In management speak, Mrs May has “executed on her deliverables”. Were she a CEO she would be claiming her bonus or at least the part payable on delivering the Article 50 milestone.
Although she is not a CEO and government is not a business, she is nevertheless a leader and shares that role with all CEOs and members of their Main Boards, Operating Boards and Executive Committees. For that reason her behaviour and that of her team in these historic times is akin to a live daily seminar on the dos and don’ts of leadership under intense pressure. There’s much to learn.
Mrs May has, in terms of my leadership model at least, intangible assets and liabilities. Her assets, according to observers, include an ability to focus, analyse and keep her word. The same observers note her liabilities as a tendency to make decisions on her own, her “Pinteresque” silences and not always building close relationships. Whatever the truth of these observations her role and any leader’s role is to understand what the people they lead need to thrive.
Leavers think she knows what they need and that she’s delivering it. Hence her polling numbers are still holding up. But there’s a danger that she’s delivering what they and her back benchers want, not what they need. Leaders must deliver what’s needed not what’s wanted. That’s why leading is lonely. Leavers say they want “control back” but their need is to feel in control. There’s a difference. Mrs May is about to deliver the former because, almost certainly, there will be a hard Brexit. But they still won’t feel in control because total sovereignty in a globalised economy is a mirage. The control regained will be lost again in the essential compromises of international trade.
But the problem she faces is one shared by many CEOs which is that getting people to sign up to a shared long-term purpose which informs short-term strategy requires patient influencing skills and gentle persuasion over time – winning hearts and minds. This would involve a clear statement of shared British purpose over the next five to ten years. But no such purpose which addresses the needs of the vast majority of the people – not just the 37% of the population who voted Leave – has been articulated, nor will it. I have sympathy for her in this. It’s a big ask. But it can’t be ducked.
The lesson for CEOs and other leaders on boards from this scenario is that you must articulate a purpose which connects with the majority of your workforce. It’s surprising how many members of the boards I work with cannot articulate a shared purpose and strategy besides making money, which is neither. Making money is not a purpose, it’s an outcome. “Taking back control” is a slogan, not a strategy.
If you want to avoid the possible pitfalls that face Mrs May if she does not find a way of bringing people together – not just talking about it – and changing some of the behaviour of some members of her “operating board”, you might start at your next operating board meeting by going around the table and asking each member to articulate their understanding of the purpose and strategy of the business. Then ask them their personal purpose and strategy and how these are all interdependent. It should prove a useful exercise.
The question remains whether or not Mrs May will pick up the second part of her imaginary bonus in two years time. She still could. All she needs to do is to access her undoubted hidden asset, and one which most emotionally intelligent CEOS share but struggle to exploit, an ability to trust others more.