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What it takes to be a good leader

July 11th, 2019

At one of his RoryforLeader rallies, Rory Stewart paid a heartfelt tribute to David Gauke and the three things he learnt about leadership from him. (1) Gauke communicated his values to his team, which they respected him for; (2) he genuinely listened to them and their arguments; and (3) finally, he had courage and was willing to make tough choices.

It is rare to see politicians pay genuine tribute to each other, at least while they are still practising.  Rarer still for politicians to pay tribute to those who work for them while it still matters (as Gauke did last week), let alone to the many public servants, from the most junior to the most senior, in the many different public sector entities providing services to us.

It is these individuals who try to make government work, who enact the policies proclaimed with great fanfare, who do all the (often) unloved, unseen but essential behind-the-scenes work which ensures that politicians can strut on the public stage for the plaudits they feel they deserve. In an age which seems to value charisma, image and personality, it is easy to forget that government is above all a collective endeavour.  Those at the top can achieve nothing without the hard work of the unsung.  It’s a lesson many at the top of companies would do well to learn too.

It is for this reason that those in positions of leadership – or aspiring to them – know (or ought to) that the one thing they need from those they lead is their trust and that to earn that they need to take responsibility.  That is what being a leader, whether it is of a team of 6 or a company employing hundreds or a government, means: “The buck stops here.”  

It is something which politicians of a certain vintage seemed to understand instinctively.  One striking example was Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary 1979-1982, subsequently Nato Secretary-General and the last politician to have served in Churchill’s post-war Cabinet.

Much of the commentary on him when he died focused on his resignation following the Falklands invasion.  Though absolved of personal blame by the Franks Report, he explained his decision to resign thus: “It did not seem to me a time for self-justification and certainly not to cling to office.  I think the country is more important than oneself.”  In his autobiography he wrote: “The nation feels that there has been a disgrace. Someone must have been to blame. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge. That was me.”  

Those 7 sentences admirably summarise what it means to be in charge and to take responsibility when something goes wrong on your watch.

It was not the first time Carrington had offered his resignation.  As a very junior minister at the time of the Crichel Down affair in 1954 (a landmark case on the rights of individuals vs the interests of the state and the standards to be expected of Ministers) he had offered to resign but had been refused.  It was the senior Minister in charge who resigned following findings of severe maladministration in his department, the first such Ministerial resignation since 1917.  The civil servants got it wrong; but it was the politicians who took responsibility.

Most surprisingly of all, despite being awarded the Military Cross in 1945, Carrington never mentioned it in his autobiography, stating that he only got it because of the good men he had under him and that it was “all such a rough raffle. Pot luck – nothing to do with me.”  Well, hardly.

Still, that is what marks out leaders: recognising that being senior means taking responsibility even when you are not to blame and having the humility to know that your own achievements rest on the hard work of others (and a fair amount of luck) at least as much as on your own efforts.

And how might trust be earned?  Well, by being trustworthy, by being a person of moral courage, by having a character which inspires confidence, by those working for you, whether directly or indirectly, knowing in their bones that you will have your team’s back.  As General Sir Patrick Howard-Dobson puts it in the Leadership Guide for Sandhurst cadets:

 “Some day you may have to lead men into battle and ask them to do their duty, and you will do it through Love.  You must always put them first……… If you do this you’ll find that you never have to worry about yourself, because as you look after them, so they will look after you.  As they come to know that you love and care for them, so they will love you, and through love for you and for one another they will be the best soldiers the world has seen.”    Easier to describe than do, of course.

Still, it is striking how often in recent years the default reaction of people in positions of responsibility, particularly in politics, is to find someone else to blame. Public servants are expendable or there to be attacked if some greater cause requires it: winning battles with journalists (Dr David Kelly), attacking an unloved agreement (Oliver Robbins), not wishing to hear hard truths (Ivan Rogers), judges ruling that Parliament must be involved before Article 50 is triggered (pushing Brexit through).    This has become more marked as politicians have found it harder to reach decisions on difficult and divisive issues.  As Gauke put it: “Those grappling with complex problems are not viewed as public servants but as engaged in a conspiracy to seek to frustrate the will of the public. They are ‘enemies of the people’.”  

Rather than accept that it is for politicians to find a way through, however hard that may be, the finger is pointed at others, often those who cannot answer back or who have a greater sense of public duty.  Words such as “traitors” and “enemies” and “true believers” are used and poison the national conversation.  So it is not so very surprising that someone might think that the destruction of the career of an experienced, hard-working and distinguished Ambassador is acceptable collateral damage in the greater cause of whatever the leaker and those behind him or her wanted to achieve.  Nor is it very surprising to find politicians mealy-mouthed about supporting those who are doing their job.  

Johnson’s equivocation about Sir Kim Darroch was as contemptible as – and followed in the same dishonourable tradition of – Liz Truss’s failure, despite being Lord Chancellor and having a legal duty to do so, to defend the Court of Appeal  (until far too late and far too feebly) when judges were attacked for making a ruling on Article 50 which some politicians and commentators found inconvenient.  Boris allowed or wanted people to believe that, to him, his friendship with Trump was more important than defending British public servants

What lessons might be learnt?

First, if Boris becomes PM, those who work for him know that they cannot expect him to have their backs if it does not suit him, that he is a politician who does what he wants, not what he ought.  He will have to work hard to earn their trust and loyalty and starts with a considerable deficit.  It may not be just fractious MPs he needs to worry about most but civil servants who know how he has treated one of their own.

Second, there are those who seem to think that the politicisation of certain parts of the civil service is necessary, that rather than have civil servants serving the government, whatever its political flavour, certain roles should be filled by those who explicitly support the government’s political aims, not as professionals doing their jobs but as political partisans.  This necessarily downgrades the importance of independent advice and speaking truth to power.  Those who push this agenda seem not to care whether this will serve the country well.

Third, one policy (Brexit, enacted in one particular way) is seen as so important that virtually anything is acceptable to achieve it, including proroguing Parliament.  That this might undermine the very institutions and conventions which any democratic and stable society requires to function, especially if in the hands of political opponents, seems irrelevant.  No-one seems to ask themselves the question: “Would I want my opponent to have this power?  If no, I should not have it either.”

And finally the EU knows that, for all Boris’s talk about wanting the EU to see the whites of his eyes on a No Deal exit, he is a politician who caves in to bullies.    In seeking to enhance his personal relationship with a US President, Boris has made Britain, if led by him, appear weak.  Other countries too will have noted this, China and the US above all.  Rather than ape Churchill, Boris would do better to reflect on Carrington’s words: “the country is more important than oneself.”

 

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