It is a fact of life that decisions made by politicians or any other leaders are analysed by observers as if they were made in isolation from other factors. The moral purity or political expediency of a particular decision is examined as if this decision were made to stand alone and bear the weight of concentrated critique.

Yet, most of life is just not like that. The decisions we make are sometimes forced upon us at a time of least expediency and are conditioned by factors that might be either unfortunate, unwanted or, in some way or other, compromising. I suspect that this is usually unwelcome and even unhelpful.

So, at a time when many commentators – seemingly glad of some action to get their teeth into at last – are following the attacks on Libya with a critical eye back onto the hypocrisy of Western support for regimes such as Gaddafi’s, the decision to act over Libya is not capable of being seen through some pure moral lens. We might regret having (a) thought that stable Arab regimes were culturally appropriate and desirable and, therefore, sustainable, and (b) having aided such regimes for a generation or more by arming them to the teeth… in the interests of domestic security, of course.

But, our vision is always limited. It is easy to stand in the academy or the editorial office casting judgement that costs nothing to the judge;it is a different matter entirely to be compelled to jump when you would prefer to wait for more conducive circumstances. David Cameron might reassure us that Libya is no Iraq, but the threats of a ‘long war’ from Gaddafi and the concerns raised by the Arab League (these attacks were apparently not what they thought they had signed up to) might well confound him.

I began to think about this element of leadership while reading a paper produced this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Cohesion, counter-terrorism and community in West Yorkshire. I have a huge amount to learn from those on the ground when I move to Bradford next month, so I make no pretensions about fully understanding local cultures there. But, the interesting thing about this paper is the questions it poses to the way we ‘see’ communities in complex circumstances and the assumptions we bring to our judgements.

The paper, based on research, makes a number of points, but two are particularly interesting:

  1. Despite allegations by politicians, media and others that communities lead ‘parallel lives’, the evidence suggests that there already is a huge degree of ‘community cohesion’ in everyday life.
  2. Well-intended policies (a) to prevent terrorism and (b) to build community cohesion conflicted to the extent that potential for neither was maximised.

In the latter case it was simply that policies that were comprehensible in their own right were inhibited by their contextual association with the other. In the words of the summary findings, “The implementation of Prevent at the local level had direct and negative effects on the parallel attempt to pursue community cohesion programmes.”

This is similar to the coincidence of a good idea – the ‘Big Society‘ – with another reality – the Comprehensive Spending Review. The former might well be negated by its association with the latter… despite government attempts to separate the two and retain their distinctive integrities. Put simply (rather than simplistically), the Big Society depends on voluntary groups taking responsibility for services previously provided by the State while the funding for such groups is cut off because of the spending constraints. The association of the two initiatives is unfortunate for many reasons.

This might all be obvious to everybody else, but it has got me thinking about the nature of leadership in complex organisations and in complex contexts. We rarely have the freedom to make simple decisions in isolation from the rest of reality: normally our decisions are compromised, subject to unwelcome and intrusive extraneous factors, and held hostage to consequences which cannot be predicted. In the words of the final conclusion of the JRF paper:

Community cohesion as a policy cannot be isolated from the impact of other government policies.

A statement of the obvious, maybe; but, even though the powerbrokers need tight scrutiny in a democracy, we observers might do well to at least recognise the complexity of the decision-making process and its context when we cast our judgements from a distance and the comfort of a study.