Book Review: Misleadership

Paul Roscorla

Paul Roscorla

John Rayment and Jonathan Smith: Misleadership: Prevalence, Causes & Consequences.  Farnham, Surrey, UK: Gower, 2011.

Paul Roscorla

This book has an intriguing title and therefore considerable potential to be thought provoking.  There is a good idea here that the authors, who are business academics and business consultants, have been commissioned to explore.  Whether or not they have succeeded in translating a great idea into a great book is less certain, but the concept of “Misleadership”, its origins and impact has been given a thorough treatment. The author’s central thesis is that leaders can mislead their followers in four different ways. Whether it is down to incompetence or deceipt, such misleadership is highly damaging once exposed since followers have to believe that – overall – their leader will do the right things.

What makes the book so timely (from the perspective of the UK) is perhaps best illustrated by quoting from a piece in the Daily Telegraph written by the chief political commentator on January 25th 2012.  This article says that during the time of the Blair government ‘it became normal for the prime minister’s official spokesperson to lie on the record and Tony Blair repeatedly deceived Parliament’.  The rot then spread to MPs and the writer describes the 2005-10 parliament as ‘probably the most corrupt since the 18th century – its members lied, cheated and falsified documents in order to obtain expenses fraudulently’.  So widespread was the practice that it became pretty well impossible for a new government to be formed that did not include people in the Cameron Cabinet who were to some degree tainted.  Irrespective of how the Blair years are now viewed by politicians, at the time the Prime Minister was hugely successful and admired by many people including some of the current political leadership.  Andy Coulson’s[i] appointment as Cameron’s Director of Communications carries an echo of the role that Alistair Campbell performed so successfully for Blair.  Things do not seem to be changing to the degree required.

On one of the opening pages there is a glossary of abbreviations, which encapsulates a tendency within the book to veer between the complex and what can seem self-evident.  The authors use acronyms frequently with GFL (Globally Fit Leadership) and UGI (Urgent Global Issue) being examples.  At least they are explained in the glossary.  However, the authors also explain that UK means United Kingdom, UN stands for United Nations and so on.

Essentially the book explores Missing Leadership (or failure to make needed decisions), Misguided Leadership, Misinformed Leadership and Machiavellian Leadership.  The introduction asks readers to reflect when they were last misled, when they last misled someone else, and suggests that it is the global scale of the challenges that face mankind which are leading to a leadership crisis.  The authors make the telling point that one of the biggest difficulties with tackling Misleadership is that its perpetrators are often tremendously successful and seen as role models.  Most of us observe that we live in an age where leaders who fail spectacularly need lorries to carry off the compensation they receive under legal contracts.  The shareholders of RBS[ii] have done very badly indeed, but Fred Goodwin (its ousted Chief Executive) should be able to survive on his pension even if he has to do so without a knighthood.  Points for reflection end each chapter of the book.  For example, at the end of the Introduction the reader is asked ‘what has been your initial reaction as you have read this first chapter?’

The second chapter devoted to Missing Leadership uses the case of the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic as an illustration.  This example is well described and used to develop the theme of the chapter.  It shows that many things went wrong from ship design to the fact that radio operators earned money sending messages for passengers rather than passed two specific iceberg warnings to the bridge.  What is striking about this historic event is the role of bad luck – the Captain steered south into warmer waters in response to general warnings, the iceberg was spotted, and immediate evasive action taken which almost succeeded.  Rayment’s “ASK SIR L” problem solving model[iii] is then used to evaluate what happened and to learn the lessons.  In a way the writers become rather like a Public Enquiry and, with the benefit of hindsight and modern knowledge, discuss what might have been done to avoid the tragedy.  It would have been more apposite to ask how a leader might have acted differently in the situation that they found themselves in at the time.  Various errors in decision-making are identified.  An example being that steel and rivets were used in the construction that became brittle in the cold conditions known to exist on the route.  Rayment and Smith make a good point that contemporary ship design was pushing new limits and that the captain was probably unaware of the limitations or likely performance of his new ship, but this says little about his intrinsic capabilities as a leader.  The authors finally suggest the need to identify, specify and manage all risks faced.  No one would argue with the benefit of such risk assessments but the issue is one of a context where many risks are not yet known and risk is therefore unpredictable.

The second chapter goes on to cover global warming and resource depletion.  The impact of global population growth and the sheer complexity of the issue are well covered.  Missing world leadership to address climate change and sustainability is identified, but the authors – like the politicians – are silent on addressing the core problem of population growth.  It is perhaps too difficult.  Finally there is a section on ‘Toxic Childhood’ where the breakdown of family life and the abuse of children in homes and schools are covered.  Other than identifying Missing Leadership (for example, where were senior leaders in the church in Ireland when priests were know to be abusers?), problems are laid out rather than solutions offered.  In fairness, the authors do say in the Introduction that they do not have all the answers.

In the third chapter the authors address Misguided Leadership.  The definition of what this means could have been crisper and it might have been preferable if the examples had come first to make matters clearer.  Having said that it is the pursuit of desirable objectives through invalid means, the next sentence describes the issue as one of hitting intended but inappropriate targets.  This is illustrated by the example of a business maximising returns to shareholders while losing sight of humanity’s overall objectives.  The authors then get into the important issues of short-termism, whether profit is all that is important, whether everything should be left to the operation of markets, and globalisation.   The conclusion drawn is that leaders are often prisoners of the situation in which they find themselves – for example, shareholder’ demands for returns.  The authors coin the term Institutional Misleadership for settings where leaders push themselves to make an unworkable system work.  A lengthy section on the Global Fitness Framework (GFF) follows which is focused on the interconnectedness and interdependencies of a global society and the need for a holistic approach.

The illustrative examples for the third chapter commence with ‘A’ level[iv] grade inflation, then move on to Henry V and end with Christopher Columbus.  In the case of Henry V, we are told that he led his men into a very perilous situation and without proper preparation.  Luckily the French played into his hands and essentially lost the war due to their own incompetence and disunity.  This example has the feel of being force-fitted into the requirements of the Misguided Leadership concept and the authors concede the story also has elements of Missing or Machiavellian Leadership.

Misinformed Leadership is where the leader is unaware of important information or misunderstands it and this is the subject of chapter four.  The chapter starts with a review of the 2008 banking and financial collapse, and this is the major case study in the book.  It is also quite technical.  In the lead up, scandals such as BCCI and Nick Leeson and Barings are explored[v].  In the latter case, Missing Leadership is identified (lack of controls), Misinformed Leadership (leaders did not know what was going on), Machiavellian Leadership (Leeson’s bonuses were twice his salary and encouraged risk taking) and Institutionalised Misleadership (it was long-term and endemic).   Elements of the 2008 crash are described such as the securitisation of mortgages, ‘NINJA’ loans (no income, no job or assets), and ‘Liar Loans’ where borrowers self-certified their earnings without proof.  What the authors do not mention is that the most interesting aspect of the latter is that ‘Liar Loans’ were issued in the latter part of 1980s and probably contributed to the housing crash of the 1990s.  In other words we had been there before and the results were entirely predictable, with the question being why go there again?  The authors neatly explain how the banks got into a situation where a 2-3% fall in asset values would wipe out all their shareholders funds (or reserves).  This, as they say, is an example of Misleadership in the extreme.  Even Gordon Brown, when faced with reality, admitted he was wrong to claim he had ended ‘boom and bust’.

The culmination of the Misinformed Leadership section is a call for a new paradigm.  The authors credit the current economic model to such people as Adam Smith (the 18th century economist and philosopher) who set out the mechanics of the system in a context where trade levels were lower, resource consumption far lower and the influence of individual organisations much less significant in a pre-globalisation age.  Powerfully, attention is drawn to the ever widening gap between power and responsibility.  In the days of Adam Smith if a business failed its entrepreneurial owner lost everything.  Today, business leaders who take decisions with immense implications are insulated from the true scale of the consequences by a combination of legal protection and practicality.  Clearly the losses incurred by RBS could not be recovered from Fred Goodwin even though the acquisition of ABN Amro is largely attributed to him.

Rayment and Smith outline a new paradigm with three levels: leaders and decision-makers, organisations, and nations and societies.  Numbers of attributes are set out at each level for example: at the leader level there is an expectation that leaders will act ethically, honesty and with integrity, and be aware of global issues; at the organisation level, cooperation with customers, suppliers and other businesses, and societal contribution, is specified; at the level of nations, the new paradigm includes sharing resources fairly and acting together to tackle issues.  On the other hand, greed is said to be a manifestation of “negative spirituality”.  It is hard not to see much of the new paradigm as utopian and difficult to see how it will be brought about.  The book misses a consideration of human nature.  While greed is perhaps a manifestation of negative spirituality as the authors contend, some people are greedy and this has to be dealt with.  As Bob Dylan sang, ‘the King won’t be satisfied until he owns everything’.  Many writers have concluded that altruism is merely enlightened self-interest.  Human beings compare themselves with each other and therefore they are inherently competitive.  There is good competition related to striving and bad competition related to destruction.  Indeed, one wonders whether another new paradigm is needed as a new paradigm (i.e. funding consumption with debt) got us to where we are.  Perhaps a return to old principles closer to those that applied when a man ate what he sowed would be preferable.  Putting aside whether that is even possible in a world of 6bn people, perhaps the authors assume that their readers are change junkies and therefore new paradigms attract advocates and old principles do not sell books.

The final category is Machiavellian Leadership.  This is deliberate and disguised exploitation to achieve personal objectives.  The chapter leads with a description of the dairy product industry and the actions of some companies to promote the use of baby milk.  The charity, Save the Children, is quoted as claiming that the use of infant formula causes thousands of unnecessary infant deaths every day.  The engrained nature of deception in business is outlined and marketing and advertising are obvious examples where guilt, doubt and dubious statistics are used.  If we live in a world of spin, why are we not inured to it?  Probably the most damaging consequence of such a lack of authenticity is widespread, energy sapping scepticism and cynicism.  We expect our leaders to lie so we don’t mind too much if they do, politicians can’t be trusted so we ridicule them and so on.  If there isn’t a good book by an MP or ex-MP entitled ‘Teach yourself to fiddle your expenses’, there ought to be.  The authors identify the consequences of unchecked Machiavellian Leadership as poor morale, motivation and dedication, and unwillingness to cooperate, collaborate and share knowledge openly.

Interestingly the authors believe that the media in the UK is a major cause of Machiavellian behaviour.  Misleading advertising is placed, a hostile and negative approach is adopted, and stars are created and knocked down.  Advocates of the Leveson Inquiry[vi] into phone hacking would no doubt agree about the depths to which the press can sink.  However often, although not always, there is another story to tell.  A socialist friend informed me that the Daily Telegraph exposure of dubious MP expense claims was a form of right wing plot and simply scurrilous. There is an irony here.  Those that accuse others of Misinformation and Machiavellianism may well find the same charge being levelled back at them.

The authors propose using eEducation as a way of tackling Machiavellian Leadership.  This involves re-educating leaders to recognise their true role as global leaders and encouraging them to move towards Globally Fit Leadership.  There is an assumption here that people who crave leadership but lack empathy or morals, can be successfully “re-educated”.  More promisingly the authors go onto discuss the influence that followers can have on a leader’s behaviour.  Good leaders, like good people, sometimes do bad things but other people can cause them to reflect on what they propose to do.  Finally the creation of a contemporary mission is suggested.  The Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), is a partnership between the European Foundation for Management Development and the UN Global Compact, that promotes the purpose of the globally responsible business by formulating it in the following terms: ‘Create economic and societal progress in a globally responsible and sustainable way’.  The authors’ proposal for a mission statement for all organic levels of humanity worldwide is:

Developing a Sustainable, Just and Fulfilling Human Presence on the Planet

Chapter 6 brings together all of the authors’ previous themes and explorations.  It returns to the concept of the Leadership Fitness Continuum (LFC) where Globally Fit Leadership (GFL) is defined as the best possible human leadership and Diabolical Leadership is the worst possible.  In the extreme these poles are ‘Heaven on Earth’ and ‘Hell on Earth’.  The LFC and GFL ideas are discussed in depth and integrated with the 4 types of Misleadership.  Lewin’s Force Field Analysis is used to create a Leadership Fitness Force Field.  Questions such as ‘Does all of humanity experience a similar level of well-being?’ and ‘Are we in equilibrium?’ are used to make points.  Occasionally such questions posed by the authors seem akin to asking ‘is the Pope Catholic?’  Fear of change and attachment to familiar ways of doing things are explained as psychological factors getting in the way of implementing ideas that might reduce or eliminate Misleadership.  A model proposed by Carnall for motivation to change is given and then there is a section on the different types of power.  The chapter ends – like all the previous ones – with points for reflection expressed as questions.  One of these asks ‘if you were having a conversation with Henry VIII, what would you like to ask him in relation to the issues we have discussed so far in this book?’ What indeed?

Chapter 7 is a series of case studies and the final chapter addresses ‘Implementation Strategies’.

This book will appeal to people interested in models and concepts designed to address the global leadership challenge, which without doubt exists.  The question for the reviewer is whether many people are interested in this – regardless of whether the authors believe is that people should be.  In his book ‘the Naked Ape’ Desmond Morris drew attention to the fact that we are tribal beings.  Most of us know about 100 people and we are most concerned about what happens locally and around us.  The authors use the Police as an example in one section, and one of them has worked with the Police.  They will therefore know that the problems that most concern the public are dog mess and anti-social behaviour.  Global organised crime hardly figures.  Managers and leaders are concerned about getting ahead in order to give their families security and a good standard of living.  Whether or not people should be parochial, they are.  There is a major unresolved problem here.

Better leadership is clearly desirable, but is this possible to the degree required in western democracies?  Our leaders are in a terrible bind.  Everywhere we look governments have made promises that look increasingly unaffordable.  However, publics all across the West expect these promises to be met and votes depend on this.  Essentially our leaders are forced into Misleadership.  As the authors point out, it took a virtual financial collapse before Gordon Brown could publically admit that some public spending cuts were likely to be needed.  It is difficult not to feel that facing our problems is simply politically too hard for our leaders.  It may be too difficult for us too.  This is alarming as we all – leaders and followers – appear to be colluding in sleep walking to disaster.

Some writers suggest that a consequence of the promises that have been made by governments is the infantilisation of swathes of the population who have been educated to believe that they have rights and entitlements unconnected to their own behaviour.  This is just the same as leaders in the banking industry expecting multi-million pound bonuses irrespective of the catastrophic state of some of the banks they are leading. They refer to their contracts, much as and members of the wider public refer to contracts they believe they have with the state, for example, that it will provide them with certain benefits such as free healthcare.

It is unfair to expect the authors of Misleadership to cover every issue affecting the consequences of population growth and globalisation, and they make a creditable stab at this huge task.  On page 153 the authors say that, while some of their proposals have been articulated before, ‘the specifics provided and combination of elements that work with and support each other is what makes our proposals new, exciting and significant steps forward’.  Certainly they propose an integrated, cohesive approach.  However, how exciting it is, and how much traction it will therefore get, are things readers will need to judge for themselves.

 About the Author

Paul Roscorla FCA MSc C.Psychol, is a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Occupational Psychologist who switched careers in 1988 and has worked in management and leadership assessment and development ever since. He has a Masters degree with distinction in Psychological Assessment in Organisations from Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. Having been a management development manager with Abbey Life for 4 years, he worked with private sector clients as a partner in a consultancy before moving to a position with the UK Government Home Office as Deputy Head of the Assessment and Consultancy unit. In this role he assessed candidates for senior civil service posts and designed and delivered leadership assessment and development processes at national level for UK organisations such as the Police and Prisons services. Since November 2006 he has worked as an independent consultant providing leadership assessment and development services to private and public sector organisations.


[i] Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World newspaper before being appointed by the current UK premier, David Cameron, as Director of Communications. He was forced to stand down in 2010 when it became clear that he might be implicated as a central figure in the phone hacking scandal surrounding his former employer.

[ii] RBS: the Royal Bank of Scotland Group which is now 84% owned by the British Government following financial collapse in 2009. Prior to its collapse RBS was briefly  the biggest bank in the world.

[iii] The acronym stands for Appreciate, Specify, Causes, Solutions, Implement, Review, Learn.

[iv] A levels are the UK’s advanced educational qualifications, success at which is necessary for entry to University. In recent years, average grades have been rising and it has been claimed that students of similar ability now receive results two to three grades higher than 30 years ago.

[v] BCCI was an international headquartered in London which was forced to close in 1991 by regulators following investigations into money laundering and other financial crimes. Nick Leeson was a trader for Barings Bank whose unauthorised trading caused the bank to collapse in 1995.

[vi] The Leveson Inquiry is a current official UK investigation into the culture, practices and ethics of the media.