Lessons In How Not To Lead
From the Dept. of What Were They Thinking
I finished my book! Or rather, I submitted a draft to the publisher - more work to do but for now I can focus on The Ruffian, mince pies and cocktails.
This week has been a week of bad examples in leadership. Actually, you might say good examples, in the sense of instructive. When you see a high-profile leader screwing up in public, you can think of it as an act of unintended generosity: they are failing so that others can learn how not to.
In that spirit, let’s turn first to the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who has proved, since he took office, to be the mortal political enemy of Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister. In early October, Sunak re-launched himself as the change candidate in the forthcoming election, which was, well, bold for the leader of a party thirteen years in office (the thinking at No.10 doesn’t appear to have been much more sophisticated than “Voters are telling us they want a change of government, so…”). He dumped policies inherited from his predecessors, including David Cameron, and when that did nothing for his parlous position in the polls, he threw the whole strategy overboard and appointed Cameron to his cabinet. Hi, I’m Rishi, the continuity candidate! It all happened dizzyingly fast and he emerged even weaker than before.
In the meantime Sunak has allowed his party’s obsession with the Rwanda asylum scheme to become his own obsession, despite the facts that a) He can’t win since whatever he does won’t please at least half his MPs b) Voters don’t care very much either way; immigration is not top of their list of priorities at the moment, and most don’t believe this scheme will make much difference.
Even if one thinks it is a good policy, it is a barmy choice of hill on which to die.1 This week, another of Sunak’s ministers resigned, ostensibly over the bill not going far enough, although what’s in play here is not principle but murine instinct: everybody knows this ship is going down, and if you’re an ambitious Tory, it makes sense to jump, flamboyantly, before the election. Sunak’s government has actually had some successes, including on immigration, but he seems determined to focus everyone’s attention on its failures.
Politics aside, what lessons is Sunak unwittingly imparting to us about leadership? Here’s a couple:
It’s better to take no position at all than to declare one and then abandon it at the first hint of adversity.
Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by your loudest and most aggressive stakeholders (in this case, some Tory MPs), who may not be representative of the majority (in this case voters).
Now, we turn to this grisly spectacle:
Somehow, these highly eminent, highly paid executives managed to unite Democrat and Republican lawmakers, liberal and conservative media, and everyone on Twitter. You see, there are still some things that bring Americans together, and contempt for lawyerly equivocation in the face of simple moral questions is one of them.
Now, when I see someone refusing to answer an apparently black and white question on the terms in which it’s framed, I’m often minded to sympathise with them. I’m not keen on moral inquisitions, which tend to reward those who know the right thing to say and punish those who care about doing the right thing. We might call that the Cordelia Effect. I’ll give Elizabeth Magill a pass for her weird smirk, which I presume was down to nerves; there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face (I wrote about that, years ago, with regard to Amanda Knox.)
And if you were making a substantive case for these poor college presidents, you might very plausibly argue that that Elise Stefanik was posing a trick question. Calls for “intifada” are not the same as calls for genocide. Similarly, if you think “from the river to the sea” is a disgusting slogan, you can still see that its meaning is ambiguous and contested. Even if you think it’s anti-Semitic, anti-Semitic speech is generally protected under the First Amendment, as is sexist, racist and homophobic speech and indeed calls for genocide. The presidents were right to be very wary of saying that such speech would or should be banned at their university.
What’s harder to defend is the glaring hypocrisy. Harvard recently came bottom (out of 254 colleges) of the FIRE Free Speech ranking; Pennsylvania was fourth from bottom. There are countless recent examples of university bosses either punishing supposedly incorrect speech on race and gender or turning a blind eye to campus zealots who try and shut down views they deem harmful. There is a real, burning problem with speech in American universities, and it’s not that students are allowed to say abhorrent and stupid things.
As I said a few weeks back, however, charges of hypocrisy are cheap to make; the more costly move is to declare which of the two contradictory positions you’ve identified is the right one. It’s true that potentially anti-Semitic speech does not seem to be prosecuted as vigorously as other forms of potentially offensive speech, but the solution isn’t necessarily to prosecute it more vigorously. Universities, above all, should be organisations which value and protect free speech. Those who have been complaining that this principle has been abandoned in favour of a spurious notion of “safety” shouldn’t suddenly ignore it themselves.
The day after her appearance, Penn president Magill posted an apologetic video, in which she says, “In today’s world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated.” This is exactly the kind of reasoning that lies behind all those egregious crackdowns on debate; as the NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg observes, it essentially implies “more safety and less freedom”. It would be bizarre and depressing if that’s the outcome of this controversy.
Questions of free speech often move too quickly towards the law when they should be, first and foremost, questions of institutional ethos and purpose. Start with why your organisation values free speech, and work backwards from there. In the case of universities, the goal is or should be to foster a community of lively and robust intellectual exchange. If that means going further than the law does on speech that might intimidate or harass students, then so be it, but it also means erring on the side of toleration wherever possible, assuming good faith wherever possible, and emphasising that open disagreement - even when passionate, offensive and upsetting - is not an unfortunate side-effect of intellectual endeavour, but necessary to it.
This is an attitude, or predisposition. It can’t be easily codified, or turned into a set of clear rules. You know it when you see it, which is why leadership is so important. Leaders aren’t just rule-makers or rule-enforcers; they embody the spirit of the organisation. By doing so, they send signals about how to behave to everyone in it. In Aristotelian terms, the job is as much about ethos and pathos as it is about logos.
The college presidents who took the spotlight this week appeared to be nothing more than chief bureaucrats. Terrified of saying the wrong thing, they got everything wrong. They acted like robots programmed by lawyers, unable to display either convincing revulsion at hate speech or deeply felt belief in the value of free speech.2 It’s here, rather than in the content of the positions they adopted in response to Elise Stefanik’s fearsome interrogation, that they failed so dismally.
What lessons in the leadership have the presidents been generous enough to teach us? Well, the pair above are obviously relevant to their job. We can add:
Know Your Own Mind. Leaders need to reach their own personal position on complex and sensitive issues, rather than just accepting advice on how to position themselves. Only once they’ve done that can they…
Speak From the Heart. Leaders have audiences, whether employees or stakeholders or the public, and audiences are more sensitive to emotion than logic (which is rational since emotion is a better guide to future behaviour). As Aristotle said (check quote) nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.
Leadership is performance (and not just in the HR sense). The presidents were in a public forum, broadcast to millions, and they acted as if communication was beneath them. Cordelia, for all her virtues, would not make a good leader.
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If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy my book on productive disagreement and conflict.
Tom McTague makes an interesting case that this might actually become an effective strategy if Sunak can make the next election about his fight to Get Shit Done in the face of establishment opposition, as Boris Johnson did with Brexit in 2019. Tom points out some problems with this. I’d add that a majority of voters supported Johnson’s objective (either because they were Leavers or because they were Remainers who accepted the referendum and just wanted the whole thing over and done with). That’s not the case here. The Rwanda scheme is patently not as important as Brexit, and most voters have more urgent concerns. The only other point to add is that the ‘authoritarian/fascist/rule of law’ attacks from the left (not from Starmer, thankfully) are hysterical and unwarranted. The most important thing to understand about the British constitution is that parliament is supreme (it differs from the US in that respect). Sunak is proposing an act of parliament. If he orders officials to break British law, they have a case; until then, no.
If these presidents didn’t make substantive political or moral arguments it’s probably because they’re not in the habit; it’s not their job, as currently defined. Insofar as “wokeness” or whatever we want to call it exerts its power in these institutions, it does so through unspoken norms and bureaucratic procedure rather than through open argument.