Bully For You

Gordon Brown Singing I've Got to Be MePersonally, I don’t believe Gordon Brown is a bully. Genuine bullying is systematic and contains a certain logic: sore points are identified, salt is poured into wounds, and the resulting humiliation provides the assailant with a warm glow. If the recent accounts from Andrew Rawnsley are true, this is not how Gordon Brown has behaved: a lost disk containing the personal data of millions of taxpayers apparently provoked him to the extent that he grabbed an assistant and proclaimed a plot had been hatched against him, which is illogical and absurd. Rawnsley also described how Brown repeatedly stabbed the back of the car seat in front of him with a black marker pen when he was frustrated. These incidents speak of a personality that is in turmoil, not possessed of the cool relish that one associates with a real torturer.

That said, we should still be irritated with Brown and the Labour Party; this wild thrashing about suggests that Brown cannot cope with the pressures of the job, and the realisation of his own inadequacy is tormenting him. He could have put ambition aside, stepped down gracefully, and be thought of much more positively than he is now. Labour’s leadership is even more culpable: knowing Brown “up close and personal” as they do, they did not see fit to have a genuine leadership contest in 2007, nor, once his flaws became apparent, did they gently ease Brown towards the exit and replace him with say, Alistair Darling. Rather, both Brown and Labour are continuing to inflict this psychodrama on the nation; from my vantage point, the decision makers I encounter are loathe to make long term plans this side of an election, partially because the full effect of this implosion is not entirely visible. This has knock on effects on industry and employment. We are, in essence, all being held hostage.

Of course, the Labour Party would have us believe that Brown’s flaws are part of a complex character which is passionate and determined. They would rather that we think of him having “personal excesses”, the downside associated with a man of many talents. The BBC is also somewhat confused, in their recent “Have Your Say” discussion, they suggested that “bullying” and “strong leadership” are countries which share a common border; in truth they are not on the same continent. It may be this perception which is most poisonous, as it will continue to pollute business and public life long after Brown’s hands have been pried off his desk at Number 10.

Strong leadership is not a matter of hectoring or bullying; this would imply that hectoring or bullying was effective, and the more of it, the better. Extreme examples of this abound: in Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, “Smile or Die” (known also as “Brightsided” in the United States), she describes an incident which occured at a company in Utah. A sales manager, in order to motivate his team, decided to waterboard a member of his staff. As the hapless individual gasped for air, the manager apparently said to the rest of the staff, “You see how desperately he wants air? You should have the same level of desire to make sales.” The fate of this manager is presently unknown to me, but it is an extreme which provides evidence of the norm: there is a belief that it is only compulsion, pressure, and threats which make human beings perform at their best. There is a dark, almost Hobbesian view of humanity which underlines this perception.

To be absolutely fair, there is grain of truth in this point of view. When labour was unpleasant, manual and required risking one’s life, say either working in a nineteenth century coal mine or a cotton mill in Lanacashire, one had to be on the verge of starvation in order to willingly endure the brutal conditions. A man was nothing more than a more articulate mule: required due to his dexterity, not because of his imagination. Yell at him, threaten him, beat him, and he may produce more cloth or fuel for you if the alternative is his own demise.

Productive relations have thankfully moved on. Enlightenment about how modern companies should run abounds. W. Edwards Deming articulated the idea of listening to one’s staff to improve the quality of one’s organisation and production; this idea was central to Japan’s post-war recovery. More recently, the academics Renee Maubourgne and W. Chan Kim have described how “Fair Process”, i.e., listening to one’s staff, yields better results. As the X-Files consistently state, “The Truth is Out There”: modern leadership should work towards making each enterprise a collective endeavour, which emphasises trust, valuing employee contributions, and creating a community which seeks its own betterment. Yet, we still confuse an overbearing individual’s behaviour with “strong leadership”, when in essence, it is the embodiment of a manager and / or a team which is profoundly brittle. Nations which appear to understand this concept, such as Germany, tend to be more successful than ones which don’t. Individuals who understand the limits of their competence and knowledge tend to delegate, and thus create an atmosphere which benefits from collective wisdom.

Brown is apparently incapable of learning the lesson. Again, if Rawnsley’s account is to be believed, he tries to be a micromanager, though the vast Prime Ministerial workload does mean his efforts are unlikely to be successful. It may very well be that part of the problem is that Brown has limitless faith in his capabilities, but is confronted by the limitations of himself and cannot sustain the dissonance. Worse, he has shown signs that he wants to continue to wallow in this swamp of meaningless sorrow, even if he loses the next election; according to the Sunday Times, he has stated that he will carry on if the Conservative majority is 20 seats or less. Sad: if this were the story of a private individual, this would be a tragic tale, one perhaps deserving of sympathy. But he’s the head of government and a major political party, and an exemplar of the quality of the nation’s leadership: no, he’s not a bully, but he is definitely a menace.

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