We are, it seems, inundated with a an almost daily stream of “news” about how badly “things” are going in Washington because President Trump is at least one of:
- Unfocused or poorly focused or focused on the wrong things; or
- Just a plain old bad leader.
President Trump’s lame attempt to shift responsibility for a special ops raid he authorized on to the backs of his generals just reinforces some of those assertions, especially the last one: real leaders accept responsibility. Donald Trump is not a leader .. not a real leader, not even a dime store, TV reality show leader, come to that.
Now consider British Prime Minister Theresa May who, I suggest, has much more serious problems than President Trump faces and whose leadership style has also been criticized in the media.
There is an interesting article in the Financial Times that helps to explain why and how her recent experience as Britain’s Home Secretary now shapes how she manages the whole country and the Brexit. It’s important for Canadians, for all non-Brits, to understand that the Home Office is a big, shambling and complex department that is, more often than not, a political graveyard. According to the UK Government’s web site it is “responsible for:
- working on the problems caused by illegal drug use
- shaping the alcohol strategy, policy and licensing conditions
- keeping the United Kingdom safe from the threat of terrorism
- reducing and preventing crime, and ensuring people feel safe in their homes and communities
- securing the UK border and controlling immigration
- considering applications to enter and stay in the UK
- issuing passports and visas
- supporting visible, responsible and accountable policing by empowering the public and freeing up the police to fight crime
- fire prevention and rescue” and …
… it’s “priorities are to:
- prevent terrorism
- cut crime
- control immigration
- promote growth
- transform the Home Office.”
Those responsibilities are shared by two or three or more ministers in Ottawa, Canberra and Washington.
“Theresa May,” the FT article explains, “forged her political reputation in Britain’s Home Office and has now imported much of the style, and many of the same personnel, to run Downing Street and the Brexit process … [and] … Interviews with several people close to Number 10 revealed the tension between Mrs May’s staff from the Home Office, who are used to running a tightly controlled operation, and officials from the Treasury and other departments who have become accustomed to having more influence.”
The article says that “On settling into Number 10, the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street, Mrs May swiftly relegated officials in the private office — high-flying civil servants whose proximity to the prime minister traditionally reflects their central role in how the operation is run — to the basement of the building … [but, now] … Instead, the heart of her new administration is a coterie of loyal and long-serving advisers who filter the advice and briefings that formerly went directly to the prime minister.”
After detailing “who’s who” in Mrs May’s iteration of 10 Downing Street, the Financial Times says that “Some career civil servants have found the transition to the administration uncomfortable. According to one former Home Office colleague, Mrs May’s closest political advisers tend to “form a wall around her” … [and] … “Civil servants and ministers don’t know where they stand. They felt closed out and that there is another discussion taking place that they are not party to.” The shift in culture also reflects Mrs May’s political priorities, with more domestic, security-focused issues overriding a longstanding focus on the economy.“
“One former Home Office minister,” the article adds, “pointed out that Mrs May’s disposition towards caution and careful scrutiny is a natural consequence of dealing with terrorism and wider security challenges where “things can go wrong at any time”. “It’s tempting to think, I must read and re-read every line of every briefing because the consequences of making a mistake are so dire,” the former minister said.“
“Critics,” the Financial Times article concludes, “complain of an accumulation of paperwork which only Mrs May can deal with, and a frustrating bottleneck at her desk … [but] … one former colleague said this apparent ponderousness is in fact a strength. “She won’t allow herself to be bullied into making decisions that may be important to someone else but not to her. It doesn’t surprise me that people are screeching that she won’t make decisions, or she’s slow to do so,” the former colleague said. “What they mean is, she won’t make the decision they want.”“
There is more than one way to skin a cat and it might be interesting to contrast Prime Minister May with President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau. All three seem, to me, to operate in a system of concentric circles with personal or, in most cases, small team “command” at the very centre and bureaucratic and even political “control” exercised, with decreasing levels of authority, as the circles widen. This is is contrast to the military or even, I think, big business command and control (C²) model where, despite the fact that the term is used a lot, a “command team” is a very rare thing. The military leader or corporate chief executive has risen to his or her position through a tough, competitive process and, always, by demonstrating judgment and decisiveness;
or these leaders understand that they can and they (almost always) do delegate authority but they can never delegate responsibility. It doesn’t encourage a “team” approach. Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s Secretary of State, and Andrew Leslie, Prime Minister Trudeau’s caucus whip, are from this school of command and control. It should not surprise us if they chafe a bit in a system where an untested, unproven leader and one or two “insiders” make most decisions, often after ignoring or freezing out expert advice. Think of President Trump and Steve Bannon or the triumvirate of Gerald Butts, Katie Telford and Justin Trudeau.
Quite clearly the “team” concept can ~ probably does ~ shield a weak leader from being seen to fumble and bungle choices and problems. Now, I do not, for a second, think that Theresa May is a weak leader. But I can understand why she wants a trusted team to “form a wall around her” and to “filter the advice” through a new, unaccustomed lens. This is, it seems to me, how politicians, weak or strong, prefer to work but it is not, in my experience, how business or military leaders work: the latter groups want all the information, pleasant and supportive or not, and the only filter they want is one to sift the wheat from the chaff.
There are many reasons why politicians want “walls:” some are, quite simply out of their intellectual depth and they don’t want the world to see that advisors are making the real decisions; others do not trust the senior political or policy advisors that they inherited from the last leader; still others, as one former colleague suggests is the case with Mrs May, simply will not be bullied or hurried into making a decision.
But, eventually, political leaders must “back or sack” the people in “control:” the very senior mandarins, the cabinet secretaries or ministers and deputy ministers and the political and policy advisors. My, personal sense is that both Prime Minister Trudeau and President are, equally, morally and intellectual weak and need strong, close, trusted advisors and that both are still learning how to navigate the labyrinth of governments. Prime Minister May, in my opinion, is strong, focused and inherently cautious, but she is, also, I think, a real leader.
In politics, as opposed to business and the military, leadership is trust upon people, rather than being earned … some are ready and are up to the challenges, others, too many, too often, are not. We, voters need to consider leadership ability, in all of its various forms and models, when we make our choices; in 2015, in Canada, and in 2016, in America, too many of us did not.