Power struggle shows Downing Street is missing some basic management skills

Our political leaders need more compassion and emotional intelligence if we are to prosper despite tough times ahead

The events of last week in No 10 are not unusual in many organisations in business and the public sector.

People come together in senior roles to achieve specific objectives, and then when those objectives are achieved or circumstances change, they either go their own ways without rancour or conflicts occur and people are “encouraged” - or forced - to go.

Certainly the team that came into No 10 were there by the circumstance of Brexit, but with the change of emphasis of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, things changed dramatically.

Brexit was not necessarily a crisis management situation in the first instance (though now it is, as negotiations have slowed due to Covid and the other priorities of the day), but Covid and the impending recession requires a crisis management mindset and set of actions.

Different management situations require different management styles, and in many cases a different team to achieve the different and demanding objectives.

So what we have seen in Downing Street over the past week is not unusual in a change of leadership, but the one overarching lesson we can learn from this struggle is the importance of some basic principles of management.

Whether true or not, the media have portrayed the advisers in No 10 as “command and control” freaks who had a top-down management style and poor people-management skills.

The perception was that they communicated poorly, did not model behaviour demanded of others (e.g. Barnard Castle) and just didn’t bring others with them, whether within No 10 or outside in the wider Westminster community.

I don’t know if this is true, but if so it is not a good recipe for success. And given the massively changing circumstances of the pandemic and the economic crisis, such an approach is even less likely to work or get the backing even of the advisers’ own supporters.

Effective leadership requires people who have good social and interpersonal skills, can communicate openly, involve a range of people in decision-making, engage with the wider community (in this case the House of Commons, the public, the media etc) and take timely and appropriate action based on some of the input from their various stakeholders.

Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, once wrote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say ‘we did it ourselves’.” 

Unfortunately, a number of the advisers in No 10 were perceived to be too visible, too much in control and did not engage with enough decision-makers or the public.

Also, the narrative and priorities have changed, and I suspect it is inevitable that the people taking on these new challenges will have a different style of leadership. If you want people to obey the rules in a pandemic or support the Chancellor in an economic downturn, you need a more effective leadership style than we have seen over the last year.

Managing crises and change is not easy, as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating change … The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.”

Nevertheless, our political leaders need to have more compassion and more emotional intelligence. They need to listen to people, minimise control-freakery and engage stakeholders in decision-making as we enter the triple challenges of getting through Covid, coping with the recession and making Brexit work.

As Mark Twain once wrote, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper is the 50th Anniversary professor of organizational psychology and health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, and President of the CIPD