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Leadership and the Terrorist Plague

The last couple of weeks have set me thinking about what leadership is or should be. This entry will be fairly rambling – as I want to throw up ideas. I’m still unsure myself what the ideal leader should be like.

Maureen Sharib’s blog entry (Psychopaths in the Hallowed Halls touched on this. Maureen mentioned an excellent article – a must read at www.fastcompany.com/magazine/96/open_boss.html. This great item looked at the psychology of business leaders. However it did not go far enough in my opinion, by looking at national leaders. If your boss is a psychopath at least you have the option to change jobs. If you live in a democracy, then if the President/Prime Minister is psychopathic then he/she may not get re-elected. But what if you are not in a democracy – what then! Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under Assad, Myamar (Burma), Zimbabwe….

A couple of years ago there was a session at the SCIP London conference (SCIP Europe 2003) entitled “Advanced Analysis: Pychological Profiling” by Jens Hoffman and Everhard von Groote. The aim was to teach methods of leader profiling, and several of the examples were national leaders. Four leadership styles were discussed:

  • Narcissistic (feelings of grandiosity, lack of empathy, need for admiration, power fantasies);
  • Paranoid (General distrust, jealousy, provokes interactions, aggressive, feeling of superiority);
  • Compuslive (High structure, perfectionism, rigid, highly adapted socially);
  • Pyschopathic (Superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, a liar, manipulative, no guilt, lack of empathy. Often impulsive and reckless – and lifestyle may be parasitic, feeding off others).

Several national leaders were discussed – Clinton, Margaret Thatcher. There is a wealth of literature on the topic. (For example: Profiling Political Leaders: Cross-Cultural Studies of Personality and Behavior edited by Ofer Feldman – containing essays on several political leaders e.g. on Mao Zedong’s Narcissism).

What worries me about all this is that it gives the impression that those who reach the most senior positions in countries or companies are all suffering from some kind of personality disorder – paranoia, narcissism, pyschopathy and so on.

At the same time, there is a second element to leadership – trust. Without trust, you won’t get people to follow you. Instead you need to rely on control and your status.

In the bible there is an odd story – of Phinehas, who was the great nephew of Moses (and grandson of Aaron). The book of Numbers discribes a plague that came about following an episode of immoral behaviour. (See Numbers ch 25). It appears that none of the leaders of the Israelites did anything to stop this – other than talk. That is until, Phinehas (who was not in the chain of command) caught one couple in flagrante delicto. In a gesture of righteous indignation, Phinehas killed the couple. The strange thing is that instead of being condemned for murder, or taking the law into his own hands, Phinehas is praised, the plague stops – and Phinehas is granted a covenant of peace.

The Jewish Rabbis spent a lot of time on this story – discussing what was meant by it and what was meant by the covenant of peace. They also raised questions on leadership and what it involved.

Re-reading this story (the weekly reading in synagogues this week) set me thinking about all the above issues – what is leadership?

  • Is leadership managing others and controling them?
  • Is it the ability to be decisive – like Phinehas – and take actions which might be unpopular, damning the consequences?
  • Or is it something else?

A lot of this thought has also been tied in with recent events in London. How do you fight terrorism? What do you do with a suspect who runs? (As happened last Thursday, when an innocent man was shot dead – in a Phinehas like act by the police. He’d been linked to one of the bombers, although the link appears coincidental, and when ordered to stop, he ran. He was also wearing a quilted jacket on a hot day. The police thought that this hid a suicide bomb belt, and rather than risk shooting his torso and setting off a possible bomb belt, or allowing him to set it off, they shot to kill).

Mistakes may be made – but in fighting terrorism the leader needs to be prepared to take positive action, even if this is unpopular. Appeasement and other approaches to avoiding an unpleasant decision are not really options as they only sort things out in the short-term – deferring the problem until later. (Think of Chamberlain, the pre-WW2 British Prime Minister who followed a policy of appeasement with Adolf Hitler – letting Hitler carve up a bit more of Europe, and proclaiming peace in our time, while giving Hitler a chance to arm up).

Terrorism is a plague! (Blaming it on the Iraq war, the situation in Palestine/Israel, and so on is just such appeasement in my view. Otherwise how do you explain the weekend bombing in Egypt, or last week’s bombs in Turkey – both unrelated to the Iraq and Palestine issues.) I believe that the only approach is to hit hard at the terrorists and not give them a chance to group up. Obviously you also use other approaches to try and stop people joining the terrorist movements – and without clarity and a willingness to emphasise this is wrong some people will continue to be brainwashed into believing that setting off bombs on buses, trains or in shopping malls is an acceptable way of reaching heaven or achieving political aims. Perhaps this is what the Bible is trying to say when it talks about the covenant of peace. That it is only through strong and decisive actions that will we be able to defeat such plagues and gain peace?

There is leadership story told about Presidents Bush and Clinton.

When President Clinton turned over the reins of government to George W Bush the public and political pundits were all quite surprised how short the two of them met to discuss transition issues. In a recent exclusive, it was revealed what Clinton discussed with Bush.

It appears that Clinton handed Bush three envelopes, each consecutively numbered from 1 to 3. Clinton told Bush that his father, George Bush Senior, had provided him with the same briefing and the same three envelopes, as had all Presidents done from the time of George Washington.

“When things get tough,” said Clinton, “open the envelope marked Number 1 and follow the instructions. If things get worse, open the second envelope. And, when things get really impossible, open the third. Do not,” emphasized Clinton, “open these envelopes under any other circumstances” The envelopes were passed on to a new era of leadership and the two shook hands and took their leaves.

Bush, being an intensely curious and impatient man and one who is frequently up at all hours of the night, became rather curious as to the contents of the envelopes opened the first. He read “Blame your predecessor.” His curiosity piqued, he opened the second. “Blame the Senate.” He then tore open the third. It read “Prepare three envelopes.”

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