Friday, August 31, 2007

Great Leadership Read: Troublesome Young Men

May 1940; a time when a few young people really did change the world!

In the aftermath of the ill-fated "Munich Accord", and Neville Chamberlain's proclamation of "Peace in our Time;" and in the midst of widespread acclamation in Britain over the Prime Minister's "success" at avoiding war, the then-First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper, was the lone cabinet minister to resign from the Chamberlain government over his feelings of repugnance with the policy of appeasement. At the time, Cooper remarked: "I should never be able to hold up my head again [had I not resigned]. I have forfeited a great deal. I have given up an office that I loved, work in which I was deeply interested and a staff of which any man might be proud.... I have ruined, perhaps, my political career. But that is little matter. I have retained something which is of great value. I can still walk about the world with my head errect." Listen to these words: they are extraordinary! Where are such leaders today? Who amongst our contemporaries is putting all that matters on the line, when issues such as Iraq, Global Warming, 3rd World Poverty, and the like are crying out for leadership?

The value of Lynne Olson's new book Troublesome Young Men, which is a must-read for anyone interested in leadership, is that it is all about such throughtful and committed leaders. Also relevant for today's world, it is also about the abuse of power, and the ability of a small group of determined actors to change the world, against all odds. Rarely, have I been as enthusiastic over a book at this one!

Among the lessons that come tumbling out of this book that reads like a novel are:
  • A small group of people really can change the world! We've argued this, of course, in
    Virtuoso Teams, but it is impressive to read about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter telling Tory MP Dick Law: "the trouble with you people is that your acts don't line up with your convictions. You know that this is one of the turning points in history.... Thirty resolute men in your House of Commons could save the world. You won't convince the House by argument nor even by facts -- only by the strength of your own conviction." [p. 177]
  • The immense importance of Winston Churchill's energy, imagination, and enthusiasm for moblizing and stretching the population. When you think about what it takes to establish the credibilty of real "stretch goals," you have to love Churchill's rebuff to the suggestion that he was exaggerating Britain's military accomplishments: "There are two people who sink U-boats in this war Talbot [director of antisubmarine warfare]. You sink them in the Atlantic, and I sink them in the House of Commons. The trouble is that you are sinking them at exactly half the rate I am." [pp. 264-5]
  • The pathos of Sir Anthony Eden's leadership prospects. He was everybody's "natural" alternative to PM Neville Chamberlain; indeed, no one ever looked as much a leader as Eden -- his followers were characterized as "the glamour boys," yet he was unable to fit the bill. His style projected vacillation, hesitation, and caution. As one observer put it: "He gave an impression of superficiality, with no profound interest in the problems of the Commonwealth." While another described him as: "most charming, most intelligent, but as a future leader, quite pathetic. [He] has no independent point of view and clearly no intention of upsetting the existing political status quo.... Really, as I walked down Whitehall after leaving him, I was nearly in tears."
  • Finding in Chamberlain the fatal flaw of so many leaders, then and today, of reframing issues of national importance into suggestions of personal attacks; distracting intelligent debate on major strategic questions by characterizing them as issues of "loyalty," and politics. Chamberlain comes across as a bully, who exploited others through the power of his position, and who led by fear, divisiveness, manipulation and obfuscation.
  • Finally, who cannot help but be inspired by the rhetoric which marked the debates of the time; especially Leo Amery's great speech, which he prefaced by admitting "great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine," but who then went on to quote Oliver Cromwell: "You have sat too long here for any good that you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!" [pp. 294-5]

This is a great book about the many facets of leadership. About the abuse of leadership by insecure incumbents; about the inevitable inertia that resists great change, and the related uncertainty that attends all bold action; and about the power of a few if united in a great cause. It is truly a shining illustration of leadership at many levels.

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