The results of last week’s General Election in the UK leaving us with a hung parliament are in large part the result of a paucity of leadership in the main political parties. Jeremy Corbyn, though credited with running a good campaign, still did not get the most votes. He has spurred divisions in his party and regularly vacillates on his and his party’s position on Brexit – the central issue of the election and Britain’s economic future. Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May have both blatantly placed party politics above the people they represent. Sturgeon’s threats of another Scottish referendum while Scotland is failing under the weight of its own economic and social problems are hardly inspiring. May tried to sell herself as leader of the nation in a muddled campaign that never addressed the welfare of the nation or how Brexit was going to be realised and implemented or what it would mean for individuals and their communities. The LibDem’s Tim Farron, who has done the right thing by stepping down, committed the classic error of not leading by example – he may have voted in favour of gay rights and reproductive rights for women, but doesn’t personally support these rights and actively supports a church that condemns them.
This has left me wondering about what makes a good leader. People often point to Churchill as an example of a great leader. He may have been a very good leader, taking his people through difficult times. But he was the man for the moment and one who got wrapped up in the cult of his own celebrity. Napolean’s leadership has left historians divided for centuries, and I won’t go into all of that here – note the title, this is a topic I’ll return to. My point here is that it’s hard to find a so-called great leader who wasn’t at the same time highly flawed as a leader.
As I write this piece, news and analysis are unfolding about the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. Among the analyses was this comment in this morning’s Guardian editorial: ‘Leadership requires courage, imagination and empathy.’ The article goes on to point out how May has failed as a leader in the aftermath of the tragedy. This too is an example of the idea of good leadership being apparent by its absence.
One of the most important books that I’ve ever read and one that I dip into from time to time is John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership, an adaptation of Lao Tzu’s teachings. Though published in 1985, I first read it in the early 90s when I was in a miserable job situation which ended so nastily, it put my academic career on hold for years. I soon realised that this book’s true value is in being not so much about leadership, but being about living in harmony with others. It made me understand the failings of the leaders around me and to see myself as a leader in my own ways. In brief, leadership is a role that we all play at different points in our lives. It’s not exclusive to the manager, the director, the team leader – leadership is about service to others.
With this in mind, I close on a quote from Heider which PM May and other political leaders could benefit from:
The wise leader is like water. Consider water: water cleanses and refreshes all creatures without distinction and without judgment; water freely and fearlessly goes deep beneath the surface of things; water is fluid and responsive; water follows the law freely. Consider the leader: the leader works in any setting without complaint, with any person or issue that comes on the floor; the leader acts so that all will benefit and serves well regardless of the rate of pay; the leader speaks simply and honestly and intervenes in order to shed light and create harmony. From watching the movements of water, the leader has learned that in action, timing is everything. Like water, the leader is yielding. Because the leader does not push, the group does not resent or resist.’