Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted the country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of their hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What these histories tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised in the following ways: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again elsewhere. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.