Brexit and Blair : Act First, Think Later Leadership

On Wednesday 6th July, Sir John Chilcot delivered a damning verdict on the decision by former prime minister Tony Blair to commit British troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Chilcot’s report put forward key points regarding Tony Blair’s decision to go to war, how he put his case and the postwar occupation of Iraq.

The report’s findings suggest that Tony Blair wanted to go to war irrespective of proper process and proper evidence, as support for George W Bush.  All peaceful options to avoid conflict had not been exhausted, and it is not even certain that the decision to go to war was legal.

It also concludes that the UK military was ill-equipped for war and did not achieve its objectives in going to war in the first place, unless that objective was simply to reinforce (or not damage) UK / US relations.

Some of the most damning conclusions of the 6000 page, 2.6 million word report appear to be held for the aftermath of invasion.  Chilcot rejects Blair’s claims that sectarian violence post-invasion could not have been foreseen saying that between early 2002 and March 2003 Blair was told that Iraq could degenerate into civil war.

The government appeared to have no strategy for what to do after the invasion, either on its own or with the US.  They only planned on a US / UN operation having to work in a “relatively benign security environment”.

The Bush administration appointed ambassador Paul Bremer to head a new coalition provisional authority in Baghdad, and this gave the UK little to no influence on the ground in Iraq.

According to Amnesty International, who base their figures on estimates from humanitarian organisations and leaked UN draft planning documents, the cost of the war to civilian Iraqis is 50,000 dead, 500,000 injured, 2,000,000 refugees or people displaced, and a staggering 10,000,000 in need of humanitarian assistance.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said:

In fact, the subsequent occupation was characterized by widespread human rights violations. Thirteen years on, the invasion’s aftermath has become synonymous with shocking images of torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the killing of Baha Mousa in UK custody, spiralling sectarian violence and suicide bombings that have claimed tens of thousands more lives.

Indeed, over last the weekend, 250 people were killed in a suicide bombing in central Baghdad, thought to be the deadliest single attack in the city since 2007.

When Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the site of the bombing, there are reports in the Wall Street Journal that:

…angry crowds jeered him, calling him a thief and throwing shoes and rocks at his convoy.

“Leave, leave, don’t let him stay here,” they said.

This is not the sign of a country stable in its rebuilding under a new government.

The Chilcot Report was published less than two weeks after Britain voted to leave the European Union.  The Independent reported the day after the referendum:

However, one senior Conservative MP and [Boris] Johnson ally reportedly admitted to Sky News that for Vote Leave “there is no plan” for managing the aftermath of Brexit, in the expectation that Downing Street would have made a contingency plan.

In the aftermath of his Leave campaign winning the referendum, Boris Johnson gave a very subdued victory speech next to Michael Gove.  As Gaby Hinsliff put it in The Guardian:

It’s just that on Friday morning Johnson didn’t look like a man with a plan that’s all working perfectly. He looked more like a king unable to take more such victories.

I’ve said before that this was possibly a pyrrhic victory for the Leave campaign who appear to not have expected to win and were not prepared for such.  They spewed a “there’s no rush” sentiment to buy time, despite some morons appearing to think it was a fairly instant thing.  As Henry Porter put it for Vanity Fair:

And it was at that moment when I really began to fear for my country. These clowns [Johnson and Gove], both journalists turned politicians, seemed only to have realized then that they were playing with live ammunition.

While many will (possibly correctly) point to Brexit being a long term decision, there has been little positive news in the recent press about the short term reaction.  We’re seeing increases in racism. Mohamed El-Erian of investment giant Allianz warned that sterling could hit record lows and even parity with the US dollar.

Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund is suggesting that the UK seeks a “Norway style” agreement with the EU as soon as possible.  This basically means getting access to the single market, but also agreeing to EU laws and freedom of movement. If that happened, it’s possible that only 1.5% would be cut off GDP growth by 2019.  No agreement could lead to the economy falling by 4.5% which would cost the consumer £9bn per year.

UK and European stock markets fell and the pound hit a fresh 31-year low after the Bank of England warned that Brexit risks were “crystallising” and raised fears about the UK commercial property market.

These risks are real.  Some are happening now.  Yet the country is in a state of flux and we don’t even appear to be sure how to invoke Article 50 to leave the EU, so it might not even happen anyway.

In his report for ITV, Robert Peston commented that Britain was becoming a laughing stock with these two high profile instances of “act first, think later”, which is an interesting opinion.

A large body of academic thinking concludes that an “act first, think later” mind set actually shows great leadership.  The thought of Herminia Ibarra in her book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader is that:

We only increase our self-knowledge in the process of making changes. We try something new and then observe the results – how it feels to us, how others around us react – and only later reflect on and perhaps internalize what our experience taught us. In other words, we act like a leader and then think like a leader.

Ibarra suggests that studies of great leaders identify them as driven individuals who are highly self-aware and “authentic” but notes that many studies do not show how they got that way.  Ibarra puts forward that the root of how the leaders got to where they are is self-confidence and being sure of themselves.  They act like leaders by proposing new ideas, somewhat sticking their nose where it shouldn’t be and connecting people.  This will help them develop reputations and get recognised and will start a self-perpetuating cycle of events of moving on to bigger and better things.

Ibarra also notes that this way of working is especially important and useful in periods of change where time is of the essence.  David Rand, a Yale University psychologist, suggested similar when studying acts of heroism or extreme altruism.  His research concluded that people who perform heroic acts seem to do so instinctively, risking their lives to help someone else without giving the consequences much conscious thought.

The jist of Rand’s research is that, far from being selfish, this instinctive and intuitive “act first, think later” is the height of co-operation (which can also be seen as a highly prized leadership attribute).  Of course, the thing about co-operation is that it can also be a highly selfish thing – we co-operate to get something back.

It’s interesting that both Ibarra’s research and Rand’s go back to “act first, think later” being positive for the individual doing the acting, but even Joey Tribbiani could conclude that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed!  They also infer that every action has a positive outcome.  The leader who constantly fails despite making decisions will, at some point, fail completely.  The hero who fails may never get the chance to be heroic again.

This is where I think that both the Brexit leaders and Tony Blair prove that acting first and thinking about the full outcome later might have demonstrated great leadership but not great responsibility.  Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that “If you can’t make decisions in life, you’re a bloody menace”.  These leaders should be praised for making decisions.

One of the obvious things to note in the face of the bravery of making the decision is the cowardice of not seeing through the repercussions.  Post referendum, Nigel Farage has resigned, Boris Johnson chose not to run for leadership of the Conservative party and Michael Gove only ran grudgingly.

However, the most important thing is that the way these people acted seriously and massively impacted millions of others.  The decisions should not have been about them as individuals, but them as representatives of those likely to be affected.  The decisions were seemingly not made for the right reasons.  Some will say that Boris Johnson was not personally responsible for the referendum result – that is was a fantastic result for democracy.  But he made his decision and he incited and campaigned and influenced other people to follow the cause.  The fact that many of the opinions and facts that he and his campaign put forward were fanciful at best and lies and guesswork at worst, just adds insult to injury.

While research has also proved that failure to visualise outcomes (only infer them) can lead to irrational weighting of important information, these leaders (if we give them some more credit) had the competence to plan at least one step ahead.  They should have had foresight and they should have made plans to deal with the consequences of their actions, because it was not just them that were affected.  Using that many people in such a monstrous way for personal development or for a personal agenda is unforgivable.

I don’t eat I just devour, everyone in every hour
All is me, is all I need and that’s all that I care
Propelled through all this madness, by your beauty and my sadness
I’ll never change or rearrange, till I’ve finished what I’ve started.

And life leads me here
It shows me, I have never really loved no one but me
Like the time, you slipped through my hands
I’ll never understand why I’m such a Selfish Man

Walk around me not before me
I’ll pretend not to ignore ye
But I’ll compromise if I realize you can do something for me
I’m ugly and you know it, but you think that I’m a poet
So I’ll keep the rhyme if I feel in time, it gets me where I’m going

And life leads me here
It shows me, I have never really loved no one but me
Like the time, you slipped through my hands
And I’ll never understand
No I’ll never understand, why I’m such a Selfish Man

All I heard was an unearthly silence
Apart from the violence, explode in my head
Where all at once was this moment of beauty
No more since it slew me, no never again, again, again

No I’ll never understand
No I’ll never understand, why I’m such a Selfish Man

Selfish Man by Flogging Molly


Comments 2

  1. Ersie Courea

    As a person from an ex British colony and still suffering the devastating consequences, I note that war and human rights tend not to go together. Cherie Blair is even worse as far as Greek Cypriots are concerned!

Leave A Comment?