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Arsenal's decline shows what happens when a once-great leader develops blind spots

Arsène Wenger has cultivated a particular kind of resilience that is now harming him.

I am fascinated by the refusal of Arsène Wenger, an admirable and intelligent man, to yield to common sense. This is usually interpreted as stubbornness. I think that is unfair. More likely, the Arsenal manager no longer sees problems that are obvious to others. He is suffering from wilful blindness, not bullishness. It is a blind spot, however, that Wenger has deliberately cultivated. That is the lesson for other decision makers, both inside and outside sport.

For more than ten years, Arsenal have lacked physical presence in midfield and a spine of leaders running through the team. Arsenal can still play beautifully, but they are embarrassingly fragile. When they face top-flight opponents, it’s like watching a mobile glasshouse take on a tank. Outside Wenger’s office, these facts are almost universally accepted. No manager should pick his team after taking a straw poll at his local pub. But when all of the people in all of the pubs are saying the same thing, perhaps they are on to something.

Wenger’s response to the crisis is to double down on the malaise: with the foundations crumbling, add a lick of high-quality paint. When the transfer window closed at the end of August, the manager missed his last chance to find some glue to hold together his flighty playmakers. Worse than that, Arsenal apparently made a £92m bid  (which would have been a British record for a trasfer) for Thomas Lemar, Monaco’s 5ft 7in will-o’-the-wisp midfielder. So Wenger countered one accusation (that he is reluctant to spend big money), while reaffirming the more significant charge (that he keeps buying elegant players he likes instead of the one he needs). All of which was revealed in a plan that failed anyway. The most generous interpretation is that Wenger had no intention of signing Lemar and was instead orchestrating a multi­layered ironic joke.

The origins of Wenger’s problems cannot be the absence of tactical acumen or strategic intelligence. What is the likelihood that amateur armchair pundits know more about the game than the longest-serving manager in Premier League football? Nor do I believe the cause is Wenger’s “philosophy” of playing attractive football. A philosophy is usually the rationalisation of a failing.

Instead, we must turn to psychological causes. My conjecture is that Wenger has cultivated a particular kind of resilience that is now harming him. Like many leaders, he recognised early on that a common flaw in decision makers is malleability. He trained himself to ignore what other people say, to the extent that he no longer hears them.

“We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society,” Wenger has said, ruefully. “Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader is now massive resistance to stress.” Here, stress could be defined as the unpleasantness of considering a rival opinion. So the understandable determination to avoid inconstancy calcifies into the opposite problem – a bunker mentality in which dissenting views are automatically categorised as problems. Mental strength becomes defined too narrowly: not listening is a badge of honour.

This was the case in the later stages of Duncan Fletcher’s tenure as England’s cricket coach. (Fletcher helped England win the Ashes in 2005.) He retained his remarkable powers of observation, but one of his assistants told me that, by the end, Fletcher would “notice a mosquito but miss the elephant”. Fletcher, like Wenger, was described as stubborn. Yet the problem was much deeper: in his determination to tune out the noise, he was also covering his ears from the signal.

In her reluctance to buckle to the rage about the poll tax, Margaret Thatcher was misapplying qualities that had served her well in other contexts. Fierce resilience against opposing views had become a failing, not a strength.

On Form, Mike Brearley’s wise new book, contains several insights about blind spots. A former England cricket captain, Brearley describes how effective leaders are “in charge” of the here and now – they don’t just go with the wind. Yet they are also “capable of removing themselves”, of allowing “the world to come to us in a more impressionistic, overall way”. A leader who is “on form” masters this psychological range. Brearley quotes the film director Stephen Frears, who aspires to be “present and yet somehow absent at the same time”. When a decision maker loses form, he loses his ability to float above the problem. He becomes like a painter standing too close to his canvas.

There is a connected problem: loss aversion. What appears to be stubbornness is, in reality, a fear of change. Leaders become dependent on faithfulness to their world-view. “We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered,” writes the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life. “Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.” You suspect that Wenger now accepts an unhappy trade-off: a lower probability of victory, but a situation that “vindicates” his ideas, is preferred to changing plans and increasing his probability of winning.

That raises a second issue. Given leaders’ blind spots, someone close to them must help the process of stepping back and seeing the wider picture. A trusted adviser, when doing his job right, acts as the conscience his boss can no longer hear in his own head.

While considering all this, and at Brearley’s suggestion, I took a test of selective attention on YouTube called the “Monkey Business Illusion”. I won’t spoil the game, but I will confess that in attending to the narrow question, I missed the wider picture. Perhaps I’m better at seeing blind spots in other people. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?