Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

Episode 58: leadershipinchaos.gov.uk – “How Liz Truss authored her own downfall”

Leadershipinchaos.gov.uk. The title of the podcast doesn’t mean that the Tory government have taken over the podcast, but it may as well have with the events that unfolded last week at Westminster.

Useless, shambles, incompetent, chaos. This was how the GB news people poll described the scene in a word cloud: the tenure of conservative leaders, the latest, just 45 days, is more in the realm of football manager than political party leader, and the events of last week appeared at times more like a party game than anything else.

It wouldn’t be so serious if it wasn’t a game. And I just wonder, is it even a party anymore? I don’t normally do politics in this podcast from a leadership perspective. In fact, the last time we overtly covered it was the irresistible jewels that fell from the presidential debate as it wasn’t between Biden and Trump in the run-up to the US election.

But as the media has moved its crosshairs already to a successor to Liz Truss, which appears very certain to be Rishi Sunak, at this stage, it is very obvious to me some of the glaring absences and omissions that were there and mistakes that were made by the leader. That inadvertently led to her own downfall because as I watched as the barely credulous events unfolded in Westminster, it reminded me of the idea that juvenile delinquency breaks out when there’s an absence of a responsible adult and leadership, a bit like responsible parenting, it’s often intangible, and it’s only when its absence takes hold that you do really see the impact and the consequences when it is poorly led or managed.

During the Absurdist Theatre, that was Tory politics last week, the most common word outside of the word chaos was the word dysfunction or dysfunctional. And what I’d like to do is explore the cause-and-effect relationship between leadership and dysfunctionality. And all of us have had the experience of working with working for working alongside leaders who created dysfunction because of how they behaved and what they did and didn’t do. And there are three lessons that I’d like to take out from the many things we could take out of last week just to highlight the leadership impact and how it contributes to chaos when it’s poorly executed.

The first lesson is that ambiguity is the number one enemy of effectiveness and is the fastest way to get to dysfunction. And when I talk about ambiguity, there are two things that happened last week that demonstrated ambiguity or created ambiguity.

The first was an absolute absence of clarity, and the second was around the confusion and poor communication. Communication that was credited by one broadcaster as being garbled, unclear, and inconsistent. The absence of clarity and confusion was rife throughout the week, but some of the most obvious examples were who is the chief whip, where you had a situation where the chief whip was supposed to have resigned, then Unresigned.

Do we have a chief whip? Do we not have a chief whip? The ambiguity around roles. Was obviously heightened by resignations, so the resignation of the home secretary and the appointment of a new home secretary, which made for the fourth home secretary in as many years, the resigning home secretary was the shortest in the job of any home secretary since World War II and the newly appointed home secretary Grant Shapps when he was interviewed on the steps of the home office, looked as surprised and bedazzled as anybody as he sheepishly tried to respond to questions in a manner that was at best dazed and confused, but perhaps the biggest lack of clarity surrounded the vote in the commons around fracking and the misunderstanding or lack of understanding of whether it was, in fact, a confidence vote or whether it wasn’t a confidence vote.

As I stressed in the podcast throughout the whole series, if there’s one thing you need to do as a leader and you do nothing else. It is to make sure to be clear because the impact on the team, in this case, the team of MP’s, is twofold.

The first is that people get triggered and they go onto a war footing mentally as they try to figure out what the threat is, and they try to make sense of the story themselves. It puts them into fight or flight mode.

And this was probably most illustrated by the Deputy Chief Whip, Craig Whitaker, who was quoted during the debacle around the resignation or unresignation of the chief whip as saying, I’m absolutely effing furious. I just don’t care anymore. So this fight or flight response that gets triggered by ambiguity, in his case, in one sentence, triggered both the fight expletive and the flight response in that he just doesn’t care anymore.

If leadership is about creating energy and focus amongst your people, the ambiguity that is authored by the leader, wittingly or unwittingly in this instance here, causes this valuable focus and energy to get dispersed in all the wrong ways and on all the wrong things.

The second impact of ambiguity is that people have to have a story. As human beings, we create our own context, and we create our own meaning as we see it. So what it caused to happen in the Commons last week amongst the Tory party is you saw the breaking of ranks as MPs unilaterally made up their own story and interpretation of events, and they went out into the media, mainstream social media, and all Hell broke loose because everybody was firing off in all directions and all it did was contribute to a greater hairball of chaos.

If the leader’s role is to unify the party, then because of the ambiguity, all it does is do the exact opposite. And it puts me in mind of a quote from, speaking of football managers, Arsene Wenger that goes back nearly a decade.

And in talking about it, he said, You know, it’s all about being united. In football, even when you’re united. It’s difficult. If you’re disjointed, you’ve got no chance. The second lesson from last week is that conviction by itself isn’t enough. You need to be able to bring the people with you. In the Book of Solomon, it says, Where the people lack vision, they perish.

And this whole idea about leaders and leadership and vision and visionary leaders has become something that is over romanticized throughout the last few decades. This isn’t to say that you need to set the direction and you need conviction around it. That is absolutely one of the key ingredients, but it’s only part one of a two part equation.

And the second part is where the work happens. The work around the conviction is in bringing people along so that they buy into, believe in and support that conviction. If there’s one thing that the Liz Truss 45 day tenure is characterized by is it’s characterized by personal conviction that turns into a U-turn.

So, the series and the number of humiliating U-turns that occurred during the last 45 days. Most spectacularly, it was obviously characterized by the mini-budget, and it failed because of the inability to bring and get the confidence of the markets, firstly externally, and then internally, the support and belief of her own team.

The subsequent scapegoating of her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, probably didn’t help matters either. Part of the skill or the art of leadership is in how you influence people and bring them along in a way in which they want to follow. Because ultimately having a conviction or having a direction with no one to follow is a bit like a shepherd with no sheep.

Leaders are only leaders because of followers, and it’s the relationship with followers that’s critical. Of course, an object lesson in how not to influence your people to follow you is demonstrated by the fracking vote, where reports of witnessing, bullying and manhandling meant that the preferred method to get people to follow was coercion and force.

Coercion and force in any leader at any time are simply a signal of desperation and weakness. The combination of multiple U-turns and the collateral use of force as a means of getting people to comply results in a lack of credibility about the leader and their convictions and a loss, most importantly, of the dressing room.

The third and final lesson for this podcast of last week’s events for leadership is the importance of having objective self-awareness. The longer I work with organizations and work with leaders, the more I realize the truth inherent in the Peter principle, the idea that people get promoted to a point of their own incompetence, and at its very fundamental level.

Liz Truss was given a role, given a job for which she was unqualified and she was out of her depth. And I was struck by particularly two remarks from two very senior veteran MPs in the conservative party around this. The first was Crispin Blunt, who said that her lack of self-knowledge means that she shouldn’t have put herself forward for leadership in the first place.

Charles Walker, a 17-year-old conservative MP, went a little bit further. He was more emotive, so he was triggered and hijacked. When he was talking to the BBC on News night, he said, “I’m livid. I’ve had enough of talentless people putting a tick in the right box. not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their own personal interest.”

Let me ask you this. How many people do you know? How many leaders do you know in your own ambit? That have got such an overinflated notion of their own capability and readiness for the job they overestimate it and they put their own naked ambition and self-interest in front of the general best interests of the cause or the team or anybody else.

And this naked ambition and self-interest make them blind to their own incompetence. Sound like anybody you know? Right up until the Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons, 24 hours before she stood down. She announced to the public and the world that she’s a fighter, not a quitter. Less than 24 hours before she quit.

Recently, I spoke at an event for one of the main professional services firms in the world at their Global Leaders Conference, and after I’d finished mostly talking about the leader’s need for self-awareness and the impact when it doesn’t happen or it does happen, and the managing partner closed the session and talked about the fact that he wished he’d understood this much earlier in his career and the impact it might have made on him if he had understood the need and the impression of self-awareness and the impact that it has as a leader.

And his view was that you need to really understand this as early as possible in your career because if you don’t, as time goes on, you simply develop and become a caricature, and nobody wants to be led by a caricature.

It’s now down to the Tories to elect a successor. And in doing this, they’ve got to be very careful. But I’m reminded of and came back across a quote from D Hock, who’s been a friend of ours here for many years. He’s the founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International Payment Card, and he wrote a book many years ago, over 20 years ago, called The Birth of the Chaotic Age.

And in it, he’s got a section on how to hire, and I’ll read from it. This piece of advice. Hire and promote. First on the basis of integrity, second motivation, third capacity, fourth, understanding, fifth knowledge, and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous. Without motivation, capacity is impotent. Without capacity, understanding is limited. Without understanding, knowledge is meaningless.

Without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities.

Until next time, stay safe, Stay sane, stay connected.