Monday, 18 January 2010

James Purnell’s vision, but where is the leadership for it?

James Purnell, the Government’s bright, young Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, walked away from his Cabinet position on 4 June 2009, saying to the prime minister “I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning” [the forthcoming general election]. He probably hoped to encourage others to follow and thereby force a coordinated attempt to unseat Gordon Brown and force a leadership contest. But nothing happened.

Purnell now says he did too little to make clear his beliefs for the future of a Labour Government, what it would stand for and try to achieve. He remedied this vacuum by publishing a remarkable vision. As a model of what is meant by vision, this was quite something. But he then undid his good work by backtracking on his earlier action, praising PM Brown as a “remarkable man”. He appeared to think that Brown was less of a problem than was the lack of a clear vision. He was confused about the relationship between what leadership does with how leadership goes about it.

So what is the relationship between what an organisation believes it needs leadership capability to achieve for its stakeholders, and ‘what leadership is like around here’? Can you have one without the other?

This question needs to be approached from both ends. It is possible to have good leadership processes such as good relationships and good communication between leaders, but not deliver very much for the ‘business’. It is more difficult to successfully deliver what the stakeholders need leadership for while also falling apart in ‘how leadership works round here’.

Purnell’s vision is fine (that is, for those who share his political sentiment, of course), but his latest political maneuvering has spotlighted the issue of the Government’s ability to realise this or any other vision it until the right kind of leadership process is in place.

So it is for any business.