Saturday, 22 December 2012

The toxicity of command

The Military Review has a superb article about the impact that narcissism has on leadership, specifically the toxicity it can engender in teams. As in the private sector, so called "toxic" leadership is startlingly common in the Army
The Army recently released a study reporting that 80 percent of the officers and NCOs polled had observed toxic leaders in action and that 20 percent had worked for a toxic leader. This problem is not new. Within the past few years, the Army has relieved two brigade commanders and a general for alleged toxic—and arguably narcissistic and abusive—behavior. A division commander who served in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom was “asked” to retire following an investigation of his leadership style and toxic command climate.
I would be surprised if a similar study in any representative public or private organisation wouldn't throw up similar results, in fact I would imagine it'd be higher in the public sector, where there are fewer structured processes for leadership development and promotion can be earned due to "time served" rather than development of skills. That is based on limited knowledge of military promotions however, so I'm happy to be corrected on it.

The article posits a number of key characteristics of narcissistic leaders:
  • Being a poor listener
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism.
    Taking advantage of others to achieve one’s own goals
  • Lacking empathy or disregarding the feelings of others
  • Having excessive feelings of self-importance (arrogance)
  • Exaggerating achievements or talents
    Needing constant attention and admiration
    Reacting to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation
  • Being preoccupied with success or power
Narcissistic individuals also tend to be egotistical, manipulative, self-seeking and exploitative. Narcissists do not accept suggestions from others. Doing so might make them appear weak, which conflicts with their need for self-enhancement. Some narcissists have such an inflated self-confidence that they do not believe that others have anything useful to say to them. They also take more credit than they deserve, often at the expense of taking credit for the contributions of co-workers and subordinates.

Conversely, they avoid taking responsibility for shortcomings and failures. Narcissistic individuals often are influential in group settings because they have such conviction in the worth of their ideas that others tend to believe them and follow.

Many of these are of course classic indicators of sociopaths, which is hardly surprising. Sociopaths can and often are extremely charming and pleasant in the right circumstances, which can enable them to achieve promotion and a rise in power, warning signs are often missed because there is a lack of consistency and they are able to cover the negative behaviours effectively.

Narcissism and toxic leadership spread in the private sector for the same reason that it has in the military, to some extent at least. The hard charging, demanding attitude can be perceived as passion and a desire for perfection. This is in part because there are genuinely passionate leaders who behave in very similar ways. The difference between a passionate and a narcissistic leader is that one brings his team with them and the other works for their own success at the expense of their subordinates. Consequently the narcissistic leader will achieve success for an indeterminate period of time and train those below them that such behaviours are acceptable, perpetuating a cycle of toxic leadership.

The difference between these individuals is often relatively small. In my experience it can usually be judged by the degree to which the individual micromanages the processes they oversee. A narcissistic leader will want to be involved in everything, since failure will reflect poorly on them and their prospects, it is also an opportunity to exercise power over subordinate individuals. A passionate leader will involve themselves little beyond a briefing, problem solving (at the request of a subordinate) and the wrapping up phase of a project when seniority is required to deliver to the client. Interestingly both individuals will react in an extremely similar fashion in the event of a failure, although the passionate leader is more likely to seek opportunities to grow off the back of failure, whereas the narcissist will seek to punish.

The solution proposed is to shift the emphasis of how leaders are selected and promoted towards emotional intelligence, a sage idea and one which again is as relevant to a civilian organisation as a military one:
Narcissistic leaders lack emotional intelligence because narcissists primarily focus on themselves.
Emotional intelligence means being focused on “the other” (a peer, subordinate, colleague, etc.). Leadership is fundamentally about leading and interacting with humans, not machines and processes. It is a series of arbitrary choices and decisions. As such, to exercise leadership on the human terrain, emotional intelligence is paramount. Certainly when leaders become more senior (at the operational and strategic levels), they need to manage and lead larger organizations and deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty. However, these different complexities and contextual variables do not negate or minimize the human dimension of leadership. In fact, they only highlight its critical nature.
Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves succinctly and practically describe what emotional intelligence looks like in the work place:
  • A rare talent to read the emotions of others.
  • The ability to adjust to different situations and build relationships with almost anyone.
  • The uncanny ability to spot and address the elephant in the room.
  • Does a good job of acknowledging other people’s feelings when communicating difficult news.
  • Personal knowledge of people to better understand their perspectives and work well with them.
  • The ability to absorb the nontechnical, human side of meetings and become a student of people and their feelings.
A fascinating piece, and a necessary read for anyone interested in how organisations are led and how to make that leadership successful.


Thursday, 20 December 2012

On divisiveness and weapons

I'm not qualified to express a direct opinion on Sandy Hall, other than to say that it's clearly a tragedy and anything which can be done to limit the frequency of these events and their impact has to be welcomed. Of course any action taken will be subject to equally risky unintended consequences and great care will need to be taken to ensure that these consequences are not worse than the events they seek to prevent.

As I see it, there are two schools of thought emerging strongly off the back of the shooting
  1. Guns are bad, and the less guns that are out there the less these events will occur, thus banning assault weapons will prevent violence - Certainly this is persuasive. Most of Europe has banned the majority of firearms, certainly assault weapons do not exist in public circulation, the availability of handguns varies but again, tends toward either outright bans or low incidence
  2. Violence is the result of something cultural and guns in and of themselves do not have a significant role - As has been noted, plenty of societies allow ownership of firearms and yet massacres of this sort (individuals losing control and killing for non rational reasons) seem to largely be limited to the USA. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and France all have significant numbers of guns in society, and yet do not suffer from sudden surges of violence. 
The argument is already falling out along largely partisan lines, and each side is busy squaring up to the other. However, to me this speaks to the key issue with American (and to a growing extent British) politics. As an outsider, it's hard for me not to see both arguments as equally valid, and indeed the concepts are co-operative in my mind.

Working to eliminate and criminalise the ownership of assault weapons could only have a positive impact on gun crime. If owning and moving this type of weapon is a criminal offence then opportunities exist to arrest criminals long before they get used in further crimes. The marginal costs rise, both practical costs ($ and £), but also the moral cost, which would push the average citizen out of the market in many cases.

That said, there is something unique to American culture which needs to be addressed too. There have been some good discussions about how to rethink mental health treatment to help ensure that individuals who are going down a dark path are picked up earlier and their violence is never allowed to boil over. There is a challenge here however, particularly in the USA, since in order to have a mental health system capable of addressing these challenges you would need to build a system where costs for mental health care are much lower for the individual. In order to do that some form of socialised health care would likely be needed.

The point is however, that these are not partisan issues, and making one issue "Democrat" and the other "Republican" is to needlessly confine them to a particular voting group. If both solutions have merit the goal should be to find ways to implement both in a meaningful way over time, and to assess the impact that it has. I worry that as it stands the issue is lurching towards deadlock.

Guest Post: Being a Father Changed the Way I look at Gun Violence in America

This post was written by Christopher W. Boerl, a former classmate of mine, and all round smart man. My only contribution was a little spell checking and formatting. I'm very pleased to host this deeply personal account of how the recent Sandy Hook shooting impacted on him and look forward to more commentary from Chris as the national mood in the USA continues to shift and evolve. I will write my own response to this soon, as I have a few thoughts as an "outsider" which I'd like to share:

As an American, I am accustomed to hearing news stories of shootings on the news. Sadly, most of the time, I scarcely notice these stories, that is how common they are. But last Friday was different. The day began in uncharacteristically busy fashion with a couple conference calls and some urgent e-mails that needed replies. Around noon time, I had yet to conduct my daily troll of the blogosphere when a colleague of mine told me about a shooting in Connecticut. He was short on details, and my initial reaction that this was just another run-of-the-mill school shooting. When I reflect on it now, I’m disgusted that I would even think that any school shooting could be “run-of-the-mill,” but since 1997 there have been 145 school shootings in America, roughly one a month! And America, one school shooting a month is normal. By contrast, during my four years living in Britain, I never once heard of a UK school shooting.

By lunchtime, several of my colleagues were now talking about the tragedy in Newtown and as better understand the magnitude of the shooting; I did something I’ve never done before when a big news story was breaking. I put my headphones and refused to go online. I succeeded in going the rest of the day without visiting the Huffington Post, the New York Times, or for that matter any of the other websites I gather my news from. But then the day ended and I got in my car. My radio was pre-set to NPR and like every other media outlet, they were providing extensive coverage of shooting. Before leaving the parking lot, I called my wife, Bonnie, to tell her that I loved her and to check how my two-week old son was doing. Bonnie told me to turn off the radio or at the very least, to tune to a different station. I told her I would, but when we hung up, I didn’t. As I embarked on my near hour-long commute home, tears began welling in the corners of my eyes. They stayed there the whole drive home.

Had Newtown occurred a few weeks earlier, I’m not sure I would have had such a strong emotional response. But when you become a parent, when you hold that fragile little life in your hands, something changes in you. It certainly did for me.

In a nation of 310 million people, I cannot tell with any certainty just how many of them are parents. I assume the figures hovers around two-thirds, but that’s just speculation. Yet the point I want to stress here is that last Friday, I’m willing to be that just about every one of those parents felt the same fear I did. Newtown could have been any town, it could have been my town, and Sandy Hook could have just as easily been the school I will one day send my own son to. I shudder to think that it still could be.

In the coming weeks and months, America will begin to seriously debate the merits of gun control once more. To be certain, this conversation is long overdue. When for instance, the Virginia Tech massacre took place in April of 2007, leaving some 32 dead and another 17 wounded, instead of having any meaningful dialogue about gun control, we as a nation instead debated the merits of arming students, faculty and staff. When Jared Loughner gunned down six, including nine year old Christina Taylor Green and wounded another 13, with U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords among them, we instead focused on the polarizing effects of patrician rancour. When a movie theatre was shot up earlier this summer in Aurora, Colorado, we remained silent.

Sadly, it took the deaths of 20 first-grade students and another 6 heroic educators, for America to finally wise up to the gun pandemic we daily face. Whether or not anything meaningful legislation will ultimately come of this tragedy remains to be seen, but already President Obama has come out in support of measures aimed at curbing large-capacity magazines and assault rifles. For their part, Republicans have remained largely silent on the issue, no doubt they are waiting to better gauge public opinion, or at least wait until the wounds are less fresh before they assault such reasonable measures as anti-American. On Friday, the NRA will address the press for the first time since the shooting. They claim they are as committed as ever to preventing school shootings, but considering these are the same folks who want to keep cop-killer bullets and automatic assault weapons on the street, I have to question how strong this commitment has ever been.

As America embarks on this coming debate, I will continue to update you with the latest political developments and insights. As always, your thoughts, opinions and comments are most truly appreciated.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: The Victory Lab

Books on political campaigns are plentiful, it seems the done thing now that if you were in any way linked to the senior levels of a political campaign you write a book about it. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not, but ultimately even the best books represent an attempt by a system to analyse itself. The utility in such books tends to be more about picking out the odd piece of useful insight to build a synthetic composite.

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg exists at the other end of the spectrum, a book written not about a single campaign but about the process and science of campaigns. In my view it is one of the single most important books which has been written about political campaigning in recent years. It draws together research which has until now been disparate and creates a strong and persuasive narrative to link these isolated experiments together. The bottom line is that every time science gets used to assess how political campaigns are put together, it is swiftly revealed that assumptions are wrong and that decisions are driven less by good science and more by personal preference.

Although it seems like vast amounts of research goes into a political campaign, all too often this is an illusion caused by the sheer amount of polling done around the campaign. Polling is not research. Polling is an attempt to take a snapshot in time and understand the perception of a particular candidate or issue. Research seeks to answer the question of "why?". Why do people feel a certain way, why will they vote a certain way, why will they react to certain types of campaign materials and not others.

Too little is done to understand the motivation of people, and how critical issues are to their support of a political party. It leads to poor campaigns and poor policy making. Witness the shambles of the UK Government currently, lurching from one policy or another, seemingly driven by the polls without an understanding that what people say they want isn't necessarily what will make them switch their vote or energise them in favour of a particular political party.

Private interests and a stubborn desire to asset that "I already know best" prevents good research around campaigning, and this book makes that extremely clear. At the same time, some learnings are already available, yet currently it is poorly implemented proving that once again, it doesn't matter how often a lesson is learned, someone is always willing to ignore it.

This book should be right at the heart of any political reading list. It's a true attempt to synthesise learnings from diverse sources, to build a snowmobile for political campaigns. I am in awe of Mr Issenberg for producing such a comprehensive and vital (in all sense of the word) book.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Book review: Science, Strategy and War

For quite some time Science, Strategy and War by Frans Osinga has been an enforced part of my anti library. This was largely because on the occasions I had tried to read it I found I lacked the appropriate reference points to fully understand the text, and I'd step back with a firm mind to try it again later. Turns out that third time is the charm, and fully enabled in the post Boyd and Beyond world I was finally able to fully enjoy this text.

The goal of Science, Strategy and War is to chart the part of Boyd's life which is alluded to in his biographies, his intellectual journey. Boyd was a prolific reader, covering a vast range of seemingly disparate and often esoteric topics. Osinga is superb at exploring the reason for this, Boyd was a synthesist, able to de-construct concepts into their fundamental parts and reassemble them into new forms. Was he always perfect in his understanding? No, there is evidence of bias, selective reasoning and misunderstanding in Boyd's work, particularly his earlier works when he was seeking to prove a point rather than explore a theory of learning.

Osinga's skill here is in drawing the reader along a chain of intellectual developments that Boyd went through, without losing their essence. Too often a book of this type reduces the concepts it explores to the point of absurdity and the reader gains nothing real. In this case concepts are rendered to their essential essence, but no mercy is given to the reader. You'll want to read this book with an internet connection close to hand to do further reading at times.

The book demonstrates skilfully that Boyd's theories cannot be summed up in the OODA loop, which again, is a tool that can be rendered down to something pointless. It also seeks to demonstrate that the OODA loop isn't intended to be used purely to encourage speed, rather it is intended to provide swift and accurate decision making within the confines of an evolving (informed by the loop) strategy. All within a single structure. This is something I've personally struggled with, perhaps because my personal experience and context for the loop is in high pressure, speed obsessed environments.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who works in an environment in which strategy is more than just a word appended to any action. It is a critical part of understanding Boyd as well, since it places him in his intellectual environment in a way not available through his biographies. For me it sits nearly in the big three books on Boyd, the others being Boyd by Robert Coram and Certain to Win by Chet Richards.

Get this book.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Blogging on hold

I've got various pieces in the pipeline but in the pre Christmas rush it's all been a bit manic trying to get anything actually finished off. Hopefully later this week I'll turn around a couple of book reviews at least.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Campaigns can be to blame

Excellent piece here by Nate Silver, pointing out that when internal polls are wrong, it's often the fault of the campaign itself:
Pollsters can expect to take their share of blame when their campaigns lose, and this year has been no exception. Not long after Barack Obama and Democrats had a strong night on Nov. 6, Republicans began to complain publicly that the polls conducted by their campaigns and by affiliated groups implied considerably more optimistic outcomes for them than actually occurred.
Perhaps these Republicans shouldn’t have been so surprised. When public polls conducted by independent organizations clash with the internal polls released by campaigns, the public polls usually prove more reliable.
Take, for example, the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin earlier this year. Independent polls had the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, favored to retain his office by about six percentage points. A series of polls conducted for Democratic groups showed a roughly tied race instead.
Mr. Walker in fact won by seven points: the independent polls called the outcome almost exactly, while the internal polls were far from the mark.
Cases like these are fairly typical. My database of campaign polls released to the public in United States House races found that they were about six points more favorable to their candidate than independent surveys on average — and that they were typically less accurate in the end.
 It goes further to say:
But sometimes, internal polls make their way to the public through leaks that are not authorized by the campaigns. Or reporters and analysts may see the “real” numbers, or reasonably explicit characterizations of them, on background, on the condition that they not report them. (I saw some of the Obama campaign’s internal polling in 2008, along with that of some other Republican and Democratic campaigns in a few instances over the years.)

Perhaps these internal polls are more accurate?

My experience has been that these polls can also exaggerate the standing of their candidate, if perhaps not by quite as large a margin as those that are authorized for an on-the-record release. An interesting example of this comes from Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, who says he received data on Mr. Romney’s internal polling in six states from an aide to Mr. Romney’s campaign. In addition, Mr. Romney’s chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, disclosed the campaign’s polling to Mr. Scheiber in a seventh state, Ohio.

On average, the polls had Mr. Obama ahead by just one point between the seven states. They had Mr. Obama trailing in Colorado and New Hampshire and tied with Mr. Romney in Iowa.
The most interesting part though is about the mismatches which organisations generate willfully:
Our self-perceptions are very often more optimistic than the reality; 80 percent of people think they are above-average drivers, for example.

These problems can be worse when we join together to form businesses or organizations. Honest self-assessment is a challenge for any business, and it is one reason that management consultants are sometimes engaged at considerable expense to provide a supposedly more objective and unbiased take on the state of the organization’s operations. (Much of Mr. Romney’s success in business, of course, came precisely because he was able to identify companies whose organizational cultures prevented them from functioning efficiently.)

A pollster working within a campaign may face a variety of perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results to his candidate. He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news. Or he may be worried that the campaign will no longer be interested in his services if the candidate feels the race is hopeless.
Groupthink and confirmation bias are also risks in any organization, particularly under the stress of the end stages of a political campaign.
Allowing mismatches to exist without analysis is fundamentally unacceptable, particularly when the stakes are so high.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Reading and the anti library

Zen Pundit has done a couple of posts on the concept of the anti library, I think a concept which a lot of heavy readers recognise, but struggle to articulate. Here's the simplest explanation:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. he is the owner of a large personal library ( containing thirty thousand books), and separates vistors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and others – a very small minority- who get the point that a private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real estate market allow you to put there. You wil accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growig number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call the collection of unread books an antilibrary
Ironically this quote comes from the book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which sits firmly in my anti library. Here are a few more, of a much larger selection:

Flying the A-10 in the Gulf War - William Smallwood

I bought this book due to the relatively high level of involvement John Boyd had in it's creation. The development of the plane was a critical point in his intellectual development. I bought this to try and explore the experience of the aircraft if and when my mind circles back to it.

Walden - Henry David Thoreau

I go through phases of being fascinated by science, particularly it's implication in cutting edge technology. This book was bought at the peak of one of those phases, due to a recognition that there's a need to reject it. I've read small snippets of this from time to time, but the book as a whole has never captured me.

How to make Money in Stocks - William O'Neil

I got this on a whim after reading a number of shorter texts on the theory of stocks. I don't care about making money through it, but there is something in the way that stock markets work which speaks to the theory of decision making. Ultimately this book never really proved to be of any use, and I shifted back to shorter punchier texts.

 In recent months, inspired in part by my experience at Boyd and Beyond I've been returning to "hard" non fiction. As far as an objective to this goes, it's to start to take myself out of my comfort zone again, to shift from "training" to "learning", in the sense that training is preparation for things which have occurred before and learning is an attempt to prepare for things which have not happened.

The value of the anti library is, to a large extent, to provide an opportunity to create an environment in which learning can happen. It's a personal belief that having an anti library available is something which synthesists (as opposed to analysts) instinctively value. It allows for the mind to make subconscious connections between disparate topics, right or wrong, it's better to have the book and never need it than to not have the book and the knowledge it contains.