No easy matches

Leadership is in vogue after the debacle of England failing to qualify for the European cup followed by the instant sacking of the team manager (for which he received 2.5 million quid compensation after just 12 games, thank-you very much) and ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ Brown’s recent miserable weeks as Prime Minister, in which he has learnt there is no place to hide when news is bad: namely, when the government has admitted it has no real idea about the number of immigrants in the country or exactly what they are doing (except the guy who was guarding the PM’s car), has committed the equivalent of 30 Millennium Domes’ worth of tax money to a small failing private bank, and mislaid confidential financial data on half the households in the land.

Now football and political leadership success may be exceptional in that they are driven acutely by results, either in terms of cups or elections, but arguably they share also a number of characteristics. First, the truism that in politics, as in football, success is usually held to breed success. The more a party or team looks like a winner, the more likely it is to be a winner. Second, success comes from results and leadership is a key ingredient – and perhaps to a greater extent than found in a say a soap company or supermarket chain – or for that matter a public forestry institution. Second, a football team or political party is identified to a large extent by the authority of its leader – who has to establish his/her authority, set standards, determine tactics, and organising the team/cabinet. Above all to get the team to perform depends on getting the right personnel, and through conviction to show that their methods are right.

And – as an aside – the old adage which seems true in football, but perhaps less so in politics: don’t promote the #2 (remember: they were chosen to be the #2…).

Leadership is about authority, confidence and competence. McLaren never demonstrated these characteristics; Brown is in danger of losing them irrevocably. It was on competence that Brown planned to fight the election that he bottled.

Look at the recent experiences of Lawrence Summers at Harvard and Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. Both strong, incisive, at times intimidating leaders (which is a compliment – they were tough enough to get things done), who both set out to shake up – because this is what they were appointed to do – two rather crusty organisations. Neither survived the in-built conservativeness of these institutions: their over-dominance became problematic – and offered no cover when the perception grew that something was going wrong, which is when they found that they had few bad-weather friends. Also, admittedly, perhaps they did not get to know what kind of organization they were operating in.

These are the challenges for the leaders of public forest institutions, who have to establish their authority over often recalcitrant organisations, and whose legitimacy derives from success in delivering against a wide range of targets, and increasingly subject to public and parliamentary scrutiny. They are topics which are explored in Chief Executive!

And two old sayings: first, that the team most likely to stop England from reaching the World Cup is, well, England – so confirming once again the cliché that there are no easy matches in international football; and second, that intellectual arguments are fundamental to politics – as Keynes said, ‘the world is ruled by little else’.

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