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Competition or Co-operation? Collaborate & Co-operate to build and not to destroy.

February 19, 2014 1 comment

Competition – or Cooperation? When companies merge, or when one company acquires another, the aim is to integrate the two into one unified entity as quickly as possible.

The problem is that often, this doesn’t happen. There is competition, resentment and rivalry and the two fail to unite. The problem is how to prevent this so that there is a successful integration of the employees of the two companies so that they take pride in the new merged company.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Bible gives a way forward when he discusses what happened after the Israelites built the Golden Calf in the Sinai desert. They were given a task – to build a tabernacle to pray to God. Moses asks the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle – the Sanctuary. They do so with such generosity that Moses has to order them to stop.

If you want to bond human beings so that they act for the common good, get them to build something together. Get them to undertake a task that they can only achieve together, that none can do alone.

The power of this principle was demonstrated in a famous social-scientific research exercise carried out in 1954 by Muzafer Sherif and others from the University of Oklahoma, known as the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Sherif wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict and prejudice. To do so, he and his fellow researchers selected a group of 22 white, eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. They were taken to a remote summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were randomly allocated into two groups.

Initially neither group knew of the existence of the other. They were staying in cabins far apart. The first week was dedicated to team-building. The boys hiked and swam together. Each group chose a name for itself – they became The Eagles and the Rattlers. They stencilled the names on their shirts and flags.

Then, for four days they were introduced to one another through a series of competitions. There were trophies, medals and prizes for the winners, and nothing for the losers. Almost immediately there was tension between them: name-calling, teasing, and derogatory songs. It got worse. Each burned the other’s flag and raided their cabins. They objected to eating together with the others in the same dining hall.

Stage 3 was called the ‘integration phase’. Meetings were arranged. The two groups watched films together. They lit Fourth-of-July firecrackers together. The hope was that these face-to-face encounters would lessen tensions and lead to reconciliation. They didn’t. Several broke up with the children throwing food at one another.

In stage 4, the researchers arranged situations in which a problem arose that threatened both groups simultaneously. The first was a blockage in the supply of drinking water to the camp. The two groups identified the problem separately and gathered at the point where the blockage had occurred. They worked together to remove it, and celebrated together when they succeeded.

The lessons for companies trying to work together should be obvious – integration isn’t through words but actions, collaboration and co-operation. It’s NOT through conflict or continuing the “us” and “them” approaches often seen.

In another, both groups voted to watch some films. The researchers explained that the films would cost money to hire, and there was not enough in camp funds to do so. Both groups agreed to contribute an equal share to the cost. In a third, the coach on which they were travelling stalled, and the boys had to work together to push it. By the time the trials were over, the boys had stopped having negative images of the other side. On the final bus ride home, the members of one team used their prize money to buy drinks for everyone.

Similar outcomes have emerged from other studies. The conclusion is revolutionary. You can turn even hostile factions into a single cohesive group so long as they are faced with a shared challenge that all can achieve together but none can do alone.

The point is obvious. In order to integrate two groups together – whether they are companies, teams, departments or any other collection of people – you need to encourage not just co-operation with motivational words, but also set in place collaboration that involves both groups sharing and building together.

When mergers & acquisitions fail it is often because the two parts don’t behave as one. The Robber’s Cave experiment gives an explanation on why this is – and more importantly, how to correct it.

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The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

Wikileaks and Whistleblowing!

December 5, 2010 3 comments

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger….” (Genesis Ch. 42 v7).

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes Ch 4 v1, v7)

I wasn’t planning to write about the Wikileaks affair – as in essence, I agree with Wikileaks that excessive secrecy is wrong. At the same time, as the preacher (identified with King Solomon) in the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to speak out, and a time to remain silent.

I believe that many of the items leaked deserved to be leaked. It is wrong to keep details of torture, rape, summary executions, and various other war-crimes secret, irrespective of whether such crimes were committed by the USA, the Iraqis or whoever. War-crimes should always be exposed, and prevented. If a government tries to keep such crimes hidden, then it is the duty of responsible people to expose them. Keeping such information secret just allows for a culture that views the enemy as non-human and dispensable – and ultimately, this makes all who allow this to happen complicit in the crime.

At the same time, there is good reason to keep diplomatic negotiations hidden, however duplicitous they may appear to be – so long as there is a procedure to ensure that such records are not kept secret permanently, but are released when they are no longer politically and diplomatically sensitive. Similarly, information that could put lives at risk – through the identification of people who oppose an oppressive government or who collaborate with others to end oppression – is totally wrong.

Essentially, a leak to prevent wrong-doing is, in my view, correct, whereas a leak for some warped belief that everything should always be out in the open and public is wrong.  Whistle-blowing to prevent corruption and criminal activity is right – whether it impacts commercial or government business. There is a time to speak out, and a time to keep silent, as in the biblical story of Joseph. Had Joseph identified himself when his brothers first visited him, he would have been unable to test their sincerity and repentance. It was important that he kept his status secret – in the same way that it is important that diplomatic cables shouldn’t be revealed as a general rule.

Sarah Palin & Mike Huckabee enter – stage right.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

One reason I’d avoided discussion of Wikileaks was that Sarah Palin had just commented on the site. Having just written a blog post on her, I didn’t want to reprise some of my comments. Her view that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, should be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders” is yet another emotive, and ill-reasoned Palinesque comment showing a lack of understanding of what al-Qaeda stand for and what the Taliban represent. Assange may have caused damage to USA interests but in no way can he be seen as an overt enemy who would like to destroy everything that the USA stands for, and to impose a totalitarian belief system on the world.

However along comes Mike Huckabee who, apparently, does not wish to be outmanoeuvered by the outspoken Mrs Palin in his dreams of entering the White House. Huckabee has called for the execution of the person accused of leaking the material to Wikileaks. 

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

I agree that the man accused of leaking the material, Private Bradley Manning should be tried and if found guilty, punished (assuming that the trial is fair, which now with so much negative press is doubtful). I do not agree that he deserves the death penalty. He did not release the files to an enemy government and nor did he do it for cash rewards. According to reports he did it after seeing attempts to cover up possible war-crimes committed by the US – for instance an air-strike that killed a dozen people in Baghdad and where the air crew laughed at the dead, and another in Afghanistan, that killed dozens of children. This makes him a whistle-blower and not a spy or traitor, and as such, this needs to be taken into account in any penalty. An overly severe or unwarranted sentence will just serve to further deter whistle-blowing and allow corrupt officials, politicians or business managers to continue in their actions.

I also question whether it is Manning alone who should be blamed. The US government must share some blame in not protecting material they viewed as confidential. Apparently the material leaked was available to many thousands of people. Following the September 2001 terrorist outrages an attempt to stop the silo mentality that had prevented different bits of information being linked together, correctly allowed for improved sharing of intelligence. Evidently such sharing did not consider the security implications of making so much information available to so many – with minimal protection. If Manning had not leaked the material, I’m sure that somebody else with a moral conscience, seeing the Iraq video, would have.

Additionally, it was not Manning (if the leak came from him) who posted the material but Wikileaks. Wikileaks would like to be seen as a channel whereby whistle-blowers can alert the world of crimes (commercial or governmental) that are being kept hidden, and I believe there is a need for such a service. Had they fulfilled this role, they would have edited out any material that did not serve a public service in being released.

The free-rights-for-all crowd enter – stage left.

Facebook Group Logo for Boycotting Amazon over Wikileaks

Wikileaks, trying to remain online, used Amazon’s hosting service for the site. Of course, Amazon was then criticised for ostensibly supporting the service, and came under pressure to boot the service. Had they not done so, I’m sure that they would have faced a large and damaging right-wing campaign against them – especially as the peak holiday buying season approaches.  Their action however has, instead, led to a call for a boycott from those who believe in total freedom of speech regardless of the content, including a dedicated FaceBook fan page.

Had Amazon not hosted Wikileaks in the first place, neither side would have complained. Instead, Amazon has been criticised from both sides for doing what it felt was the right thing – both commercially and morally. They hosted the site – I’m sure because they believe in the moral principle of Freedom of Speech. It was not just a commercial decision – as I don’t believe that you will find any Nazi or Ku Klux Klan sites on Amazon servers. They host sites that they believe are not objectionable to their ethos. When, in the case of Wikileaks, this then threatened to be commercially damaging, they pulled the site – and get blasted by the “Freedom-of-Speech-at-all-costs” crowd who I’m sure would quickly campaign against the company if Amazon took this literally and started hosting racist, Nazi or kiddie-porn sites.

Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Wikileaks is not the first whistle-blowing web-site. My favourite – www.fuckedcompany.com – has unfortunately shut down, along with its sister site www.internalmemos.com. These two sites were important in warning investors of commercial shenanigans and companies that were having problems. Unfortunately I know of no other good sites offering such services. Wikileaks could, and should, have taken on this role. However with Assange as their editor-in-chief, they seem to be looking for headlines and controversy rather than fulfilling a role in preventing corruption and crimes being committed by both government and commerce.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange. (Is it just me who thinks that Assange has a strong resemblance to Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films? He just needs to grow his hair a bit longer and they could be twins!)

Assange, according to Wikipedia, has led a peripatetic life. He claims to be constantly on the move – starting from his childhood, where his mother, in conflict with his father, hid Assange and his half-brother for five years. Obviously very bright, Assange became a leading computer hacker at the age of 16, and claims to have studied at university level, physics, mathematics, philosophy and neuroscience.

In 2006 he founded Wikileaks with an overtly political aim of encouraging leaks to change organisations that he felt were unjust or secretive:

…the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…

Prior to the current 2010 leaks, WikiLeaks has published material relating to extra-judicial killings in Kenya, information on toxic waste dumping off Africa, Church of Scientology manuals, a report on share price manipulation (that led to criminal charges and a jail sentence for the culprits) by the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank and many more reports and items.

What next?

The latest leaks have caused severe embarrassment for the USA and many of its allies. Worringly, the response by some of the opponents to Wikileaks show how freedom in the USA is at risk. Rather than accept that their security was lax and that the leaks show signs that illegal practices are being covered up, blame is being pinned on the message and the messengers (Manning and Assange). That is not to say that either are totally innocent. Manning, if he was responsible for leaking all the documents was naive to say the least. Assange strikes me as a petulant, spoilt and amoral man who loves the publicity he is getting, and doesn’t really care who gets hurt in the process.

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

Meanwhile, I wonder whether the accusations of rape that have been made against Assange in Sweden are just an attempt by his enemies to put him behind bars. It would not be the first time that the Swedish authorities were accused of falsifying evidence to imprison an undesirable element linked to computer hacking, violence against women, espionage and the security services.  Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy are works of fiction, detailing how corrupt elements within the Swedish secret services conspire to frame the heroine Lisbeth Salander, and keep her locked up, so as to save their own skins. Salander, like Assange, is a computer hacker who takes on and challenges authority. It would be ironic if the Swedish accusations against Assange also turned out to be false – and were an attempt by his enemies to put him away. However such things only happen in fiction…. don’t they?

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

 

A celebration of diversity

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Motivational Poster - rowingPeople crave unity – and dream of a world without conflict. Business emphasises the idea that all staff should be singing from the same songsheet. Motivational posters emphasise such teamwork through relevant pictures – typically showing sporting images such as rowers – all pulling together in unison.

Having rowed, while at school, I can appreciate this image – a boat where the rowers fail to row as one will quickly flounder. However I question whether such unity is good for business or the world.

The bible story of the tower of Babel gives a different perspective on this that is worth considering (and thanks to Rabbi Andrew Shaw for the idea). The story is related in Chapter 11 of Genesis.

Verse 1: Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.

On first reading this fails to make sense. If they were one language, then surely they were “one speech”. However this is not what the text is saying – it is suggesting that not only did they all speak the same language, but they all thought the same and said the same. There was no disagreement. A few verses later, this sense of common purpose is manifested as an action plan:

Verse 4: And they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.

The people are behaving as one – they all agree and show a desire to congregate together, rather than spreading across the earth and showing independence of thought and action.

This view seems utopian. No racism; no hatred; no conflict; total harmony and love of fellow man, to the extent that they don’t want to separate.

Yet what happens next, in this context, is incredible.

Verses 6-8: And the LORD said,  Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do. Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city.

Rather than supporting human endeavour, God seems to be punishing it – and actually destroying this unity, so that mankind is forced to spread out across the world. The question is why? What is so wrong with thinking the same, acting the same and believing the same? The text even suggests that mankind would have been able to do whatever it wanted to do, had God not acted.

I believe that in fact there is a lesson for business here. Imagine two businesses: the first expects conformity, has top-down management that gives instructions and punishes a failure to obey. Such a business will quickly oust anybody who fails to follow company mores – leading to a strong culture, and way of working. In contrast, the second business encourages diversity and embraces change. There may also be a strong culture for this second business but it will be based on flexibility and recognition that each staff member is an individual and it will respect their differing opinions.

The first business would succeed when their isn’t much competition and where the business environment is stable and unchanging. In fact such a business could become a powerhouse in such circumstances, as its single purpose and single mind would allow it to do whatever it wanted.

Unfortunately in the 21st century, this doesn’t happen. All business faces competition and change is a fact of life. A business that was unwilling to respect differing opinions would fall into an almost idolatrous believe in routine, and be unable to change course easily. It would be impossible to suggest that an agreed business plan had weaknesses – as challenging the established order would be anathema. In contrast, the second business type would flourish as it would take ideas from wherever or whoever they came from, and use them as relevant. Flexibility would be key, and such a business would be able to move out to new markets and geographies.

That is the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel: diversity is key as expecting the world to remain constant is not the real world. Change is inevitable and fearing change is poor management. Instead businesses that respect different ideas and opinions are the ones that can adapt and grow – rather than those for which routine becomes their business idol.

Management Partrnerships

August 11, 2007 Leave a comment
Last year I wrote a blog entry on leadership. That entry was based on an idea expressed by Rabbi Mendel Lew, and given in one of his weekly synagogue sermons. Today Rabbi Lew gave another sermon which I think has implications for management.

The topic was a strange verse in the Book of Genesis just prior to the creation of Adam’s wife, Eve. Genesis chapter 2 verse 18 is generally translated from the original Hebrew as follows: God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a compatible helper for him’. Two verses later (verse 20) the same idea comes up. The man named every livestock animal and bird of the sky, as well as all the wild beasts. But the man did not find a helper who was compatible for him. The Hebrew words “ezer kenegdo” are translated as compatible helper or similar variations (e.g. a suitable helper) but a more literal translation would actually be a helper against him or a helper who contradicts him / argues with him. (For linguists – ezer means “helper”, while kenegdo means “against him”)

So what does this have to do with management. The second verse quoted gives the clue – in that Adam was not actually on his own, as implied in the first verse. Adam had companions – dogs, cats, livestock, etc. However none could advise him or work with him. They were all subordinate to, and dominated by, him.

There are two types of managers

  1. those who seek to dominate those around them
  2. those who listen to, work with, and respect the opinions of those around them.
The first sort generates “yes men” and “yes women” who dare not question the wisdom and leadership of the manager. The problem with this sort of manager is that if they are wrong they will have nobody to tell them so. They will have helpers – but nobody to tell them when they are wrong, or even to discuss issues objectively. Nobody will risk contradicting such managers – and if such a manager did ask for the opinions of those around them, the answers received would be crafted to correspond to what people thought he/she wanted to hear. Essentially the helpers are a bit like a sheepdog rounding up sheep for the shepherd – very useful, but only so long as everything is straightforward and there are no problems. The moment problems occur, the manager – like the shepherd – will be alone. Essentially this type of manager has nobody to share ideas with: he/she has no peers to listen to, to respect and to view as equals.

For true management and leadership success this is not enough. You also need to hear contradictory opinions and take into account the views of those who disagree with you – who are against you. From the differing opinions you can then develop a balanced viewpoint – and end up making better, more profitable decisions.

In a recent blog entry (Thinking Hats) I suggested that prior to making a decision you look at the problem from six different perspectives, with the sixth being a synthesis of the other five. The same applies to management: to manage successfully you need to consider the opinions and attitudes of those around you. You need an ezer kenegdo whose opinions are seen as equal to your own, so that you can balance your and your peers’ views when making decisions.

However this only goes as far as the planning stage. When it comes to action, you need to think as one – and act as one. There should be no scope for different people to pull in contradictory directions. Successful managers should take on board diverse viewpoints, and then come up with rational strategic or tactical decisions that bring people together; that unify the various perspectives; and that lead to coherent actions that fulfill agreed business aims and objectives.

Honey Traps!

December 20, 2006 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about a topic for this entry. I was considering something along the lines of the uses and dangers of honey-traps in competitive intelligence and counter-intelligence. This was prompted by the story of Judith told in the Apocrypha, and featured in some of the world’s greatest art work. (If you see a woman holding somebody’s decapitated head then it is either Judith with the head of Holofernes, or more commonly, Salome with John the Baptist’s head. Judith’s story is remembered on the Jewish festival of Chanukah that ended just after Christmas, and led to a custom to eat cheese on this holiday. The key point is that Holofernes, a Greek general, was tempted by the beautiful Judith, who plied him with salty cheese, and then wine to quench his thirst. Holofernes had lost his head to Judith’s beauty before he fell into a drunken stupor. He then lost his head to Judith’s sword! It is essentially the old-new story of beware Greeks bearing gifts – in reverse, as instead of it being the Greeks tricking the Trojans, it was the Greeks getting tricked. For competitive intelligence professionals, it shows three things:

  • How easy it is to get information or what ever is needed when tempted by an unexpected gift. Rather than ask for information and give nothing in return, try and make it a quid-pro-quo by offering a piece of harmless (but unknown to the interviewee) information. This exchange can stimulate conversation and encourage the passing of information. As an example, many years ago, I was working on a project. I promised interviewees a copy of the report I was writing in return for their co-operation. This was a sanitised version of what I was giving to my client. In fact, it was pretty much a rehash of what my interviewees had just told me, with the useful bits wanted by my client removed. I sent this to one interviewee – who promptly called me back to thank me. He had been my main source and much of the report was based on his input. He then proceeded to give me much more information than he had before – invaluable to my client.
  • How an unexpected gift can encourage people to talk. The above example shows how it can be done. The danger is that people in your company may be giving away valuable information – so it is important to ensure that there is a policy on who can talk to outsiders, and what can be said.
  • How women can tempt men. Yes – I know that this is politically incorrect, but it is done. I know of a CI consultancy that had a reputation for employing extremely attractive, and very bright 20-year old graduates. These girls would then call up senior executives, play naive, and get the executives to talk. They would then invite them to a lunch meeting to talk further – and the executives would melt, giving away information that they should have known not to give. Unfortunately it is a failing of some middle-aged men to give away the store when flattered by a much younger woman. This is the classic honey-trap, and although it may not be ethical, it does go on.

The question of leadership

July 2, 2006 Leave a comment

I last wrote about leadership almost a year ago. Yesterday I heard a talk that made me think again about this topic.

Understanding leadership is a crucial competitor analysis skill. Poor leadership is a weakness which is reflected in the strategies taken by the company. And companies with poor leaders are less likely to survive when competition intensifies. The opposite is the case for good leaders.

But what makes a good or bad leader. Is it just an ability to come up with winning strategies, or is there more to it.

I’ve written before about how the Bible can teach us lessons that are applicable for today’s business. The biblical story of Korach – told in the book of Numbers is one story that illustrates the issues of leadership. Korach was a cousin of Moses, the Israelite leader. According to Jewish legends, he was fabulously wealthy, and he was also sufficiently charismatic to attract several followers. He approached Moses and asked why he was being passed over – questioning the right of Moses and his brother Aaron to be top dogs. God was not amused, and eventually Korach and his followers were destoyed.

But was it so wrong to aspire to leadership. What was so special about Moses and Aaron that made God accept their leadership style and not that of Korach. Afterall, Korach had proved that he could be successful – his wealth and followers showed this.

The answer lies in how you lead. There are two sorts of leader. The first, leads for reasons of ego. They want to lead. They want to be the boss. Essentially, their ambition is to make things better for themselves, and if those beneath them benefit, then all the better. They thrive on the feeling of power and control that leadership can convey. This type of leader can be viewed as a taker. They take what is given from their followers and those underneath them. If they are good at strategy, then all benefit – although they will often benefit more. If they fail, however, then through not cultivating successors and partners, they are likely to drag all down with them.

The second sort of leader is the opposite of the first, in that rather than choosing to lead, leadership is thrust upon them. They may be the boss, but their ambition is not to benefit themselves but to make things better for those who entrusted them with the leader role. They are givers and will encourage others to follow them, through taking up leadership roles and sharing power. As a result, such leaders are more likely to leave a long-lasting legacy, and will also be better suited to withstand problems. They can call on others for help – and as their motivation is altruistic, they are more likely to receive help.

So how do you spot givers and takers in companies. The first thing to do is look at the company culture. Is it collaborative or mercenary? Do the leaders lead by example, or do they just expect to be obeyed? Do they consult with others and take account of the needs and interests of all the organisation or just a select few who they see as their near-equals?

People like to knock Microsoft, and Bill Gates. Gates is a ruthlessly successful businessman. It is not for nothing that there used to be a Googlebomb that claimed that Microsoft was more evil than the devil. Afterall, Windows and Office are the dominant computer operating systems and software (although not 100% – this is being written on an Apple iBook using Firefox – if you are not using either, consider switching for a better computing experience!). But let’s look at Gates himself, over the last few years. He stepped back from being the Microsoft CEO, and now has virtually stepped out of the picture. The world’s richest man stated that his aim is to use his wealth to benefit others – via his charitable foundation. This is not the profile of a taker but of a giver. Is this why Microsoft is so successful – it listened to its staff, its customers, its suppliers and the inner voice that says make the world a better place.

Or what about Google. Their company motto may be a trite Don’t be evil but this at least recognises that corporates can be evil – Enron and Worldcom were just the tip of the iceberg. OK – so Google’s practices in China are suspect. And the way they don’t filter out pornographic sites is defintely wrong. However I personally think that both these examples are reflections of how difficult it is to resolve mutually incompatible conflicts of interest. How do you supply search listings when a government gives you a choice of censorship or nothing. Refusal to comply, and so getting blocked totally, doesn’t help the population of China. And machines don’t find it easy to tell good from bad – Google set rules on what could be found and how, and although these could be altered for exceptions, it sets precedents that could destroy the very accuracy people want. Essentially, Google’s leadership style is that of a giver – but giving is never easy. It is taking that is easy as you then consider what is best for a small elite and don’t have to balance multiple conflicts of interest.

Both these examples link to computers and the Internet. But givers don’t just come from these areas. Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company is another example – that as part of its corporate objectives supports small-scale family owned farms that would otherwise have gone under – squeezed out by their larger competitors. Ben & Jerry’s new owners – Unilever also take corporate social responsibility seriously. And if you look at how Unilever is managed, you will see a truely diverse company with many races and creeds at senior positions. Or take the Indian ICICI bank. India is seen as a patriarchal society by many. Yet ICICI has more women at senior / board positions than many US corporations. It is also India’s fastest growing private bank – success and the giving mentality seem to go together.

There are many more examples. Just recently Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hatherway, announced that he plans to leave 85% of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation – which made charitable payments in 2005 alone, of more than twice that donated by UNESCO. The name Buffet won’t even become incorporated in the charity’s name.

So, when you look at the leaders of your competitors (and your own companies) think about whether they are givers or takers. If they are givers and your company is a taker than be worried, as long-term it seems that being a giver is a more reliable indicator of success.

(With thanks for the idea of givers and takers to Rabbi Mendel Lew and his sermon given following the annual reading in synagogue of the story of Korach).

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