Leadership: style without substance is a road to nowhere

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By Steve Gulati, Director of Healthcare Leadership, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham

The current crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s leadership has been long in the making and in some ways, has been a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. Putting aside the immediate political dimension, what can it tell us about leadership – how leaders thrive, survive, and ultimately fall?

One key aspect of Johnson’s leadership has been to identify, or even create, division and then to back the largest, or winning side – in many ways, a very pure form of identity politics. As we saw in the United States with President Trump, and in Britain with the EU referendum, in the short term this can yield many benefits to those who can position themselves on the largest side of a populist debate. In politics, however, just as in wider management and leadership, it is far easier to comment and criticise than to govern or lead, something that both Trump and Johnson found to their cost and discomfort. That leadership practice in all fields has a (non-party) political dimension is indisputable. A central part of the art of leadership is to identify and create common ground, coalitions of interest, and an environment where a broad range of people feel that their interests either are being, or will be, served. This does not mean ‘soggy compromise’ where nobody gets what they want and everybody is discontented, but it does require vision and sophisticated relational skills, quite the opposite of ‘one great man’ or quasi-cultist approaches to leadership which are heavily over-reliant on perceived charisma.

As the Prime Minister is now finding to his cost, creating coalitions of interest and developing allyship can be critical when tough times come. Leaders can ride waves of popularity for only so long before difficult decisions eventually need to be made, and it is at those critical junctures that a diverse, distributed network of voices can be most critical. That leaders need, on occasion, to fight symbolic battles and have well-honed adversarial skills is of course important; but ultimately, that is rarely a recipe for longevity in high profile positions.  Leaders in all sectors face ambiguity and competing interests on a regular, sometimes daily basis, and the ability to identify and nurture allies, welcome divergent or even dissenting voices and operating with some form of integrity and authenticity is central to effective leadership practice.

All leaders, including Prime Ministers, come and go – there is arguably a ‘life-cycle arc’ in senior positions, albeit the length of that arc varies. What remains is the impact created, the stories that followers will tell in time to come. For leaders in public service, be that health, social care, education or any complex systems with many actors, there is a need now more than ever for the ability to hear different voices, work with difference, and reconcile what can appear to be conflicting agendas. Whatever one thinks of Boris Johnson’s travails, there can be some significant lessons to be learned – leadership may be performance, but it needs substance as well as style.

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