By Steve Gulati, Director of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Programme
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham
“So, one person’s common sense could just as easily be another’s reckless risk. ”
UK citizens have been told to use “good, solid British common sense” in the face of the revised COVID-19 lockdown rules. This sounds simple enough – but what can it tell us about leaders when they reach for this maxim?
The beguiling simplicity masks the challenging complexity: exhortations to ‘common sense’ can be problematic. They can often indicate a paucity of an evidence base or reasoned decision making, or an unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a lack of one. Such appeals can tilt towards a scepticism or outright rejection of ‘experts’, and the British government has history there. The phrase cleverly nods towards a democratisation of knowledge implying as it does an ‘obvious’ path known to all, thus challenging notions of diversity, both of people (is ‘common sense’ the exclusive preserve of the British?) and also of ideas. So why might leaders who, as in the case of the Prime Minister, have enormous positional power resort to hailing the concept?
On one hand, it avoids the need to understand or set out detail, especially useful in an environment where there are plenty of unknowns. Leaders appealing to common sense in this context can helpfully ‘sub-contract’ decision making to individuals, neatly avoiding responsibility. It also simplifies communication, reducing a set of complex factors to the seemingly simple. So the appeal is obvious – but it can also provide an insight into the integrity of leaders and their response to unpredictability and a loss of control.
One of the key challenges for leaders, especially those in public services, is to make decisions when information is limited, unavailable, or contradictory. Successful leaders thrive in and with ambiguity, combining courage in decision making, skilfully forthright communication, and being able to empathise with those whom they lead or the client groups that they serve. The tensions created by problems with resources, ambivalent situations, or high risk/ low information scenarios are viewed by effective leaders as a creative challenge, a space in which to use, demonstrate and hone their skills. Having worked with leaders at all levels in the NHS, Local Authorities and more latterly in high profile services such as Public Health, the notion of lofty entreaties to common sense would be anathema, viewed almost as a concession of a failure of leadership.
So, one person’s common sense could just as easily be another’s reckless risk. We are all different, and of course that is something to be celebrated not stifled. But there is a critical difference between trusting people and teams, giving them often highly valued autonomy, but doing this within clear boundaries and providing an environment of safety, surely the first duty of government and of leaders in organisations. True leaders know the difference, and don’t perceive nuance as weakness or being buffeted by events as failure. Perhaps that, too, is common sense.