Wednesday 4 January 2012

Deciding who's the best

Just before Christmas, Gareth Hughes posted on his view that Ieuan Wyn Jones is Plaid’s nost successful leader.  It’s an opinion which some will share, and with which others will disagree.  It’s inherent in the issue that a large element of subjectivity comes into play, but it’s worth considering some of the factors that lead to such a judgement on any leader, in an attempt to take a more abstract view.
The first factor is about defining some criteria on which to judge 'success'.  Gareth seems to base his conclusion largely on the fact that after 80 years of being an opposition party, Plaid first entered government under the leadership of Ieuan.  But that isn’t the only possible criterion for judging success as a leader – and given that there was no Assembly in which to form a government, it’s not something which any of his predecessors could ever have achieved anyway.
If I may diverge to consider the Labour Party for a moment, there is surely no doubt that Tony Blair was the most electorally successful leader that that party ever had.  Unfortunately, that success was achieved by abandoning much of what the Labour Party had traditionally stood for.  My personal favourite Labour leader was Michael Foot.  He was not only a great orator, but also a man of principle, who never feared putting the difficult and unpopular arguments.  He was an electoral disaster, though.
And that’s the point.  How do we measure the ‘success’ of any leader of any political leader?  Is it in electoral terms, in being in government, in achieving aims, in behaving with principle and integrity, or in putting the difficult arguments?  All are relevant, but any assessment of ‘success’ in a leader owes more to the weightings attached to the different elements than to the inherent qualities of those being judged.
The second factor is to do with attribution.  There is a tendency to attribute success of an organisation to the nature of its leadership, but it ain’t necessarily so.  Indeed, Gareth himself recognises that when he points out that Plaid’s best-ever election result was in 1999 under Dafydd Wigley – and then goes on to attribute the success not to the leader, but to the campaign manager, one Ieuan Wyn Jones.  It fits Gareth’s own position, of course, but it also opens the door to other interpretations.
Over-attribution of success to individuals is extremely common in the corporate world.  Sometimes, indeed, business managers do achieve success for their organisations, although there is some variety in the way that they do that.  Some are simply inspirational leaders, others are superb facilitators who create space in which the talents of the workforce can shine through.  But there are others who run their organisations by creating a climate of fear.
Far more common, in my experience, are those who just happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and are able to claim the credit for events over which they had little real influence.  And it’s not uncommon for organisations to succeed in spite of, rather than because of, their leadership, as motivated people who know what needs to be done simply ignore the titular leader.
I can think of nothing there which applies in the business world which does not also apply in the world of politics.  Some leaders are regarded as 'successful' because of what they do and say, others regardless of what they do and say, and some in spite of what they do and say.  Mis-attribution of success, and over-attribution of success, to the person who happens to be at the top at the time are natural tendencies.  The main difference that I can think of between business and politics in this sense is that political parties - or at least those claiming to be run democratically rather than hierarchically - should probably expect the personal influence of the leader on outcomes to be lower than it would be in companies.
So, in judging whether a particular leader was or was not a successful one, we need not only to decide on the criteria, we also need to judge how far the leader was actually personally responsible for meeting those criteria – and that’s much harder to do.
And that brings me to the third factor – timescale.  Looking back, it seems to me to be quite rare that the initial judgement made of any political leader stands the test of history.  Some get re-evaluated upwards, others downwards.  Two reasons for that immediately strike me.
The first of those is that more information, facts, and opinions emerge over time.  History, rather than hagiography, requires that more rounded set of inputs.
But the second, and the more important, is that the passage of time provides context.  And any period of political leadership needs to be judged in the context of what follows it as well as what precedes it.  It is only the passage of time which can provide that context.
To return to the specific subject of Gareth’s original post, namely a judgement on the 12 years which Ieuan Wyn Jones will have spent as the leader of Plaid Cymru, there are a number of possible sequences of events which can follow from this point on.  I choose two not because there are only two, nor because they are necessarily the most probable, but because they illustrate the importance of historical perspective in making a judgement.
In scenario 1, Plaid simply continues from where Ieuan leaves off.  Its official core aim is regarded as nothing more than a ‘long term aspiration’ to be mentioned as infrequently as possible, and the party becomes a party of government based on an appeal to the same middle ground as the other parties in Wales.  In that context, the last 12 years would be seen as a turning point in the party’s history.
In scenario 2, Plaid rediscovers a sense of historical mission and sets out to shift the focus of political debate towards its own position.  In that context, the last 12 years would be seen as something of an aberration.
Neither approach would necessarily lead to success, of course; but the way in which IWJ came to be regarded in each would be very different indeed.  History is neither kind nor cruel, it just is; and perspective is all in interpreting events.
I don’t agree with Gareth’s conclusion, but I recognise that it’s at least partly a result of looking at the same facts and events and applying a different interpretation to them.  I simply don’t know which view history will eventually uphold.


Anonymous said...

There are many 'theories' about what makes a good leader, whether in sport, politics or business. It's difficult to define. There is only one certainty:. The 'caretaker' never succeeds, and the success of the maverick is often determined by events. So when picking the best leader you have to choose the maverick who has the qualities that minimises damage and maximises opportunities. The most important quality of which is to lead the agenda, and communicate it. The goals have to be specific, the method of getting there realistic. The correct answer as to when Wales becomes independent is - "Now. But we have to gain the support of the people of Wales, that may take time, and events, as yet, unknown will determine the timescale." It is only possible to put a definitive timescale on this when you can say 'referendum in this parliamentary term'. It's also necessary to have a team around the leader who have sufficient diverse qualities to 'deal' with events, as they arise, with sufficient loyalty to core principles. It is possible to create events and lead the agenda by knowing intimately what environment you operate in, anticipate events and arm yourself for them, and also engineer your operations so as not pushed off course by external forces that work against the goals. Which of your two scenarios you highlight, John, depends on who is elected leader of the party.

Boncath said...

As an opener for 2012

This is Borthlas at its very best

Glyndo said...

You could hve ditched the second half of the first paragraph, then all the other paragraphs except the last one.

John Dixon said...


"Which of your two scenarios you highlight, John, depends on who is elected leader of the party"

Maybe it does. But that highlights another issue, doesn't it? Isn't it supposed to be only the other parties where the person chosen as leader determines the direction and strategy of the party regardless of what the members decide? A point I've made concistently is that a democratic organisation would decide where it wanted to go first, and then select the person most likely to lead it there.

Boncath - thank you; but Glyndo brought me back down to earth with a bump.

Glyndo said...

Happy new year anyway.

Anonymous said...

Personally i always liked IWJ and was always disturbed by the periodic plotting amongst some in plaid against his leadership!

Under IWJ's watch plaid became part of government in wales for the first time in its history - a feat which would have seemed unthinkable even two decades ago. And as part of this welsh government IWJ was a key figure in delivering the referendum on law making powers which - current welsh labour inertia aside - has completely transformed the constitutional position of wales in the uk.

so whatever IWJ's critics may feel they and the rest of us who wish to see wales continue to develop as a nation - have a lot to thank him for. Its just unfortunate that the end of his time as leader coincided with perhaps the most badly conducted election campaign in the party's history....but there are others in the party need to take the blame for that debacle.

But in terms of 'whos the best' its hard to argue against dafydd wigley's period as leader in the late 90s. His inspirational leadership galvanised plaid's membership to make the crucial difference in the close run referendum in 97. By 1999 wigley was arguably the most popular and respected political figure in wales and i would attribute plaid's phenomenal showing in the 1999 welsh election in large part to the outstanding leadership he gave. Indeed i would argue that plaid has never really recovered from the circumstances - and im still not clear exactly what happened - that led to wigley standing down in 2000.

Leigh Richards

Spirit of BME said...

I must congratulate you on this post. Mr Hughes `s contribution was far too narrow a definition but as you say – measured against what, is the issue.
In the world of business a great deal of study has been done with surprising results as to what make great leaders. Jim Collins book “Good to Great”, names companies at the top of their game for over 20 years, they were disciplined, focused and good governance imbedded in their DNA, but you would be hard pushed to name their CEO/Chairman e.g. Abbotts Laboratories, Circuit City, Kroger, Walgreens and Wells Fargo. These companies stuck on what they were good at and grew. Others that had inspirational leaders – GM, Laker Airways the Maxwell Empire soared and crashed with crisis developing on each change at the top.
Judging IWJ leadership on the Level 1 to Level 5 (the best) I would put him as Level 2 that is adequate .In conducting the business of HMG he did reasonably well ,but having a civil service to protect you it’s difficult to make a hash of it. His faults and lack of experience in management came when judged on the narrow measure of how he led the Blaid Group in the Assembly. Being only on the adequate level you only get about 5 years when they are at the top of their game, the ability to lead longer is not there. To me the one thing that showed this was his close relationship with a Plaid AM that killed his objectivity and when he walked to the Tory Party, it should have put an end to his leadership.

John Dixon said...

M James,

I don't often moderate out comments, but after giving it some thought, I have decided not to allow your comment because it is off-topic - the original post did not discuss in any way the relative merits or demerits of Plaid's leadership candidates, and I don't believe that negative comments about one of them are relevant to the post.