When leadership is an impossible job

Impossible leadership

As a Brit living and working in Australia, I’ve been reflecting on the mess that is Brexit, and, in the wake of Theresa May’s resignation as British Prime Minister, what it tells us about leadership, and the impossible job. Leadership – given its embeddedness in individual and organisational psychology – is a complex topic. There have been millions of words written about it, some based on sophisticated studies, and some of which are probably nonsense. What follows are my personal reflections and observations based on a 25 year career of working with leaders, and being in leadership positions myself. Central to the meaning of ‘leadership’ is that it requires followers. I’m not a fan of the term ‘followers’ because it implies subservience – definitely not something I want from the people I work with. However, leadership does require a team. You can’t lead in a vacuum, or without vision. These are the two key features that have been lacking in the last three years of the British Prime Ministership, making leadership a near impossible job for Mrs May.

  1. Leadership rests on shared vision

Rule #1 of leadership: develop a vision – or at least some common goals and objectives – that your team can commit to. With significant divisions within the UK Conservative party regarding the shape Brexit should take, Mrs May has been unable to build consensus within her own team. The same weekend that Mrs May resigned, I read articles about the Australian Federal election, and the anti-vaxxer movement. Both cited research showing that, when presented with evidence that contradicts their opinions, people hold on to their existing opinion more strongly. Our human tendency to look for evidence that validates – rather than challenges – our viewpoints, coupled with social media’s propensity to present more of what we like, means most of us live in an echo-chamber with inadequate perspective on the broader world. More dangerously, we heavily criticise politicians for changing their standing on an issue, making them reluctant to actually listen to evidence and shift their position. One British political commentator, Peter Oborne (who was a Brexiteer) has publically changed his stance on Brexit and urged others to do the same. Although his story has been widely shared, it’s had little impact. Instead, positions have become more entrenched and more polarised, and the behaviours more vicious. Little space is left for negotiation or compromise, and there’s scant hope of creating a shared vision across the ‘team’ responsible for delivering Brexit.

Shared vision depends on diversity and a healthy culture

We hope that, in our professional lives, we operate with a more open mindset, with the capacity to take on board new evidence, and alternative perspectives. This is why diversity in teams – of experience, perspectives and thinking styles – is so important. Challenging and testing assumptions is critical to busting groupthink and building a robust, shared vision that everyone can get behind. But to build a consensus, you need a safe environment for constructive challenge and considered debate. It’s pretty difficult to have honest face to face discussions if everyone’s watching their back and waiting for the next manoeuvre. Which brings us to point two…

  1. Leadership requires team support

Leaders are only as good as their teams. Team support is vital to getting the work done, in thinking through challenges, in creating new opportunities, in innovating improvements. You can’t do it alone, and you certainly can’t do it if your team are fighting and undermining you (and each other) all the time. This has clearly been another major challenge for the UK Prime Minister. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have people in your team that want your job (and who have the competence or potential to do it). They can stretch you as a leader and build a pipeline for succession. What’s not good is having people that are openly hostile and trying to unseat you. Exit Mrs Theresa May, British PM.

Build a stronger team with clear behavioural expectations.

While we would hope for better behaviours in the workplace, people’s professionalism can’t always be assumed. A behaviours framework that sets explicit and objective expectations of workplace behaviour – towards each other, clients and stakeholders – is useful here. Formalising a behaviours framework gives you criteria against which you can recruit and select new employees, and manage those whose behaviours undermine the integrity and values of your organisation.

Support for Leadership

Whilst we hope that the febrile environment of national politics is not played out in not for profits across Australia, organisation cultures – and organisation leaders – do need to be nurtured and cared for to keep them healthy. You can read more about how to avoid a toxic workplace here.

If you have concerns about the culture in your organisation, or you’re a leader that needs a bit of external support, get in touch with Jane:


Jane Arnott
General Manager, Consulting and Business Services
Email: jarnott@cbb.com.au
Phone: 1300 284 364