The Killer Flaws of a Political Leader
The recently published book, Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election by Tim Ross & Tom McTague is a fascinating insight into the meltdown behind the failed snap election called by Theresa May.
It perhaps shines a telling light on her inability to build or lead teams, a killer flaw for a political leader.
One of the first rules of Leadership is never to go out of your way to make enemies on your way up, as they will be there to greet you on your slide downwards.
Whilst serving as the Home Secretary, Theresa May was seen to be diligent, hardworking but rather unspectacular. It was noticeable that she never really had any chums or close friends in the Cabinet. Most successful politicians have their obvious soulmates and staunch supporters. These strong and loyal relationships are essential in the murky and backstabbing world of politics. May’s lack of any close circle gives the first clue to her biggest and perhaps terminal flaw.
Right through the Brexit campaign, May kept her own counsel and said very little in public. She quietly declared herself as a ‘Remainer’, but not many were convinced. As soon as she became leader of the Tories, she quickly became the most ‘tin hatted’ and rabid of Brexiteers. It begs the questions, what does she really stand for?
The Waiting Game
She played the classic ‘waiting game’, never appearing obviously disloyal to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, but pointedly, never appearing loyal either.
As the earthshattering results of the Brexit referendum played out, she grasped her moment. Boris Johnson had been stabbed in the stomach by his close colleague, Michael Gove, leaving no other credible candidates for the leadership of the Conservative party.
As soon as she was elected as leader of the Conservative party, she became the de facto Prime Minister.
At the Conservative party conference in October 2002, she made her seminal and reputation making speech as the newly appointed Chairwoman of the party. “Yes, we’ve made progress, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government. There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, you know what some people call us: the nasty party,” May told a stunned conference.
Well, as Prime Minister, it was now her moment to make good on her electrifying conference observations back in 2002. She made a grandstand opening speech where she espoused a strong reformist agenda with an unmistakeable focus on righting the wrongs of the recent past. She raised expectations by offering a far more inclusive approach, where none should be marginalised or forgotten again. So far, so good. But unfortunately, that was as good as it was going to ever get under her leadership.
In a flash, we saw her true colours, and it was all rather too ‘nasty’ and unforgiving. She quickly and publicly set about dismantling and rubbishing everything her predecessor had carefully built and stood for.
She made the unmistakable point of firing all the people she disliked, in the most brutal and unforgiving manner; George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan were all treated with disdain, and unceremoniously kicked out of the Cabinet. This all felt deeply personal, ugly and unnecessary.
Despite the surprise of making Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary, as soon as she had appointed him, she took the time to ridicule and humble him to his face in front of his colleagues (and the cameras). His time to pay her back will come.
She appointed Phillip Hammond as Chancellor, and then regularly and repeatedly refused to consult with him and ignored his advice and observations.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, has had the good grace to keep out of the fray and has said nothing, no matter how badly she has needled him and all that he stood for.
Kenneth Clarke famously described her as that “Bloody difficult woman”, now we all know he was being bloody generous.
Not all of her previous colleagues who had sand kicked in their face have decided to be as sanguine. She booted out Nicky Morgan, despite her being a popular and successful Education Secretary. Morgan has been loud, articulate and determined in highlighting all of May’s failures without any fear of reprisals.
Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer
May quickly brought the outspoken and serial back stabber, Michael Gove, back into the cabinet – keeping her very few friends close and one of her major enemy’s closer still.
The person she stuck the knife in deepest was the former Chancellor, George Osborne. She has lived to regret that a thousand times. Quality leaders always take the time to position their predecessors and opponents in a good light, as they look to heal any previous divisions. She has consistently overestimated her own strengths whilst dangerously underestimating and belittling her opponents.
She quickly aimed her leopard skinned stiletto straight at Osborne. He cunningly took up the editorship of the Evening Standard newspaper, and has used this as the perfect platform to lob high profile grenades at the now defenceless May.
“Dead Woman Walking”
As soon as the ill-judged snap election presented a hung parliament, Osborne bellowed from the front page of the Evening Standard that she was “a dead woman walking”. If that wasn’t ghastly and macabre enough, his recent chilling message is that he won’t rest until “she is chopped up in little bags and placed in his freezer”.
There is nothing more dangerous than a former Chancellor scorned, Tony Blair was to learn a similar lesson.
May soon became a strong role model for her two ‘wingmen’, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. They were her special advisors from the Home Office, and had been (over) elevated alongside May. They followed her cue by being disrespectful, rude and confrontational with Cabinet ministers. They were duly reviled and loathed by all those they came in contact with. This served to line up even more enemies for May. They were the first forced casualties of her failed election, there was no sympathy for their sudden departures.
No impediment is more corrosive to an organisation’s success than a lack of alignment at the top. This will hinder their ability to execute the agreed strategy in a coordinated and efficient manner.
Successful alignment usually comes from a unifying and inspired vision that they can all rally around, despite their differences.
May somehow consistently conveys the impression that she has never had a new idea. There is no compelling vision for the future, and the new ideas have been old ones that have little relevance in today’s society; the return of grammar schools, damaging changes to social care – the dementia tax, and not to mention fox hunting – out of touch madness at best.
It reminds me of the old story. There are three men working on a building site, doing the toughest work for not the best pay in the burning sun.
The journalist comes over and asked the first worker, “why do you do this job?” The first worker responds instantly, “I have not worked for three years and therefore I took the first job that I could get”.
The journalist turned to the second worker and asked the same question “why do you this job?” The second worker responds, “I have a wife and three kids to feed, I took the first job I could get.”
The journalist turns to the third worker and asks him the same question. He turns around and whilst leaning on his shovel, he wipes the sweat from his brow and responds with a smile, “I am helping to build a cathedral.”
There appears to be no cathedral for the Tories apart from inane soundbites like “Brexit means Brexit”, and “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
The existence of an aligned team is a choice; it’s never an automatic rite. The typical group of Cabinet ministers do not naturally function in a harmonised fashion and creating such a team is anything but straightforward. But it can and must be done.
Sophisticated Top Teams
The members of the Cabinet are the most sophisticated of top teams. At best, they function as ‘stewards’ of the political party, as its collective caretakers and overseers as well as the key drivers of its success. They see their role as creators and executors of strategy. They see the Cabinet team as their primary team, not any partisan loyalties or torn by the pull of their functional organisation (Foreign Office, Home Office, Chancellor, Brexit Secretaries etc.) they are in charge of. When this works, the ministers behave in an open and supportive way with one another.
As the old boxing saying goes, “its styles that make for great fights”. May and her henchmen were completely dismissive of the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst he strangely went out of his way to enable many to see him as rather lightweight and yesterday’s man.
Never underestimate your opposition
Another great rule of leadership is never ever underestimate your opposition. May took him for granted and was convinced that she would wipe the floor with him in a snap general election. This was hubris in action and a dangerous overstatement of her own strengths coupled with a misreading of the public mood.
The truth turned out to be quite bizarre, it was May’s own desperate ineptitude for high office, that became the making of the previously hapless Corbyn.
After the bungled debacle of the snap election, her instant reaction was not to apologise, but she appeared to be thinking out loud and trying to convince herself, whilst reading a calamitous speech outside of No.10 that she would continue. Still no sense of any emotional intelligence whatsoever. It didn’t even fool her.
Her conservative colleagues pounced on her weakness and isolation, forcing her to climb down off that high horse and make a grovelling apology to all those MP’s who had lost their seats because of her appalling judgement, and even worse run campaign.
She had made a series of bad calls, which she was forced to embarrassingly overturn, but they were so swiftly revoked that these were more like handbrake turns than U-turns.
When the Going Gets Tough
When the going got tough, she disappeared.
She never recovered from chickening out of the TV election debate. What the hell was she thinking in sending the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to stand in her place. She will never get over this televised cowardice.
If May is to continue to survive, she must learn to become a team player and quick. Lone wolves never survive as leaders of political parties. She must fix her Cabinet and soon. She can’t just tell them to become an interdependent and collaborative team, she has to show them how it’s done, and lead by example.
Aligned around an inclusive vision
She desperately needs their support and that starts with having them aligned around an inclusive vision that will provide some necessary ‘glue’, excitement and bring them together.
Currently when they come together it’s more of the traditional Information Exchange archetype. This group meets principally to provide one another with an update of current activities. When asked to describe their team, the members of a grouping like this often say, “Oh, we aren’t really a team.” And they’re right. They don’t make decisions or do any collective work at all. They are a collection of individuals.
The next step might be to become what’s termed a Debating Society. This is in advance from merely exchanging information as the team devotes time to grappling with issues that affect the government. The debating society is driven by a boss who believes that a vigorous competition of ideas is vital to promote good thinking. The upside is that they’re actually attempting to bring their collective brainpower to the challenges at hand. The downside is that these debates are fruitless or worse – with the absence of an inclusive leader, they reveal perilously polarised positions.
It felt before the election that this Cabinet was more of a Royal Court. The only discernible purpose felt like it was all about paying homage to the Prime Minister, the central power figure. In this form of collective, the boss is often domineering and narcissistic. It’s as if the group’s sole reason for existence is to listen to the boss pontificate.
The Classic Commiseration Group
At the moment, it’s beginning to feel like the classic Commiseration Group. The team is hapless. It sees itself as unable to engage their Civil Service departments in the work of strategy execution. As a result, the Cabinet is acting as if the ship is already sinking, because the opposing factions will never pull their weight together. There is camaraderie in a Commiseration Group, but for all the wrong reasons.
Build teams to harness talent and intelligence to build trust
We always try to build teams to harness talent and intelligence that then build trust. Trust brings speed and aligned execution.
Michael Jordan, was a brilliant individual basketball player who sacrificed everything for his team. He said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships”.