Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…

July 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Even in the face of the imploding self-destructiveness of England it is hard not to be moved by the tragedy of a decent man bought low by deceit and the ill-founded ambitions of others. And so I watched with some sadness the resignation of Roy Hodgson, the England football manager, after the team’s inept display at Euro 2016. Surely, I’d thought, a man so patently decent and honest deserved to be a success as a manager but no, those qualities in themselves seem to be insufficient to guarantee success. Roy is now gone and the media launches into a hysteria of debate about the qualities necessary for an England manager.

So what is the essence of an effective leader? Google doesn’t exactly narrow it down as a search of Styles of Leadership returns over 200 million hits.Goodness, that is three times more hits than Miley Cyrus! As with Miley Cyrus, the reason why someone is successful can be frustratingly unfathomable. Whatever the qualities required to be an effective leader, with different contexts necessitating different qualities, the only true way to define effective leadership is by outcome. An effective leader is one who people follow. Not just follow but follow to a defined, desired objective. The first lemming over the cliff (yes I know it’s a myth) isn’t a leader, it’s merely the first lemming over the cliff.

According to Jorge Luis Borges: “Humiliation, unhappiness, discord are the ancient foods of heroes”. By this measure the current “leader” of the UK Labour Party must be truly heroic, as indeed he is seen to be by his adoring grass roots supporters. A few days ago I was sent a link to Jeremy Corbyn’s facebook page by a friend. She knows I’m Corbyn Lite (I don’t find him entirely unpalatable but he doesn’t make me drunk with excitement) so she sent me the link as she thought the comments demonstrated a level of love, respect and support for a political leader that was hitherto unheard of.

Reading through the comments it was hard to disagree, even his Labour opponents mumble about what a sincere, nice man Jeremy is as a preamble to sticking the knife in. For all that I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Corbyn is the political equivalent of Roy Hogdson. Yes he may be nice (although I’m not sure where the evidence for that is), he may be sincere (he did after all stick to his principles (albeit from the vantage point of an extraordinarily safe seat) by voting against his own party over 500 times) and he may even be intelligent (although the evidence isn’t exactly overwhelming) but however much the grassroots adore him, the people he is supposed to be leading will not follow him.

One of the best managers I ever worked for was somebody I disagreed with about most things. Politically we were light years apart and professionally we only agreed about half the time. Yet when it came to both strategy and tactics he knew exactly how to define objectives in ways that made everybody sign up to them as well as having the skill and resilience to take people there. When he led we followed, not because we necessarily liked him or that he was a nice man (although we did and he was) but because we knew he would get us to where we collectively wanted to go.

You do not need to like, or even respect somebody to follow them, you just need to have a shared objective and a belief that they will enable you to achieve the objective. A few years ago at dusk I followed an ancient half-blind donkey a kilometre down a winding vertiginous crumbling set of stone steps built by the Incas on the Isla del Sol many centuries earlier. The only thing I knew about the donkey was that he carried oil drums and other burdens up and down several times a day and he’s been doing it for, well, for donkey’s years. I knew that the donkey was the best chance of getting down the steps safely to catch the boat back across Lake Titicaca. He led, I followed.

I probably agree with 90% of what Corbyn says but unlike the donkey I’m not sure I would follow him anywhere. Not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say. What he doesn’t say is how he will move the Labour Party or indeed the United Kingdom from where it is now to where he, me and so many others would like it to be. Yes there are plenty of sincere statements about the type of society he would like to create matched by stern imperatives against inequality etc, etc. Yet nowhere do I see any evidence that Corbyn understands how social change takes place or indeed how to engineer such change.

I may not be much of an activist but I’m still aroused by a good shouted slogan and I’ve heard (and agreed with) more than just a few. They generally start off the same way with a cheerleader shouting: “What do we want?”… followed by a loud collective response. e.g “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” (or assorted succinct or otherwise variations!) But it is always the next mantra that makes me smile… “When do we want it?”…loud collective response… “Now!”

Yes, of course we want it now, that’s what the cathartic power of slogans makes you believe is possible. Sadly though the one thing that any reading of human history shows us is that change is always incremental. Although human beings have a remarkable capacity to learn new ideas and behaviour, that capacity is almost matched by our inability to unlearn old ideas and behaviour. Moses led the tribes of Israel through the desert for 40 years because after their brush with bestiality on the slopes of Mount Sinai he realised there was a lot of unlearning to do before they were ready to inhabit the Promised Land.

Most theorists of change whether ecological, biological or social, would largely agree that there are two basic, interwoven mechanisms for change: evolution and punctuated equilibrium. We primarily change through small incremental, often chance, movements which are occasionally accelerated by random sometimes catastrophic events. A meteorite strikes the earth, changes the climate and leads to creatures other than dinosaurs being evolutionary advantaged. Equally in terms of social evolution there might be a world war which creates the conditions to speed up social progress. These events however while they may promote new learning and favour those who are adaptive do not in themselves erase former learning. Thus while the Second World War may have stimulated some of the greatest social reforms in the history of the UK, within another six years the Conservative party returned to power and ruled for 13 years.

The way in which conservatism, the old ways, reasserts itself after periods of seemingly massive social change reflects the process know as regression to the mean. Yeats’ fear : “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” is in fact the polar opposite of what happens. When things do fall apart the gravitational pull is always back towards the norm. After the chaos of the Russian Revolution how different from Tsarist Russia was Stalinist Russia? Much may have seemed to have changed but many of the basic norms of social hierarchy reasserted themselves. As did they did after the UK Labour governments of 1945-1951. However much people may want change, the instinctive pull is back towards the centre and if the rate of change is seemingly rapid that pull becomes even stronger. We are like boy scouts huddling around a camp fire on a dark night. The shadows and the rustling from the woods make us huddle closer. Some of us may be a little braver and want to explore. Maybe even negotiate with the group on the other side of the woods so we can all share a bigger fire. Others are more hesitant and point to the dangers of being murdered by the other group if we were so rash as to trust them. And so the boys do what the rest of us do, they still huddle around the fire but maybe hesitantly at first, send out emissaries, share some jokes, do a little trade. They start moving over time through the process that marks all progress. They don’t leap into the dark, they engage in successive approximation. Though if they feel sufficiently threatened they will turn to a leader who both reinforces and assuages their fear, whether that leader be Donald Trump or Jack from Lord of the Flies.

Psychologists do not agree on much but most acknowledge that the most powerful mechanism in changing how we think and how we behave is successive approximation, the gradual step by step movement towards a distant objective, with each step making us resilient and more resistant to revert to our previous norm. The marriage counsellor doesn’t talk to a couple with an arid sex life and after an hour tells them she now wants them to return home and bang their brains out. Instead she asks the couple what their favourite DVD is and suggests that that evening they sit together on the couch, hold hands and watch the DVD. Equally, the Educational Psychologist doesn’t tell the child who hasn’t been to school for a year that he wants them to show up on the dot at 8:30 next Monday at the local school. Instead he finds out the child’s favourite subject and arranges for the child to initially attend school just for that subject. To make the couple or the school phobic child move too fast will only reinforce their fears and slow down or even reverse the rate of change.

A few years ago my son had just got back from wandering the world for a year. We were talking about New Zealand and how he had spent a day exploring Lake Tasman in the Mt Cook National Park. I was disbelieving, thirty years earlier I’d worked around there and knew there wasn’t a lake. We did the whole google thing and sure enough there it was, Lake Tasman, ten kilometres long. Formed over thirty years by the melt-waters of the Tasman Glacier it was now a well established geological feature. It may happen at a glacial, almost imperceptible pace but over even one generation the changes can be startling.

Equally with social change, I’ve just read an article outlining the number of gay senior officials, judges and ambassadors appointed by President Obama. Not only that but the demographic profile of appointees it now more fundamentally representative of gender and race than all other Presidents combined. And this is from a man whose mother, at the time of his birth, could have been imprisoned in many American States  for miscegenation. In one generation the change is profound. Strewth, John Berry the US ambassador to Australia ( a country where gay marriage is still illegal) is gay and lives happily in Canberra with his husband.

So things do change and in fundamental ways but it’s not enough to know where we want to go, we also have to understand change mechanisms and how to get there. However sympathetic I might be to his ideas I can see no evidence that Jeremy Corbyn has a clue how to get where he wants to be and if he cannot convince his PLP colleagues to follow him I’m not sure that he will convince the country. Successively shifting the norm needs outliers like Corbyn. Until he entirely lost it Ken Livingstone was extraordinarily good at challenging and shifting the norm. Would I rather live in a society which reflected Corbyn’s values and beliefs rather than Owen Smith’s (if I knew what they were!)? Certainly. However, given that Corbyn seems entirely bereft of the skills and understanding to effect change I have to reluctantly conclude that Smith is far more likely to contribute to creating the sort of society I want my children to live in than Corbyn ever could.

Equally if I were American I would far rather live in Saunder’s America than Hillary Clinton’s. Yet I also recognise, as did Saunders by giving Clinton his support that she is far more likely, through successive approximation, to achieve those changes than he ever would. So instead of fighting divisive battles, Saunders used his position as a (relative) radical outlier, did a deal with Clinton and pulled the norm of her policies towards a slightly more radical stance. Saunders is a decent man who didn’t so much as fall on his sword as use it to prod Clinton in the direction he wanted her to go.

I don’t know if Corbyn is nice, decent, or whatever but he does seem to have an astonishing lack of insight, as well as an abysmal understanding of the mechanisms of both leadership and change, as he clings to the ill-founded notion that first he could become Prime Minister and second that he would achieve anything if he did. If he cannot get the albeit ineffectual PLP to follow him what hope the country?

Corbyn is not only the leader of the PLP he is also the leader of the opposition. Roy Hodgson looked around after the defeat in Euro 2016 and probably thought “If I can’t even beat Iceland I’m not up the job.” He did the decent thing and resigned, no fuss and bags of dignity. Surely Jeremy Corbyn should be looking around (like the PLP and the rest of the country) at the chaos of the Conservative Party since the Brexit referendum and thinking “Blimey if I cannot even effectively oppose this shambolic mob, I’m really not up to the job.”


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