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Leadership Lessons from Gaza · 12 June 2010

In a recent post I gave some prominence to Barbara Tuchman’s book, “March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam”.

Tuchman wrote about pursuit of policy by leaders that was ultimately “contrary to … self-interest” of the countries involved.

She had three criteria for use of the term “folly”:
(1)“it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight”;
(2)“a feasible alternative course of action must have been available”; and,
(3)“to remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group” (ie she is not talking about silly kings or ruthless dictators).

She wrote that “folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality”. “It is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time and place determine the form it takes.” Tuchman mentions “hubris” as a source of folly – but I especially like “wooden-headedness”, which consists of “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs”.

Tuchman also wrote that “follies” are often “unnecessary” activist and “belong to the category of self-imprisonment in the “we-have-no-alternative” argument. She also wrote about “the most frequent and fatal of self-delusions – underestimation of the opponent”.

If we are to believe their public comments, in the wake of the fate of the flotilla heading to Gaza, a solid majority of “Western” thought leaders are now accepting that Israeli actions against Gaza have been counter-productive to Western goals (although not necessarily to those of Israel) and are “unsustainable”. There has been a “march of folly” on Gaza.

Hamas is as strong as ever, radicalism has been promoted, Barak Obama has lost much credibility in the Muslim world, and – possibly most importantly from a (narrow minded self-interested ) Western perspective – Turkey has become very angry.

On 18 January 2009, I posted the following on my personal web-site (www.jeffschubert.com):

“Where-ever I went in Istanbul last week I saw large street posters deploring Israel’s actions in Gaza. And, in accordance with a directive of the Turkish Education Minister, 15 million Turkish primary and high school students stood silently for 1 minute at 11.00am on 13 January 2009. The Minister’s directive said: ‘With this stand in silence the atrocities in Palestine are condemned. This is an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people.’ Turkey may have an Ataturk-imposed secular constitution, but the influence of Islam is still very strong. Turkey has clearly taken the side of the Palestinians in the present Gaza conflict. … I was warned several times that feelings are running high and to be careful in case someone mistook me for American or British.”

In my view, all of Tuchman’s criteria for “folly” have been present on the Gaza issue at least since early-2009—- and, probably, much longer.

So what now?

Having failed to meet Tuchman’s leadership criteria in the past, will Western leaders be able to now pass the “time is ripe test”? That is, will they be able act when the time of opportunity – and, indeed, necessity (before things possibly get worse) – of their own interests arises?

In my book, “‘Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao”, I have a section entitled “Timing, and the importance of ‘ripening’”. It is about acting – albeit by dictators – in your own interests! Even “democratic” countries can learn something from this.

These are some extracts:

Napoleon’s first secretary, Bourreinne, wrote that Napoleon “was thoroughly convinced of the truth that trifles often decide the greatest events; therefore he watched rather than provoked opportunity, and when the right moment approached, he suddenly took advantage of it.”

After a successful step in his early struggle to become leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao said: “Melons ripen. Don’t pick them off when they are not yet ripe. When they are ready, they will drop. In struggle, one mustn’t be too rigid.”

Following a “reconciliation luncheon” between Ernst Rohm (the Nazi Party’s SA Chief-of-Staff and Hitler’s ‘friend’) and Defence Minister Blomberg and his generals in 1934 – Rohm had put the generals offside by suggesting that the defence of Germany should be “the domain of the SA” with himself as Defence Minister – Rohm made disparaging remarks about Hitler. When told about this and Rohm’s threat to go his own way, Hitler said: “We must let matters ripen.” When the time was ripe, Rohm was arrested and then shot.

These dictators were “successful” (defined as time in power) because, amongst other things, they knew when to act.

Nine Turkish deaths have ripened the time for action on the Gaza issue. The question is: will Western leaders act on their belated recognitions—or will they decide that change is too difficult and fall back into the historical “march of folly” against Gaza.

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