VIEWPOINT
  • Leadership

Theresa May’s Glass Cliff

Is Mrs May's Brexit Glass Cliff an exemplar of modern leadership?

 

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We really haven’t got it yet, have we? The whole thrust of leadership development for the last two decades and more, has been away from the heroic and towards the collaborative. Away from macho and towards empathetic. Research from the likes of neuroscientist such as John Coates shows the ameliorating factor of women in macho environments, especially when high risk scenarios are in play. The concept of the ‘glass cliff’, where when failure is highly likely the leadership ball is handed to a woman as a safer pair of hands is well observed as a response to this. The British Prime Minister, a woman let us not forget, faces just such a risky and complex situation.

For the last few years barely an article has crossed the IEDP Developing Leaders editorial desk that does not start with an introductory paragraph describing the complex and ambiguous world that we now have to contend with.

The almost universally approved solution is for more collaboration, devolving of authority to its lowest practical level, and experimentation and iteration. In parallel with this is the diversity and inclusion movement that encourages greater variety of inputs to foster innovation and new thinking and processes – which includes as an important element a push for less ‘command and control’ leaders, and more collaborative approaches, often characterized as being further towards the female end of the leadership spectrum than the heroic, macho leaders that have historically been promoted as leadership ideals.

The biggest, most complex and utterly ambiguous context facing all businesses in the UK, and more widely in the EU, today is Britain’s exiting of the EU. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is widely and constantly lambasted on all sides for lack of leadership, failing to set a clear direction, and not being in control.

In her defence she has set a direction in her recent Chequers white paper, and it is not that dissimilar from the one she set out in her original Lancaster House speech, or its follow-ups in Florence and the Mansion House that came later. Out of the single market, not in the customs union, end of ECJ rule and end of free movement of people. Details have necessarily been light – that may give business something to work with, but it also gives the political sides meat to fight over, and until that fight is settled no clarity can be had.

This being hugely complex and the alternative possibilities and variations offered being essentially unlimited and with passions running high, there are a wide range of alternative views being strongly promoted. The media and just about everyone else seem to think Mrs May’s approach is hopeless. But it is very difficult, given the circumstances that surround her government (no majority, deep internal divisions, and an opposition that is equally divided and is led by someone widely regarded as the most radically socialist potential prime minister for a century) to see a better alternative than the tight-rope walking approach Mrs May is conducting.

She is trying – admittedly with only limited degrees of success – to get her divergent party to coalesce around a compromise solution; anything else would create instant splits and failure of government. The task facing her is very much that of the glass cliff – and the classically female leadership approach is to engender collaboration through dialogue and small changes, not adopt a command and control style and lead heroically from the front (something that would not be possible with such polarised views amongst the rest of her party, in any case).

These are Theresa May’s problems. The interesting thing from a leadership analysis perspective is that as soon as the going gets tough, and the conditions are truly complex and ambiguous, the clarion call is for a swift return to heroic leaders, and not a collective cheer for ‘let’s all collaborate’. It is the win-lose mentality that surfaces, not the compromise win-win one. Our innate human bias for certainty and control overcomes our cerebral ability to seek a percentage win.

The reality is – has always been – that Brexit if not a bad idea per se, has the potential to lead to years of confusion and chaos. Whatever ‘solution’ is eventually agreed will be adapted and tweaked and iterated in the years that follow in any case. The leader’s role now is to keep the show on the road, and edge warring parties towards a middle-ground that they can all live with, even if they are not thrilled by it.

It seems to me that that will not happen by loud pronouncements – that will only set off more squabbling – it must be done by small concessions here and equal resistance there. Slowly, slowly a position of majority will be formed. The Prime Minister has a deeply unenviable task, but she seems to be following the modern leadership approach pretty well – and is, remarkably, still in position and in the game, long after many had thought possible.


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