles, manage conflict and underpin new contemporary ways of behaving;
The third task is the most demanding, especially for the lonely CEO. This is to retain a presence, poise, almost an ability to look down on the stress and difficulties, and so be able to help restore equilibrium – to be able, Moses-like, to take others into what looks like a boiling sea of troubles. This is in no way done by reverting to parental benevolence, but by getting employees to confront their issues for themselves. The leader’s job is to get the issues on the table, to challenge cover-up, denial and blame.
“Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Not only are many employees comfortable being told what to do, but many managers are accustomed to treating subordinates like “children” that require control. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems, means that management have to learn to support rather than control. Workers, for their part, need to learn to take responsibility”.
There are three processes at work here and they need special emphasising. In the first place, although committed, visionary, capable of exciting and enthusing his team, the leader has, at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, to be able to stand back, to think like a mental dancer. It is the leader’s role to see the gaps, see what is not being achieved, to anticipate the next challenge, whilst still endorsing and supporting, meeting and overcoming the current challenge. It is the leader who is constantly building for the new skills needed. the new demands to be made, and the new and unexpected issues. And, whilst doing this, he or she is helping the team members to grow, to be fulfilled, to accomplish and to be extended.
The second process concerns the inner world of the leader, and what Daniel Goleman discussed so clearly in his article “What Makes a Leader”: “Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence – (such) people are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest with themselves and with others…… they recognise how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance…… Self-awareness extends to a person’s understanding of his or her values and goals. Therefore it shows itself as a candor and an ability to assess oneself realistically.”
The third process concerns the reaction of the team members. It is for them to want to be the best at whatever they do, and to want to help whenever they can. Companies with designated sales teams may be overlooking the sales potential of their other staff. Rugby Union in the UK has become a total game for all 15 players, expected to do everything in attack and defence, as well as their primary job on the pitch. Similarly, everyone in the dream company will be concerned with the quality of their product, with finding and serving new customers, with helping staff succeed and with saving cash. “Followers” who fiddle their expenses, blame their colleagues, pay no attention to product quality or to selling, because “it’s not their job” are as unnecessary in this company as unions and management who do not see they are in the same boat.
Alas, we are not all cheerfully inhabiting a paradise before the Fall. However complex the challenge, leaders have to provide their followers with a framework for their behaviour. They have to create codes of conduct, disciplines and an articulated and followed through set of values. Whilst living on the razor’s edge of change, they must at the same time be probing, checking and enquiring to ensure their values and standards are being followed.
Without these disciplines, followers can rapidly become a gang, aping the self-indulgent view of their leader, and at worst, they can decline into a rabble. Let’s just take three examples: Christopher Byron describes the Jack Welch rat pack at GE:
“Here they were, young men, not yet into their thirties, and they were sharing in a feat of willpower and accomplishment that none had ever imagined was in them. And almost inevitably, a kind of subtle sense of superiority began to spread among them, and the behaviour of teenage boys moved from the locker-room into the office.
They called it just letting off steam, and, because he was their leader, Jack set the pace. So they laughed – some a bit awkwardly – at his crude jokes and bullying asides, as when a colleague in the design team, Larry Burkinshaw, who had failed to gain Jack’s favour, passed in the hall and Welch remarked in a loud enough voice to be unmistakable in its hurtful intent: “Pick up his skirt and kick him in the cunt..” at which the young men around him laughed in an approval-seeking way.”
Let’s leave Jack Welch and GE and look for the last time at the far more dangerous leader with whom this book began-- Kaiser Wilhelm II. We have described his childhood, his love-hate relationship with his mother and his unflagging hatred of England (“One cannot have enough hatred for England”). As he grew into manhood, his earlier explosive temper and self-obsession became increasingly harsh. Röhl describes the monarch, very much in accord with the behavioural pattern discussed earlier, as:
But this was no unimportant simpleton – this was Germany’s supreme monarch by Divine Right, whose hatred for his mother and England culminated in the Anglo-German arms race that led up to the First World War.. It was his lack of disciplined leadership that created precisely the rat pack world of GE but at the cost of Germany. Here is the description of his own key leaders and his estimate of himself:
“How could the monarch learn from experience if he despised his ministers, rarely received them and seldom listened to what they had to say; if he was convinced that all his diplomats had so “filled their pants” that “the entire Wilhelmstraße stank” to high heaven; when he addressed even the War Minister and the Chief of the Military Cabinet with the words “you old asses”, and announced to a group of admirals: “All of you know nothing; I alone know something, I alone decide”? Even before coming to the throne he had warned, “Beware the time when I shall give the orders.” Before Bismarck’s dismissal he had threatened to “smash” all opposition to his will. He alone was master of the Reich, he said in a speech in May 1891, and he would tolerate no others. To the Prince of Wales he proclaimed at the turn of the century: “I am the sole master of German policy and my country must follow me wherever I go.”. Ten years later he explained in a letter to a young Englishwoman: “As for having to sink my ideas and feelings at the bidding of the people, that is a thing unheard of in Prussian history or traditions of my house! What the German Emperor, King of Prussia thinks right and best for his People he does.”. In September 1912 he chose Prince Lichnowsky to be ambassador in London against the advice of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Foreign Office with the words: “I will only send an ambassador to London who has My trust, obeys My will and carries out My orders.” And during the First World War he exclaimed: “What the public thinks is totally immaterial to me. I decide according to my conviction, although I do then expect my officials to do what they can to correct the false opinions of the public by whatever means appropriate.” (“The Kaiser and His Court” John C G öhl: Cambridge University Press 1994)
The Kaiser revelled in humiliating his entourage. One diplomat noted:
“In the mornings we all do exercises together with the Kaiser …. It is a curious sight: all those old military fogeys having to do their knee-jerks with strained faces! The Kaiser sometimes laughs out loud and eggs them on with a dig in the ribs. The old boys then pretend that they are particularly delighted over such a favour, but in fact they clench their fists in their pockets and afterwards grumble among themselves about the Kaiser like a lot of old women.”
Wherever we have got to, we are certainly already into a world of feared undiscussables and corridor politics. This is no way to encourage open debate and real thought. The issue here is not to chart this lurching and scheming maelstrom of hatred and insecurity’s steps towards the First World War. The Liberal Foreign Secretary Sir Michael Grey described him as “not quite sane and very superficial”, then prophetically added that the German Emperor reminded him of “a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder – he will cause a catastrophe some day.”. Instead the point is how, uncensured and out of control, the Kaiser was never challenged, because no one wanted to rock the boat of state, no one had the courage; nor did the systems framework allow such a challenge. Such fear amongst “followers”, leads to entirely counter-productive silence and lack of debate. In the case of the Kaiser, by the end, German Admiral Albert Hopman was able to write in his diary during the winter of 1918, “Everything which I predicted, not just in the last few weeks, but for much, much longer, has come true. What Germany has sinned in the last three decades it must now pay for. It was politically paralyzed through its blind faith in, and slavish submission to, the will of a puffed-up, vainglorious and self-overestimating fool.” Yes, it probably was. But is this really so surprising? The danger is that, as followers, we all collaborate too readily, we ascribe hoped-for greatness to people in high places and forget that most are driven, self-serving characters. Bernhard von Bülow wrote in 1898, when he was already Foreign Secretary and about to become Reich Chancellor, with all the blindness of a man about to be promoted and fondly looking for the white knight of his dream.
“I grow fonder and fonder of the Kaiser. He is so important!! …… he is by far the most important Hohenzollern ever to have lived. In a way I have never seen before, he combines genius – the most authentic and original genius – with the clearest bons sens. His vivid imagination lifts one like an eagle high above petty detail, yet he can judge soberly what is or is not possible and attainable. And what vitality! What a memory! How quick and sure his understanding!”
The Kaiser expanded the perks, show and sheer panoply at court to a stifling degree, with no inner justification and no overt “bons sens”. Von Moltke spoke of this nonsense and “all this frippery” at a time when what was needed was “to prepare seriously and with bitter energy for war”. The pomp and ceremony, the perks and awards were partly a bribe to bind the court to the King, and part also of a total allegiance to the idea of Kingship at the centre of society. The leader becomes – as Hitler was to do 25 years later, and as many a “hero” CEO has seen himself – the personification of the nation (or business). To criticise him is to criticise the organisation itself. In the hierarchy of the Wilhelmian court the status of ministers was a lowly one, whilst the Kaiser was at the soaring apex of decision-making. It was clear that, as each Reich chancellor, Minister and Secretary knew only too well, a difference of opinion with him could lead to an immediate loss of “All Highest Confidence” and an end to one’s career. They well knew that the All Highest would have approved their very appointment in the first place. Their success was already due to their ability to kow-tow ahead of their rivals. Indeed, gradually, the followership in use at the German court was to anticipate the Kaiser’s wishes and never to support any course of action that could annoy him. “Everyone knows that HM is very sensitive to the slightest critical remark.”.
Gradually the spineless followership within the Wilhelmian court reached the point where the Kaiser had only to frown, or to ignore an official, for them to “fall on their sword”. Injuring people’s feelings became a deliberate and bullying tactic. Röhl lists senior officials involved, such as General Paul von Leszczynski, who had distinguished himself in the Franco-Prussian war, and who resigned because the All Highest “had greeted (me) only very curtly and frostily” and further had spoken to another official “without acknowledging (me) or speaking to (me).”
It is no surprise that such a climate at the top of any organisation produces a series of debilitating results. The best leave; those remaining become “Yes Men”. As the leadership is based on emotional whim, there is no scope for the rest of the organisation’s “followers” to grow, to manage disaggregated change, or to develop their own leadership qualities. We are miles away from the thoughtful and openly debated care of the companies researched by John Collins in “Good to Great”. We are in the alarmingly more common world of so many of our supposedly heroic companies of the 21st century. It is interesting to look at the steady stream of talented senior executives that have refused to be Yes Men and exited AT&T during Michael Armstrong’s reign, or Citigroup during the no less powerful tenure of Sandy Weil. Does all this matter? Well it does, considerably, on many levels, some obvious and one perhaps not so obvious. The obvious levels? Think through the direct and indirect costs of falling out with and then “losing” a key member of staff. The waste of experience, of contacts, and of networks; the erosion of performance; the risks and cost of finding, recruiting, appointing and then inducting a successor; and then the opportunity cost of seeing former executives take over and successfully lead major competitors. All adds up to mattering in a big way. There is a further “cost”, the corrosive knock-on impact of the leader’s behaviour on the morale and spirit of those around him. We have seen the GE rat pack, and we have looked at the Kaiser’s obsessive narcissism. We have seen how this induced a spineless subservience in his court. Why is it that a leader’s mood and behaviour so drive the moods and behaviours of everyone else, to the point, as we will shortly see, of turning normal American soldiers into abusers of prisoners. Ruthless bosses create almost a toxic or sick organisation, where people under-achieve, ignore opportunities, time-waste and blame others. And wonderfully the opposite is true. Developed trust, shared support and love, affection and learning can create what appears to be an effortless world of success.
David Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKeehave (Authors of “Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence”: Harvard March 2002 and “Primal Leadership”: Harvard Business Review December 2001) been studying how emotional intelligence is carried through organisations and, in particular, how the leader’s mental footprint is contagious. As with “love and affection”, I have read very little about the importance of “empathetic understanding”, of the impact that other people’s moods, life attitudes and spirit can have on those around them. It is an extraordinary omission. We read daily of the apparent heroics of executives who cut jobs, fire senior staff, close down businesses, micro-manage, and yet we scarcely pause to consider the fear they engender and the enervating world they create. On one hand we applaud these CEOs, and we deny our no less certain knowledge that it is the inspirational and supportive leader who makes us perform beyond our own expectations, and it is the leader who gives us the space to learn, and develop who makes us feel anything is possible. Confidence is contagious. So is lack of self-confidence.
Goleman quotes research by Alice Isen at Cornell in 1999, that found how an upbeat environment fostered mental efficiency, making people better at taking in and understanding information, at using decision rules in complex judgements, and at being flexible in their thinking. We all know this to be the case – place me under stress and my performance will deteriorate. But why does a leader’s mood affect us? Goleman and his team remind us that laughter is the most contagious of all emotions. Hearing laughter, we find it almost impossible not to laugh or smile too. That is because of the open-loop nature of the brain’s limbic system – our emotional centre. It allows us to connect with other people’s moods and to come to their rescue. Smiles and laughter in particular helped to cement alliances and so helped the species survive. Goleman’s article refers to how the comforting presence of a nurse lowers a patient’s blood pressure “and also slows the secretion of fatty acids that block arteries”. The open-loop limbic system is like a built-in emotional air-conditioning system. One person, especially the leader, Alpha Male or tribal totem, transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardio-vascular function, sleep rhythms and even immune functions, inside the body of another. That is precisely the wonderful glowing feeling that loving couples can achieve by triggering surges of oxytocin in each other’s brains. But it happens, though we may scarcely notice it, in all aspects of our social life, as our physiologies intermingle and affect each other. The Kaiser’s narcissistic micro-management created sycophants out of his court. Eventually they provided him with no critical framework, the arms race began, the Kaiser led his country to war, partly driven by his own inner need to prove himself, and partly because he could get away with it. Like Clinton, Kozlowski and many others, he did it because he could.
Followers can react, however, in an entirely different and unexpected manner to the craven subservience that I’ve described – they can instead create their own collaborative and even exclusive team spirit – what psychologist Irving Janis described as “group think”, and which was part, at least, of the cause of the engineers refusing to head the warnings over the Challenger mission in 1986. In this process, the group turns in upon itself, derides outsiders and, in pushing for its collective objectives, turns a collective blind eye to authority.
Janis identified eight danger signs:
Paul Levy describes just such a sequence of events in his write-up of the Nut Island Effect in the Harvard Business Review for March 2001 (see Sidebar 25). Levy had been the head of the Boston Sewer System. The treatment plant was located on Nut Island, a promontory jutting out into the Atlantic. The team there found themselves charged with coping with a demand which greatly exceeded the working capacity of the system. Strongly led, they had welded a team of committed, hard-working and capable men – many veterans from World War II and the Korean War. Common cause, a determination to keep the show on the road, a no-complaints culture, and individuals well selected to do their job . Morale was high, there was in the mid-1960s the development of a bond and team spirit that Levy still saw at reunions thirty years later. They took a pride in their job.
However, the politics of City Hall starved Nut Island of essential funds, preferring the topical profile of more immediately glamorous projects such as ice rinks and leisure centres. Few visited the vital installation, they became a unit cut off from the mainstream of public interest. Stage 1 of the Nut Island Effect started to take place – without senior management, the dedicated team created their own group identity. All it took was for the engines to shut down in 1976 to solidify their team ethic and point it against “them”, the common enemy, City Hall, who did not understand or appreciate how hard they worked to save the day. Their resentment increased, they avoided dealing with management, and kept making-and-mending the machines till dangerously past their sell-by date. Gradually the excessive use of lubricating oil and chlorine, and the control of sewage inflow essential to allow the failing machinery to work, began to release into Boston harbour a cocktail of dangerous chemicals. Their own colossal but misguided efforts were now destroying the very water they were trying to preserve.
Of course none of this process was helped by management’s own increasing desire to cover up. The team operated, in many respects, to perfection, and as management did not want to contemplate a political disaster, they did not look too hard.
Followers need a framework of understood and practised discipline – the more stressful the situation, the more clarity and leadership they need. On Thursday October 21 2004, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, an Army Reservist, was sentenced to eight years in jail at a US court martial in Baghdad. At the time of writing, the reservist Staff Sergeant is the highest ranking US soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. No government minister, senior official or senior officer has been implicated, although knowledge of the mistreatment had been widespread well before the notorious photographs were published and the abuse became a public shame.
Why do followers need leadership? How could a young woman, like US reservist Lynndie England, come to be facing 13 counts of abusing detainees?
Eight months ago, Ian Palmer, the only Professor of Military Psychiatry in the UK, left the army after 25 years’ service. In The Times of August 6 2004, he provided an insight into precisely why followers need quality leadership.
“ ‘Perfectly normal’ people can do bad things in certain situations. In other circumstances they might be rational human beings, but if they are in a group that is fearful, isolated, unsupported, poorly led, ill-informed, inexperienced, yet given power over others who are defenceless, abuse can happen. At every step it’s a failure of leadership.”
Looking at the pictures of abuse by American soldiers, Palmer also considers a cultural influence. The captors’ machismo is reminiscent of Hollywood representations of war, he suggests: “You have to psych yourself up to go to war and some people put on a carapace of machismo to get out there. The people in the pictures are acting out this machismo, this false maleness, believing they should be as male as combat soldiers. Individuals who feel inadequate yet have power over others are more likely to mistreat prisoners, especially if they believe they are ‘bad guys’.”
We have already seen how Stanley Milgram’s experiments of the 1960s show how normal people have the capability to torture prisoners given the right social / peer pressure.
It is hard to imagine a clearer indictment of the failure of US leadership. Indeed, insofar as the Bush and Rumsfeld government had shown any leadership or established any model of behaviour, they had provided almost an incitement to abuse by their own example. We should not forget the ruthless, pitiless and still ongoing abuse by the United States of alleged terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. It is also worth recording Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick’s testimony at his court martial, that he was given no training or support in supervising detainees, and only learned of regulation after the abuses occurred.
Leaders have a duty to train their followers; they need to look to understand how those followers may perform under stress. The US Army prosecutor Major Michael Holley could hardly have more clearly demonstrated the institutional lack of empathy or of psychological sensitivity when he told the court it was a simple case:
“He is an adult and capable of telling the difference between right and wrong.”
I am sorry to have chosen a US example. America is a great nation, I love it for itself as well as for the fact that it has provided me with my wife. The example is particularly important precisely because the United States is a free democracy and the most intelligent nation on earth. It is by no means alone in failing to train or equip its soldiers adequately, or to confront openly the full leadership issues that lie behind these failures.
Whilst the US court martial was running, a parallel one was taking place in England, at Catterick, North Yorkshire. It revealed that, so incompetent was the leadership of the British Army, more than 33% of its reservists had been sent to the Gulf war-zone in southern Iraq, despite failing to achieve the basic standards required of essential rifle skills. Nor was this the result of one unwitting error. During the court martial, a British officer, Captain McIntyre, confirmed it had become “accepted policy” along his chain of command, that soldiers who failed their weapons test should nonetheless be approved for deployment in the war-zone itself. The UK government, in its eager haste to attack Iraq despite UN opposition, and, as it turns out, without adequate justifying information, rushed forward troops who did not even have the basic competence to fire their rifles.* So much for British leadership and so much too for the officials, officers and their followers who lacked the integrity to do something about it.
* After writing this, the court martial accused the Army of “covering up the pitiful training” of its soldiers, of “lying”, and the government of covering up the consequences of its political manoeuvrings. Without a coherent and understood framework of operating disciplines, people will lose their capacity to think and act honourably. The US and UK military examples in Iraq apply to armies and hopefully are extreme and unusual.
However, what holds good for them applies also to teams within companies, who can, no less than the soldiers, declare a form of operational UDI. All of which brings me to my final and most demanding point about “Followership”. At the end of the day, it is very much the other side of the coin of leadership. Most of us should play both roles most of the time. The bank clerk may be low on the food chain of banking life, but she can be the best bank clerk, she can set an example for good humour, trust and client care to all around her. At home, she may well be the leader of the family and even of her community.
In the ideal society, we recognise how we are interdependent. We do not have the alternative of opting out. We should be there for each other, taking part. Of course in reality life is far more complex. It can be extremely difficult to challenge the system, that is why we need our values and beliefs thought out in advance so they can help deal with the challenge when it comes. Ultimately we all share in the responsibility to create a system that welcomes and is responsive to questioning, and we all share the responsibility to make that questioning effective and constructive.
However, when push comes to shove, it is most of all the responsibility of our leaders to ensure the system is a two-way street. This is why the cover-ups carried out by both the US and UK governments during the Iraq war are so frustrating. This is why it is disgraceful that no senior politicians, officials or officers have had their careers terminated for providing such incompetent leadership.