The ‘stop loss‘ decision is one of the hardest to make, whether it’s in management, sport, or in life generally. When something is not going well, your early inkling can be put any nerves down to ‘post purchase’ fear, but as things continue to pan out not quite as planned, you look increasingly bad if you persist down the same path. People look to you for an answer, for a change, for hope.
In some cases, things improve, and the leader is then revered for their deftness of touch, and resolute manner, winning through in the end. Sometimes things take time.
In other cases, you’ve just made the wrong decision. Maybe it was OK at the time given the information, but as things go from bad to worse, it’s obvious to most that things need to change. It is time to stop loss, to prevent further bloodshed. Often the stop loss decision is put off, in the (sometimes false) hope that things do ‘turn around’. Usually leaders cannot admit to themselves or others that they got it wrong, so they persist with arguments that the original decision was correct. We see this in politics as much as in business.
Escalating commitment to a bad decision can make leaders dig their heels, and try to ride it out. They can make it sound like firm decision-making (“We are in this for the long haul“) and strong leadership (“You turn if you want to”), but continuation down the incorrect path, when the results show the direction is wrong, is pure pigheadedness.
The best leaders know when to pull the plug. And do so.
Take the decisions in recent months of the British Labour Party and the English Cricket Board (ECB). I would argue both organisations put off taking the hard decisions (the ‘stop loss’ decision) and left things until they are too late. Both have enjoyed great success in recent years and decades, only to plunge to new lows. This is the most galling, as you don’t have to look far back into either’s history to see how and why they became all-beaters in the first place. How could they forget so quickly?
It was only 3 years ago that the English cricket team was number one in the world in all 3 formats of the game. But this success was underpinned with a 10 year stint prior where they amassed a solid team of talented performers, that they backed. Results steadily grew, and with it confidence. Before too long the team was beating even the all powerful Australians (three series in a row in fact 2009-2013). How could they have mucked it up so badly since?
It was in the late 1990s and up to 2005 that Labour won three successive general elections (giving its party a commanding overall majority 1997-2010). It seems they too have both forgotten how they got there, the hard work that was done from the late 1980s onwards, and how to stay there.
If Labour thinks it was not ‘Labour enough’ to win back power this month in the General Election then they have completely forgotten the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s when they were a political joke. Lurching to the left after the Thatcher landslide of 1979 only made them unelectable for a generation, and a split into the Social Democratic party (which then merged to form the Liberal Democrats, who then formed a coalition government in 2010 as Labour lost… perhaps the ultimate ignominy?)
Tony Blair knew instinctively what needed to be done, and put in the hard work as Leader of the Opposition in 1994-1997. He’d started earlier, and the first time I saw him, he made a strong impression. This guy was intelligent, determined, competitive. He rebranded, tossed out the screaming leftist policies and nutters, and took Labour to the centre, where every government needs to rule from. In electing Ed (not David) Miliband in 2010, Labour lurched away from Blair (who’d become distrusted post Iraq War) and the party has never looked electable since. Ed did not look or talk the part. Unless Labour elects a centrist leader who is articulate, strong and knows how to move the party to the middle, Labour will be out of power for another generation. They’ve lost Scotland, now they have to win the home counties of England. Wales, for now, and major English cities, are still theirs.
Personally, I’d get brother David Miliband (he’s not yet 50) back from New York. But they won’t do it. Sometimes the screaming obvious (like removing brother Ed 2 years ago) is the stop loss no one would countenance. They would prefer to lose an election than deal with their ineptitude.
Which brings us to the ECB.
It was clear early on that Paul Downton (Director) was not the right person for the job, nor was Peter Moores (Coach), yet we had to suffer a year of these two mismanaging things (sacking KP for one) and some deeply embarrassing results. Captain Cook could not score a run in the one day game for two years (it’s not his format!) and yet they left him there, getting worse, losing games and totally squandering the time that could have been used to develop a team for the world cup, only to sack him a few weeks before it started.
If they can persuade Justin Langer to leave Perth, then he’s my choice for England coach. He’s the sort of no nonsense, hard working leader English cricket needs. I hear everyone feels sorry for “nice guy” Cook. Sorry, I don’t want my cricket captains to be nice. I want them to the nastiest, vicious b***ards, who are going to get under the skin of the opposition, take no prisoners, but speak well at the end of game interview (that last bit is a ‘nice to have’).
It’s easy to manage when things are going well. But if they’re not, be decisive. It’s where you earn your money. If need be, stop loss. Because things can only get worse if you let them.