It seems over the last 18 months that so often we’ve looked to central government for examples of leadership. How the UK plc ‘Board’ responds strategically to crisis after crisis, (read the pandemic) to major changes to its supply chains and customer base (read Brexit), how ‘Divisional’ Heads act to protect their own areas (read Scottish, Welsh and NI First Ministers), the mergers and acquisitions (read the collaboration with the vaccine research and takeover of the railways) has been an education.
In fact, there’s been so much activity there’s enough material for a whole library of academic papers and management books on running the equivalent of a FTSE 100 global brand.
Navigating uncertainty requires a certain type of leadership
For now, let’s give ourselves time to think about the leadership required when you’re going through the VUCA paradigm (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) or, as the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach led by Rafel Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson would have it, the TUNA (Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty Ambiguity) paradigm. It takes a different kind of leader, a different leadership approach to navigate those uncertain waters.
The social scientists Emery and Trist noted that, ‘when a high rate of change combined with high complexity to produce high uncertainty for people within that environment, the resulting ‘turbulence’ would be unsettling’ – whether that was an actual change or expectation of change. A factor that is also recognised in Bridge’s model of managing change.
UK plc in crisis
Let’s consider the leadership style of our current Chairman of the Board of UK plc, Boris Johnson. According to an intriguing item by Polly Mackenzie in the Evening Standard, His style is one of Monarchist (as opposed to a warrior or designer) delegating power and acting as a symbolic leader. That works however, only when you have good quality leaders to delegate to and it ignores the distinct and different leadership styles of those in charge of the Divisions with UK plc, the First Ministers.
Nicolas Sturgeon (Scotland) has been named by experts in leadership as the fifth most eloquent leader in the world with her ‘clear, calm and compassionate’ style according to The Independent (Jacinda Ardern came top for her ‘empathetic’ leadership style). Mark Drakeford (Wales) has an impressive capacity to absorb detail, is considered to be a quietly influential thinker and has come across as genuine according to Wales Online. Arlene Foster (N Ireland) is rated in LucidTalk’s Tracker poll, as the "least trustworthy" and "least likeable" party leader in Northern Ireland. Few can comment on her leadership style apart from ConservativeHome who states, ‘She can react badly to criticism. Faced with opposition, she is more likely to dig her heels in, and try to bully her way through, than to charm or outmanoeuvre her adversaries.’
We wait to discover the new NI First Minister’s leadership style but out of these who would you say has been most successful?
Putting the vaccination programme to one side (and fascinating that those responsible for the vaccine humbly took over a minute’s standing applause at Wimbledon this week - is that a sign of leadership?) let’s think again about Johnson’s style. Perhaps he is Mackenzie’s Monarchist but is that the right style for today’s world? Has he chosen those around him with care because they’ve got the skills and qualities required for the job in hand in their particular areas, or because they’re good ‘mates’, part of a club? Certainly the fiasco around Matt Hancock indicated a high level of laisse-faire, his response to the controversy around Robert Jenrick’s dealings, to Priti Patel’s bullying findings and Gavin Williamson’s inept handling of education shows a distaste of ‘rocking the boat’.
But isn’t ‘rocking the boat’ or responding quickly as circumstances alter one of the qualities required of leaders when in a VUCA or TUNA environment? Isn’t nimbleness and strategic visioning, the ability to connect empathically with your workforce and customers what makes a true leader?
And isn’t having the cognitive diversity to acknowledge all of the above a pre-requisite for any Chairman of the Board, or for that matter, at any level in an organisation? I leave it to you to decide which of the leaders in this article have that cognitive diversity.
Laura Murphy blogs about things that interest her. They might not interest you but read them anyway. It might even change your mind.