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09 January 2006

Learning from the Kennedy debacle

Cybershrink looks at some lessons for business and political leaders, in the downfall of the British politician, Charles Kennedy.

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For a time, this week, Mr Charles Kennedy, leader of the British Lib-Dem Party, reminded one of the death of Rasputin. That wily Russian was poisoned, stabbed, shot, and flung through the ice into a frozen river, and still lived, to the consternation of those who wanted to be rid of him.

Although some of his most desperate and hardly rational supporters have grumbled that he was stabbed in the back, or in the front, nobody else has any reason to apologise to Mr Kennedy for forcing him to face reality, after an extended period of escalating drink problems and problems caused by drink.

For Kennedy it was not so much a betrayal, but more of an intervention by friends, seeking to force him to take his own major problem seriously enough to have some realistic chance of gaining control over it. And there are many highly relevant lessons for South African politicians and senior business leaders to learn from his self-initiated downfall.

Series of incidents
According to British papers like the Independent, he had a long history of heavy drinking and drink-related problems and incidents, some of them rather lurid.

We get a picture of a leader gargling with mouthwash in the car between public engagements to disguise the reek of alcohol. There are stories of him being so obviously drunk at times in Parliament that colleagues had to get him out of the chamber and out of the public eye. His aides and close colleagues apparently became involved in an on-going cover-up.

Perhaps, like those who initially think they are helping a drunk, they grew despairing when the problem grew rather than diminished and when all the promises to reform come to nothing.

No-shows
There seems, too, to have been the common misperception that anyone who can at times remain sober and function well, cannot be an alcoholic, a neglect to recognise the episodic bingeing. As far back as 2003 came a major occasion when he was missing from his place in Parliament during a critically important debate, after a boozy party the previous night.

His absence during the 2004 budget debate, we hear, led to a senior deputation from his own party, pressing him to seek the treatment he so clearly needed. But officially there was complete denial that there was any such problem, and indeed a major newspaper was required to apologise for suggesting that there was.

Threats of legal action discouraged fruitful discussion of a matter surely of real public interest. Towards the end of last year, there was an accumulating series of no-shows at important meetings, and poor performance when he attended. Staff and colleagues resented being expected to compromise their own truthfulness and integrity to keep denying a problem that was becoming increasingly obvious.

Warnings
There were many occasions when he was warned and received complaints from close friends and colleagues, and essentially ignored them. Only when he was confronted with the fact that a major TV channel was to broadcast a story with details of his alcoholism, did he belatedly decide to call a press conference and admit to it - though somewhat dismissively, giving the impression that he imagined he had it under control already.

That took no particular courage, it was an attempt to gain some degree of control of a situation in which he had lost control. Knowing his MP's no longer felt able to support him, he tried to appeal over their heads to the individual party members who might not be so familiar with the distressing facts of the situation.

That, too, was not at all courageous (as his handful of supporters insisted on calling it), but an attempt to avoid the inevitable consequences of his choices and behaviour, and to save his job at the expense of his party. He had lost the confidence of essential colleagues, who had been greatly tolerant for too long rather than too short a time, because he had failed to deserve their confidence.

Pinch of salt
Many people will take his glib claim, in his resignation speech, to have the problem under control, with a large pinch of salt. Even if he sincerely believed it, such claims are easily made by alcoholics, and rarely true. A close colleague reportedly received the same assurance more than two years ago, and it wasn't true then. Alcoholics deserve assistance in getting and staying sober, not indulgence and support for their wishful thinking. As a British commentator said: "There is nothing more virulently self-righteous than a practising alcoholic cornered about his or her drinking. "

Curious party
He led a curious party, with a mixed political history, but no chance of ever being in Government - it is the party people vote for when they can't bear to vote for the two major parties but don't want to disturb the balance of power, or when they can't make up their minds but do wish to do their duty and vote.

When the government of the day is unpopular (as all governments of the day are, at times) and especially when the opposition isn't especially appealing at the time, they get more votes than usual and become rather excited about how important they might become. And now the former leader of the "None-of-the-Above" party is, himself, none of the above. – Prof M.A. Simpson, Cybershrink

January 2006 Learning from the Kennedy debacle. Cybershrink looks at some lessons for business and political leaders, in the downfall of the British politician, Charles Kennedy. For a time, this week, Mr Charles Kennedy, leader of the British Lib-Dem Party, reminded one of the death of Rasputin. That wily Russian was poisoned, stabbed, shot, and flung through the ice into a frozen river, and still lived, to the consternation of those who wanted to be rid of him.

Although some of his most desperate and hardly rational supporters have grumbled that he was stabbed in the back, or in the front, nobody else has any reason to apologise to Mr Kennedy for forcing him to face reality, after an extended period of escalating drink problems and problems caused by drink.

For Kennedy it was not so much a betrayal, but more of an intervention by friends, seeking to force him to take his own major problem seriously enough to have some realistic chance of gaining control over it. And there are many highly relevant lessons for South African politicians and senior business leaders to learn from his self-initiated downfall.

Series of incidents
According to British papers like the Independent, he had a long history of heavy drinking and drink-related problems and incidents, some of them rather lurid.

We get a picture of a leader gargling with mouthwash in the car between public engagements to disguise the reek of alcohol. There are stories of him being so obviously drunk at times in Parliament that colleagues had to get him out of the chamber and out of the public eye. His aides and close colleagues apparently became involved in an on-going cover-up.

Perhaps, like those who initially think they are helping a drunk, they grew despairing when the problem grew rather than diminished and when all the promises to reform come to nothing.

No-shows
There seems, too, to have been the common misperception that anyone who can at times remain sober and function well, cannot be an alcoholic, a neglect to recognise the episodic bingeing. As far back as 2003 came a major occasion when he was missing from his place in Parliament during a critically important debate, after a boozy party the previous night.

His absence during the 2004 budget debate, we hear, led to a senior deputation from his own party, pressing him to seek the treatment he so clearly needed. But officially there was complete denial that there was any such problem, and indeed a major newspaper was required to apologise for suggesting that there was.

Threats of legal action discouraged fruitful discussion of a matter surely of real public interest. Towards the end of last year, there was an accumulating series of no-shows at important meetings, and poor performance when he attended. Staff and colleagues resented being expected to compromise their own truthfulness and integrity to keep denying a problem that was becoming increasingly obvious.

Warnings
There were many occasions when he was warned and received complaints from close friends and colleagues, and essentially ignored them. Only when he was confronted with the fact that a major TV channel was to broadcast a story with details of his alcoholism, did he belatedly decide to call a press conference and admit to it - though somewhat dismissively, giving the impression that he imagined he had it under control already.

That took no particular courage, it was an attempt to gain some degree of control of a situation in which he had lost control. Knowing his MP's no longer felt able to support him, he tried to appeal over their heads to the individual party members who might not be so familiar with the distressing facts of the situation.

That, too, was not at all courageous (as his handful of supporters insisted on calling it), but an attempt to avoid the inevitable consequences of his choices and behaviour, and to save his job at the expense of his party. He had lost the confidence of essential colleagues, who had been greatly tolerant for too long rather than too short a time, because he had failed to deserve their confidence.

Pinch of salt
Many people will take his glib claim, in his resignation speech, to have the problem under control, with a large pinch of salt. Even if he sincerely believed it, such claims are easily made by alcoholics, and rarely true. A close colleague reportedly received the same assurance more than two years ago, and it wasn't true then. Alcoholics deserve assistance in getting and staying sober, not indulgence and support for their wishful thinking. As a British commentator said: "There is nothing more virulently self-righteous than a practising alcoholic cornered about his or her drinking. "

Curious party
He led a curious party, with a mixed political history, but no chance of ever being in Government - it is the party people vote for when they can't bear to vote for the two major parties but don't want to disturb the balance of power, or when they can't make up their minds but do wish to do their duty and vote.

When the government of the day is unpopular (as all governments of the day are, at times) and especially when the opposition isn't especially appealing at the time, they get more votes than usual and become rather excited about how important they might become. And now the former leader of the "None-of-the-Above" party is, himself, none of the above. – Prof M.A. Simpson, Cybershrink

January 2006

 
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