Last week I was in Germany, speaking to a business team whose leader had read WINNERS and wanted me to talk about it to his colleagues, with a particular focus on OST.
As those who have read the book will know, as does anyone who has ever worked with me, OST means O for Objective, S for Strategy and T for Tactics. It is my simple but strongly held view that applying OST – in that order – to any endeavour is a good way of going about your business. Work out the Objective, then the Strategy, only then go Tactical.
Since the book, focused on winners in politics, business and sport, came out in hardback, I have had plenty of approaches like the one above. Interestingly, the biggest number has come from sport. Not far behind them comes business. There has been less of an interest from politicians, perhaps because there are fewer of them than sports and business people or organisations; or perhaps because too many governments, parties and politicians are trapped in old ways of doing things, whereas good leaders in sport and business are always looking for new ideas, new people, new ways of thinking.
It has been interesting to me that sport and business seem keen to learn from politics (good and bad) whereas politics seems less inclined to explore the sporting and business themes from which I learned so much. Yet of those three realms of life, which is doing best right now? Not politics.
On the sporting side I have done sessions in recent months for several top football clubs and sporting bodies including the FA, the SFA and UK Sport, and am particularly pleased that since I did a session with the Warrington Wolves rugby league squad, they have not lost a game. No, I am not taking all of the credit – just a little bit given coach Tony Smith says he has been applying OST to lots of different tasks.
At last week’s OST boot camp in Germany. I asked people to name companies, organisations or people who they felt were strategic. One or two named Red Bull. Others mentioned Google and Apple; one man said ‘British Special Forces,’ and on the individual front, Michael Schumacher when dominating Formula One was mentioned, as was Richard Branson. Sadly, no politicians, governments or national brands sprang to the twenty or so minds in the room.
When I was asked to name one, I opted reluctantly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whilst explaining that he is one of the three ‘winners’ I decided not to list on the book’s front cover – the other two, for very different reasons, are ex-cyclist Lance Armstrong and The Queen. Now Putin may well come a cropper in time, but he is the best political example to my mind of someone who has his O, S and T totally aligned.
O – reassertion of Russian power.
S – reassertion of Russian power.
T – anything, good or bad, which shows the reassertion of Russian power. That ‘anything’ could range from a war in Ukraine, to an unexpected military entrance into or seeming exit from the conflict in Syria, or a murder on the streets of London; from a picture of himself bareback on a horse, to the taking of a huge dog into a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman not scared of much but, following a childhood incident, very scared of dogs.
Such OST alignment across the piece is rare, though admittedly easier when as part of your S/T you have totally reshaped the media landscape in your favour, and used fear and even terror as tactical weapons home and abroad.
However, one of the people in the conference room in the Black Forest had an even more radical example of strategic power, admitting at the outset to his fears that his observation ‘might not be very PC.’
‘Go on then,’ I said. ‘Who is it?’
‘ISIS,’ he said.
This was a few days before the bombings in Brussels, but even so there were one or two sharp intakes around the room, suggesting it was indeed perhaps not something to be said in polite, PC company. But it did spark a really interesting discussion, at the end of which we had boiled down our understanding of ISIS’s OST to this.
O – create an Islamic State, a caliphate wholly based on the ISIS view of what Islamic law and values should be. Meanwhile spread terror and undermine the West. Which leads to …
S – Terror. But also the exploitation of social, political and ideological issues both in the region where they wish to form the caliphate, and all around the world…
T – hence the skilful use not just of poverty, unemployment, inequality within and between countries and regions, what they see as historical injustices, but also the skilful use of a media landscape beyond Putin-style control for most governments. Social media, we agreed, is a tactic rather than a strategy; their use of crime and intimidation is likewise a tactic but vital to the strategy. And of course the most dramatic and deadly tactics are the kind of suicide bombings we saw in Brussels, and which we will have to get used to seeing all over the world, just as we in the UK once had to be used to IRA bombs going off (though usually with warnings).
So here too it is possible to see some alignment across their OST. The terror part is embedded in all of it.
I feel the same loathing as most civilized people for what they are trying to do and the means by which they are trying to do it, not just the hatred and the indiscriminate killing, but the exploitation of young people, their use of criminal networks, and their perversion of the faith they claim to represent. But it is not enough merely to condemn, just as it is not enough simply to dismiss Putin as a very bad man. To devise your own strategy, you have to be clear about the strategy of those you are up against.
I do not for one moment minimize the difficulties of facing an enemy as vicious, well-funded and fascistic as ISIS. I feel nothing but sympathy for politicians and intelligence agencies in democracies who in good times are challenged to make more of civil liberties than securing safety on the streets, but who when terror strikes are the first in line for blame for not knowing what everyone was up to all of the time. But strategy has to be based on much more than contempt and loathing, let alone emoting and tweeting or thinking up lots of clever symbolic pictures on public buildings and social networks to show solidarity. All of that may make us feel better, but does it achieve much beyond that?
Nor am I convinced it helps anyone to dismiss suicide bombers as ‘cowardly’. These people are taking their own lives in the pursuit of hideous goals. There are many adjectives we can apply to them but I really don’t think cowardly is one of them. It suggests a long distance between what goes on in our heads and what we think goes on in theirs. We surely have to think a bit more like them in analysing them as enemies, even if we choose not to act like them.
One of the lessons from many of the sports coaches I have interviewed or worked with is that they spend as much time focusing on the weaknesses, strengths and systems of their opponents as they do on their own. I am not sure, listening to the leaders rightly lining up in verbal solidarity with Belgium this week, as with France last year, and the UK on July 7 2005, and doubtless other countries to come, that they are really anywhere close to getting inside the minds of those we are up against here.
Whether on this issue of jihadist terrorism, climate change, the possibility of a second Global Financial Crisis provoked by a slump in China, never has leadership been so needed, and seemingly so difficult in much of the democratic world. Donald Trump is clearly not the answer, but he may be a symptom of the difficulty of some of the questions. The good news about Trump is that whilst he is clear on his O – win – the S that may win him the nomination for the Republicans has within it most of the reasons why he will almost certainly lose the actual election.
But on the American elections, as on anything else right now, including the future of Europe and Britain’s place within it, certainty is somewhat lacking. And that, I fear, is because within the OST of democratic leadership, there are plenty of Os, lots of Ts, and insufficent S. Putin and ISIS are among those enjoying that sad reality, and exploiting it to the full.
I say in the book, written well over a year ago, before our election last May, that I believe in calling this referendum David Cameron put tactics ahead of strategy and without sufficient regard to his overall objective of making sure Britain does not make what he rightly views as the calamitous mistake of leaving the EU. The offer of a referendum was a tactic to deal with a rise in UKIP and internal Tory party problems. A proper strategic approach would have seen them off with argument and policy, much as mid-term highs of the SDP or their variants were often seen off in the past.
The referendum is very winnable for IN, but again we have to get better into the minds of those fighting for OUT. And no, I am not saying Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are as bad as ISIS. But I do think the threat of a Johnson Premiership – to which we could be sleepwalking in very quick order – is not one any serious person would wish to see added to the strategic jigsaw that is already making the world a very dangerous place.
– WINNERS was published in paperback yesterday, Penguin Random House, £9.99