Monday, 14 December 2009

The leader's intoxication with power

We hear it time and again: ‘People want strong leaders’. This near universal claim is rarely challenged. But just what is this so-called ‘strength’? Does apparent strength mask weakness? By many measures, and despite his faults and misjudgements, UK ex-prime minister Tony Blair seemed to be a strong leader – clear in his own mind, articulate, confident, persuasive. The call for ‘strength’ is one of the themes explored in my book The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective.

As Blair’s distance from power grows, and spurred by his imminent appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war, another former establishment figure breaks ranks. Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions (2003-2008), claims that UK ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was a weak leader (‘Intoxicated by power, Blair tricked us into war’, The Times,14 December). Macdonald writes:

“Blair’s fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards power. Perhaps this seems odd in a man who drank so much of that mind-altering brew at home. But Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him. In this sense he was weak … we have frequently heard him repeating the self-regarding mantra that ‘hand on heart, I only did what I thought was right’. But it is a narcissist’s defence, and self-belief is no answer to misjudgement: it is certainly no answer to death.”

My book considers how leaders manipulate opinion to get their way: that a strong leader’s job is assumed to be to decide and then persuade others. (Even recognizing the need to persuade others may be seen as a concession.) Such a role for the leader results in information being edited, timed and manipulated to obtain others’ agreement. This prevents people from marshalling their thoughts, arguments, doubts, and how to plan safe ways of expressing them. The plan is to neutralise potential opposition, making the leader’s chosen role of persuasion that much easier. In this school of thought The Prince is required reading.

In his report of his earlier Iraq Inquiry, Lord Butler (then Cabinet Secretary) commented critically on the use of intelligence to support the decision to go to war with Iraq. He said: ‘Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but it is obviously much more difficult for the cabinet outside the small inner circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear.’

As an imagined alternative role for a truly strong leader, my book offers Blair the option of behaving literally and constitutionally as a ‘first-among-equals’ prime minister. How might he then have seen his role in relation to his cabinet colleagues when deciding to go to war with Iraq? He might have said to them something like this:

‘My job is to help you to arrive at the conclusion that enables you to look yourself in the mirror, to enable you to face your families and friends, to act consistently with your personal values and beliefs and remain authentic, to speak to me on this matter from your heart, without being concerned how it will affect your remaining in a cabinet post. My role is to ensure that you have all the relevant information you need to arrive at the right decision as you judge it and to express that view freely. I also need to give you time to reflect on this and not feel bounced into taking an immediate decision.’

Such imagined language would be a model of the leader’s role to support and serve others.