Is this the age of Lazy Leadership? Well, before you answer, perhaps I should explain a little more about what I mean by that term.
No-one ever said that leaders need to be popular. In fact we probably need to be wary of leaders who appear to be universally liked. Those who are, in my view, are either at the head of a very slick and dangerous brain-washing machine, or are simply not tackling the tough stuff that people don’t like to hear. (See We get the Leaders we deserve).
Here in the UK we have experienced a number of major political episodes in the last couple of years, from a Scottish Referendum, to a General Election, and more recently, an EU Referendum, and both a Tory and Labour leadership battle. And we are currently in the final lap of the US Presidential marathon (or Trumpathon).
Perhaps it is because so many of these events have been reduced to simplistic binary choices that the quality of political debate has deteriorated. Complex issues, that do not necessarily have straightforward solutions, have been reduced to simple soundbites, creating polarised debates, resulting in divided electorates and divided nations.
High quality leaders navigate complexity and ambiguity, and do not allow themselves to be drawn into the downward spiral that is satisfied merely by securing a simple majority to fulfil a political end. Instead they are prepared to tackle thorny issues that may not be popular, they recognise that alienating half of the electorate (or workforce) is not a good foundation to build from, and they understand the danger of chasing populist opinion.
Here in the UK,
I hear this debate ring around the Labour Party. Whichever way you look at it, this party is at a cross-roads. Some may argue that it is re-discovering its true roots with a younger more vibrant membership, others feel that it is in danger of drifting off to become an idealistic and un-electable monolith. There are people across the country who claim to have been life-long labour voters who now see UKIP as better aligned to their beliefs and values. Some within Labour make the case that to be electable again, they need to attract those people back. The dilemma is, in order to do so, Labour could either move its policies closer to those of UKIP, and away from its core values, or it could attempt to educate, influence and persuade people that core Labour values are better ones to support.
If this was purely a contest, a beauty pageant or X-Factor, then fine. Winning the votes may be all that matters. But leadership is more than just winning at any cost. I understand the constant cry that you can’t achieve much if you don’t get into power and take control of the levers of state (or of the boardroom). But, is power at any cost worth having? Is power at the expense of principles, values and core beliefs an example of successful leadership?
Lazy leadership is about not taking the time to educate, influence or persuade. Lazy leadership is about treating people simply as numbers and percentages to make up a simple majority in favour of your side. It is about moving your position on issues to bring them closer to popular opinion, rather than putting the work in to make your position compelling. (See Signposts & Weathercocks.)
People like to elect or hire leaders to provide them with the right answers, and not to confront them with challenging questions or difficult choices. But, the best leaders do just that. They do not resort to using their authority to ‘implement their own answers’. They may set out the vision, they may indicate the general direction we need to follow, but they will also put responsibility back in the hands of people to come up with the answers that are right for them and to be implemented at a pace that is tolerable.
Indeed, the more challenging the problem and the more risks involved, the more that people need to face up to the adaptive pressures and the choices that they face (think climate change, the refugee crisis, resistance to antibiotics, global water and energy depletion). And, paradoxically, it is under these extreme situations that leaders come under the most pressure to provide the right answers, and become lazy leaders.
The danger in these situations is that some leaders will too easily be seduced by this unrealistic expectation, and will give people what they want – a soundbite – (but not what they need). And this is also short-term leadership. If the leader does not deliver (and in situations where it is all down to them they rarely do), opinion will soon build to remove them. Problems are not solved, people do not learn, and nothing changes.
The best leaders do not fall for this seduction. They are prepared to work through the conflict, resistance, instability, and in some cases, dangers, that are associated with adaptive change. They do not allow people to take the easy way out. Instead they make it very clear that all change involves disruption, and they are not afraid to disturb people – because leadership requires disturbing people.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all leaders who adopt such courageous positions will succeed. Leading is dangerous, and many leaders are cast aside, rejected, voted out, sacked, or in extreme cases, assassinated. But, if no-one steps forward to remind people of their responsibility, to make clear the adaptive work that will be required to make massive change happen, then what we get is Lazy Leadership, and no-one wins.
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