How Leadership 101 could win the next election for the Lib Dems

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It is the party conference season and the political weather is dominated by fog. Political fog swirls as both main parties offer different solutions but neither explain precisely how they will execute them. Opaque is the new clarity.

Cynics might suggest they do not know. A kinder interpretation is that politics in the UK has divorced itself from the meaning of the word leadership and, instead, aligned itself with the word personality, which is a different matter altogether.

Leadership is about helping people to perform at their very best, even to their surprise. Personality is about individual qualities. The latter is about being, the former is about doing.

And so Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, described as the leaders of their respective parties, have advanced their positions on the key issue of the day: Brexit.

But neither has set out how they are going to create an environment in which their ministers will be able to deliver on the solutions they espouse.

This should worry us all, irrespective of which side you support. What are you going to say in five years time if the people you voted for fail to deliver on what they promised?

That is politics, you might reasonably respond. Whoever, you might add, expects a politician to deliver what they said they would?

In normal times this cynicism might be justified but we are not in normal times.

Not in my lifetime – I’m 57 – have I witnessed a political event so profound as Brexit. I was too young for the Cuban missile crisis, the next nearest in my view. You may argue that there were other more profound events but you cannot argue that Brexit is not a game changer.

For example as I write, Monarch Airlines has gone into administration partly because of the brutal competition in the short haul market but also because of the fall of the sterling. The latter was a direct consequence of the Brexit vote.

According to the Office for National Statistics the UK economy is now the worst performing economy in the G7. On the eve of the referendum it was the fastest growing.

Moreover, the polarisation in UK society has become much more pronounced since the vote. Of this fact there seems to be no disagreement.

But even if you feel that a certain amount of pain is inevitable and you are still convinced that Brexit is the right thing to do, surely you must care that the policies you support are executed properly?

Are you sure that this will happen? Just because you believe the Leavers, whether hard or soft, are right does not mean that you can be confident that they are capable of implementing those policies.

This presents an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats because they are neither burdened with the cult of personality nor the weight of excessive ideology. But they are a force in UK politics, no matter how weak.

My advice therefore to Sir Vince Cable is the same advice I give to all CEOs who are in a potential turnaround situation and that is to focus on Leadership 101.

I acknowledge that politics is not a business and Sir Vince is not a CEO, but the principles of Leadership 101 apply in all organisations and they are ignored at peril. Sir Vince should take three turnaround steps:

Step 1: Announce that he will not be the next PM but that he is launching a nationwide search for the most talented team of new Lib Dem MPs, one of whose number will be the Liberal Democrat Prime Minister in 2022. Sir Vince will act as interim caretaker.

Step 2: The new leader of the Liberal Democrats will focus on leading its Members of Parliament in parliament and not on attempting to lead anything or anyone outside of the House of Commons.

Step 3: The new leader will create an environment in which new and as yet unknown MPs will be supported to lead public service departments, excellently, and will communicate to the electorate how, precisely, that will be achieved.

That’s it. If Sir Vince carries out those steps his party will win, unless of course someone in the other two parties wakes up to the fact that they are ignoring Leadership 101 and beats him to it.

♯PrimeMinisterMay & CEOs: Three Essential Steps to a successful ♯First100Days

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Step 1 Articulate a credible purpose in which you believe

Mrs. May did this yesterday, partly. She said that her objective is to create a society based on social justice. The problem is that I don’t believe her. Not that I don’t believe she believes in what he is saying but that it’s not a credible objective. She is as unlikely to achieve social justice as Mr. Cameron achieved his Big Society – whatever that was – because we all know that social justice is a woolly unachievable aspiration.

We also know that her own track record in the pursuit of social justice is mixed. What has she achieved under this heading? She may have done lots, but I don’t know about it. Indeed she is known to be tough on migrants. As a migrant myself, I find that at odds with an assertion about caring about social justice. I’m also wary of the phrase “giving us more power” over our lives. That’s’ code, in my mind, for abrogating responsibility.

It also sits uncomfortably with the fact that her new home is located in the Borough of Westminster. In some of its wards, 78% of children live in poverty (Government Indices of Multiple Deprivation). It has the third highest rate of child poverty in London and nationally (SNA Report 2014). It is one of the worst boroughs for ethic minority groups in terms of health & wellbeing (Runnymeade Report 2016). This is all on her doorstep. She has been working in that borough as Home Secretary for six years. Maybe she doesn’t know about it. But if I were setting out my stall as The Social Justice PM I would know about my starting point.

So, if you are a CEO or a function leader starting your First 100 Days make sure that your objective is as credible as it is clear. Had Mrs. May said that her objective is a 10% increase in social justice measured across seven headings then I would have been impressed. But she didn’t.

Step 2 Understand that strategy is a simple word meaning “how”

Strategy, one of the most misused words in the English language, means “how” you achieve your objective. Michael O’Leary’s strategy was to annoy customers so much that they expected nothing more than a safe flight. He succeeded. Pure genius, as the Guinness people love to say. On this analysis Mrs. May was notably silent on the issue of how, precisely, she is going to achieve social justice. If she has one and didn’t tell us, then I worry why. If she hasn’t, then I just worry.

So, I strongly advise you never to articulate an objective without declaring a credible strategy to achieve it. There’s that “c-word” again. Credibility. It’s important. But I have sympathy with leaders who have difficulties formulating their strategy. This is acceptable provided you admit that your current strategy is to find strategy. What isn’t advisable is to have no articulated strategy. She hasn’t.

Step 3 Outline a plan to implement your strategy, and stick to it

Whilst plans are lists of actions to be taken by people to deadlines, they also reflect decisions on agreed behaviour. The most important behaviour Mrs. May has to illustrate in her first hundred days is her ability to create an environment in which her team can thrive in the implementation of the strategy to achieve the credible objective. This includes her behaviour in making appointments.

Already, on Day 1, she has illustrated that she doesn’t yet fully understand the importance of this step in the appointment of Mr. Johnson as Foreign Secretary. We know she doesn’t trust him. So she must be setting him up for a fall, as he will. That may cause mirth but it will be very serious for us all. Mr. Davis’ appointment as Head of Brexit is also worrying. She should do that job. But how can she? She voted Remain. But maybe she didn’t mean that. If so, she’s not credible and her first hundred days will end in tears.

Ciaran

Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

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