Thursday 26 February 2009

Cowen has failed leadership test

At this stage we have seen enough of Brian Cowen's handling of the current crisis to make a call on his leadership skills. Unfortunately for him, but more to the point for us, he has failed quite miserably.

Cowen got off to a wobbly start. After he became Taoiseach, he immediately faced the Lisbon vote. He took an immediate political hit when the referendum proposal failed. It could be argued that Cowen's Lisbon campaign was already badly compromised by Bertie's long good bye and endless tribunal appearances. So Cowen perhaps got the benefit of the doubt. In any case, Cowen was still walking tall after the incredibly turn around in the Fianna Fáil election campaign in 2007 which he is largely credited for. (The campaign looked like it was going to implode over anomalies in Bertie's evidence, but Cowen was senior among those who grabbed the campaign - and Bertie - by the scruff of the neck and hauled it back on track).

It is often said that Cowen's first act was to reshuffle the cabinet and that even there he lacked imagination. That is true - his choice of Tánaiste in particular was astounding and is bound to keep on hurting him. But even so, it could hardly be said that Cowen picked a few dummies for the top jobs from a sea of talent! In reality, he had slim pickings.

When the financial and economic crisis struck, however, Cowen seemed unable to get the measure of it. He seemed cast onto the angry waves and for the most part since has come across as completely adrift. As the crisis deepened, he and his government continued to underestimate the depth of Ireland's financial and economic troubles. It is true that the financial collapse was not their doing and took the international community by surprise. Lenihan, like everyone else had to engage in - and is still in the thick of - a fire fight. But the economic and fiscal crisis is different: that should have been seen earlier.

More to the point: it was seen earlier. Even in July the government saw fit to have the mini-budget. But Cowen set us on a course then which would see the same mistake repeated: doing too little too late.

It is not clear to me whether Cowen was in denial until recently about the extent of he problem in the economy or if he simply lacked the courage and nature to rise to the occasion by taking very bold steps early. In any case, nothing he has done has signalled that he is in command.

Cowen has not shown some of the essential traits of a leader who can take his people through a deep crisis. The first issue, as I mentioned, was that he didn't seem capable of quickly comprehending the nature of the crunch. Great leaders have a sixth sense, a sharp acumen that allows them to feel the nature of the crisis as or before it happens. No so for Cowen. If there was one person in Ireland who should have known that our tax base was chronically unbalanced for a property shock it should have been the man who had just spent three years in charge of finance.

Cowen also fails another test. When he finally did see the crisis for what it was, he lacked the depth to draw up a strategy. When the figures pointed Cowen towards the abyss, he shrunk. He may have felt intimidated by the sheer extent of the problem, or he may have been unable to get the measure of it. Either way, he has not given the impression he is drafting a grand strategy that, while flexible in terms of tactics because circumstances will change, charts a plausible course towards recovery.

There is probably a good reason why Cowen has not come up with such a strategy. In order to think about the kind of things that will get us through the crisis, we need to think about what kind of country we want afterward. That will require a dramatic re-alignment of Irish fiscal life, and Cowen is among those who lead us into the terrible place we are now. He was also in the cabinet which saw Charlie McCreevy devastate our tax base and prime pump the property bubble. Cowen would now need the courage to turn his back on that legacy and call a (hole digging) spade a spade.

On another crucial level Cowen has failed: communication. He simply hasn't been present. Perhaps bereft of a strategy he feels he has nothing to say directly to the people. But that is probably not the reason. He can talk with passion about pulling together and taking action, even if he lacks a plan. Yet he doesn't address the nation. When he talk at all it only happens by chance as it were - at a talk with the Dublin chamber of commerce or the like. He should take a leaf out of Roosevelt's book. Franklin D Roosevelt took over in the Great Depression. Apart from being obsessed about discovering the causes and generating a grand strategy, Roosevelt was determined to make it clear to people what was required and what he was planning to do. In his famous radio broadcasts, called "fireside chats", he spoke directly to the nation about how the process was developing. It is clear that Obama too speaks directly to his people. Cowen however, is only seen bickering in the Dáil or on the steps of some conference when he runs into the press. He needs to be out front in a crisis like this.

And finally Cowen falls on another hurdle. He doesn't display a great sense of political acumen: he completely misread the way the budget would be received, and his credibility was repeatedly damaged by a series of rollbacks such as the over 70s. On the recent levy again he failed to read the anger and failed to ensure that the cut would be equitable. He also failed to give a sense of leadership by example.

Cowen could have made great gains in terms of support if he had made some radical announcements, perhaps cutting the number of junior ministers, deeper cuts in TD and ministerial salaries, a direct promise to the people that we would pursue all wrong doing or illegal acts in the banks and build a world class culture of corporate governance (he left this to the Greens to say, why?), he could have announced in parallel with the public sector levy that, while the commission in taxation has not yet finished, the government promises to rebalance the whole tax base, and he could have said that during the celtic tiger we strayed off the path in terms of equality and fairness and that for the lower paid, any gains were ephemeral, but that now we will start afresh and create a fair society. But Cowen could never bring himself to say that.

He left those grand statements to others, such as Eamon Gilmore, who has scored exceptionally well in the latest poll while Cowen flounders. No, definitely not rising to the occasion Mr Cowen; not the leader we need now in a time of crisis.


An Spailpín said...

If not Cowen, who, a Thomaltaigh? I'm interested to note that you see Mr Gilmore's leadership skills as a success. I would have thought it was far to early to decide in his case. After all, talk is cheap; let's see what Eamon Gilmore actually does once he has power to do something and then decide.

Tomaltach said...

Fair point a spailpín about alternatives. Unfortunately I don't see any of our public representatives stepping up to the marking and none of the party leaders has fully risen to the occasion. Worst of all is Kenny who has managed to seem no more than pathetic. Gilmore scores better than Kenny because he has managed to talk coherently. I don't claim Gilmore is the potential saviour - merely that he has been more thoughful and a better communicator.

An Spailpín said...

You see a Thomaltaigh, this is my point. Maybe Cowen is actually doing a good job?

If Cowen were doing a bad job, he's be the Prime Minister of Iceland. I believe the Icelandic PM is having something of a nightmare at the moment. But does Cowen deserve some credit for the fact we are not Iceland? Just because things are bad does not mean for an instant that they could not be far worse.

The communications issue is something I hope to address more fully when I have more time. I note that the HSE like to spend millions on communications. Do you know, I think I'd prefer if they didn't, and spent it on doctors and nurses instead?

Tomaltach said...

The reason we are not Iceland has little to do with Cowen. It is simply the huge difference in our economic situation. Iceland are really tiny economically while, though small, we have a reaonably diverse economy with a huge level of foreign direct investment in recent decades. Plus, crucially, we are part of the Euro area. The difficulty for Iceland was that when their banking system became unstable their currency took a hit, but our currency is safe, which helps preserve stability. Plus the ECB has injected huge sums into the Irish system to maintain liquidity.

I agree with what you say about the HSE. But I'm not referrring to building some kind of corporate communications system, merely the ability to address the nation and to get the idea across that someone is in charge and that there is some sense of leadership. That is not a skill you can buy. It is an inherent talent which is part, but of course only part, of being a great leader.

Cowen is simply not getting through to the man in the street and he has allowed major announcements to be made without ensuring that they come across as part of a whole so that one group isn't accusing another of getting of lightly.

Cowen spoke before the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, he spoke at a launch of a book on building in Dublin, he spoke at the FF Ard Fheis. This were his main set events and give the impression that he is talking to (and therefore only concerned about) the same old elites and cliques. That is not true I believe. I personally think Cowen is genuine (though must accept some responsibility for the fiscal crisis).

You must understand that a huge portion of people are disengaged from politics generally and read the tabloids. They don't watch the week in politics. But right now Cowen needs to get through to nearly everyone and needs to send the message that there is strong leadership and that above all, the drop in standard of living will be shared as equally as possible. None of this is getting through I'm afraid.

An Spailpín said...

I agree with you about readers of tabloids a Thomataigh, and I don’t watch the Week in Politics myself – eleven o’clock before a school night is well past my bedtime. But here’s the question – is the work that Cowen is doing not more important than playing politics and pandering to the masses? Is that not what real leadership is all about? Chapter 5 of the gospel of Matthew, verses 11 and 12, is particularly thought-provoking in this regard.

Given the choice between a man who does his job, and a man who turns up on the news to weep in sorrow with his people but who isn't that sharp a stick himself, I know which one I choose.

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