The “mechanics of decision-making”- what #leaders can learn from The Norma Percy Tapes #archiveonfour


John major albert reynolds

On Radio 4’s splendid celebration this week of documentary maker Norma Percy, there was a recording of former Prime Minister John Major telling a story about the Irish peace negotiations with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. An issue which he thought had been sorted “an hour earlier was reintroduced…I felt pretty frustrated…clenched my fist…banged the table…my pencil broke…scurried right across the table…everyone thought it was a piece of ill temper but it was sheer frustration… it may have ruined the pencil, but I think it concentrated minds”.

Albert Reynolds is recorded as confirming the story adding that he had felt strongly that there had been “bad faith” on the issue, that they both went into another room where they had a “right ding dong”, and that “some of the language used was tough”.

In a separate but related piece, former President Bill Clinton told the story of how he had gone into the Oval Office on a Saturday afternoon, after a “wonderful lunch with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl….feeling kinda crabby… [having to make a decision on granting Gerry Adams a visa to attend a peace conference]….I thought it was worth the risk…[tho’] I could be criticised…and so I did it and a lot people thought I was crazy”. Apparently the decision had a significant positive impact on the peace process.

Few in business would not identify with these stories. Who hasn’t experienced the frustration of having to deal with an issue they thought had been settled? Who has not had to face a tough decision, laden with risk, when not in the mood? Leaders face the same contexts, be they Prime Ministers or CEOs. But they also need to confront the same emotional intelligence issues.

John Major seemed to struggle with admitting he was angry. Indeed he went to great lengths to say that he was simply “frustrated”. I don’t buy this. He was mad as hell at Albert Reynolds. On the recording you can actually hear him relive the moment by banging the desk, again. The sound his fist made was loud. It takes some force to splinter a pencil. This wasn’t ill temper. It was sheer fury.

In emotional intelligence analysis terms, he struggled to connect fully with his own anger. He displayed it, but at once disowned it.  But not before the wonderfully tortuous claim that their mistake in assuming he was angry had “concentrated minds”. His concern for the pencil, a lovely twist.

Experts tell us that anger is a shallow emotion usually hiding a deeper truth. I can only guess, but for John Major the deeper truth may have been shame at being angry. Open expression of anger, or indeed any emotion, is not a core feature of English culture. His upbringing will have trained him to obey this group norm. But it will not have made the feeling “go away”, no more than Albert Reynolds pugnacious cultural background will have allowed him to connect with his hurt at what he perceived as bad faith.

I’m not blaming John Major or Albert Reynolds for their personality traits. I am merely contrasting them with the Bill Clinton story to illustrate a point, and not to cast Bill Clinton as a paragon of virtue. But the President did appear to be more “in touch” with what he felt on the day. If you listen to the broadcast I’m sure you will agree. He didn’t feel like making the decision, especially after having such a good time with Helmut Kohl over lunch. He faced into it. He felt it was the right thing to do. He decided to do it despite “the heat he would get from The State Department”.

I believe that the leaders displayed, in the telling of their stories, contrasting levels of self-awareness; that higher self-awareness leads to higher quality of decision-making and that it’s possible for leaders to improve outcomes by simply noticing more often how they feel. This practice is at the heart of mindfulness.

It was interesting that the Major/Reynolds story was about the process, the Clinton story about the outcome. It may be counter factual to argue that the pace of the peace process might have been faster had the former been more in touch with their feelings.

But what if John Major had said: “I feel very angry indeed that a matter I thought has been dealt with an hour now is now back on the table. This is unacceptable to me”. What if Albert Reynolds had replied: “I disagree, the matter was unresolved. In fact I feel very hurt indeed that you have acted in bad faith”.

Is it risible to suggest that in the dog eat dog world of business and politics that leaders might behave like this? I agree it’s a stretch. But just look at the terrible mess we are now in because of poor business and political governance. A bit of a stretch by leaders wouldn’t go amiss. And some.


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