Theresa May is no crisis-time leader

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In the current crisis she has also made the mistake of saying that she will not fight the next General Election. Any time a PM does this then this changes the dynamic of the office held, turning it ...


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​Despite seeing off a leadership challenge May lacks the creativity, guile and ability to build coalitions, which means she's not suitable to lead the UK through Brexit

In 'normal circumstances' Theresa May would have functioned perfectly competently as prime minister. However, we are in the midst of a crisis and she has shown shortcomings on the central dimensions of symbolic and practical leadership needed to overcome such situations.

The symbolic dimension of leadership is crucial and refers to a leader’s ability to connect with key audiences and stakeholders. Most leaders – whether a prime minister or a chief executive – will only meet a tiny proportion of people that their decisions affect. As a result a person’s view of a leader is necessarily mediated through images and stories. An effective leader is able to become a symbolic representation of the hopes and aspirations of people. They are able to ‘capture the moment’ and, in the case of politics, ‘make the political weather’.

The critical aspect of the symbolic dimension of leadership is that stakeholders, such as the electorate and fellow politicians, attribute meaning to the characteristics and abilities of leaders, transforming them into a galvanising force. Politicians such as Winston Churchill in 1940, Nelson Mandela in 1990, Tony Blair in 1997, and Barack Obama in 2008 are classic instances where a political leader becomes a symbolic representation of resistance, reconciliation, modernisation or hope. When this works the leader fuses with the audience. When it fails the leader becomes a negative symbol. If a leader is viewed negatively it is difficult to shift opinion.

What is striking with Theresa May is that the idea she can lead the UK through Brexit has evaporated. Symbolically she has deflated. In a sense the current denouement is the epilogue to the disastrous election campaign of 2017, where an expected landslide transformed into a miserable result. In the weeks before the campaign May was compared with Margaret Thatcher in her pomp – an all-conquering force. Less than two years on she cuts a very different figure.

There are very few cases where political leaders are able to re-inflate themselves symbolically, at least in the short term. The symbolic dimension of leadership requires a leader to have a good story: who am I? Who are we? And where are we going? The symbolic dimensions of leadership are ultimately crucial to whether leaders are viewed positively or not and crucially, whether they are trusted to take their organisation into the future.

Leadership is of course about more than stories, symbols and talk. There is the practical craft of accomplishing things and preparing for the future. The practical aspect of leading requires a range of skills: May's determination and sheer resilience is impressive. What is less clear is her ability to read the environment and generate new and creative solutions. For instance how would Harold Wilson or more recent predecessors have tackled this issue? Think for instance of Tony Blair’s handling of the Northern Irish peace process, or Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling’s grip on rescuing the banks during the financial crisis.

May’s apparent lack of creativity, combined with an inability to grasp dynamic circumstances (acting as if the government still had a majority and didn't need to consult) have led us to this inevitable point. The irony is that the negotiated EU deal was more or less what would have been expected, save for the adventurism of hard Brexit or, in effect, not leaving.

Why have MPs not supported her Brexit plan? Ultimately the prime minister seems not to have learned from the election or the bungled Chequers negotiation. A leader needs followers and May was unable to bind in enough of her MPs; but perhaps this was a task beyond all but the most skilled politicians. May demonstrates that doggedness, resilience, hard work and seriousness are not enough to guide the country out of political gridlock. Leadership requires much more.

Chris Carter is professor of strategy and organisation at the University of Edinburgh's business school

Comments

In the current crisis she has also made the mistake of saying that she will not fight the next General Election. Any time a PM does this then this changes the dynamic of the office held, turning it into a lame duck scenario with contenders jostling for position for the time when the leader stands down.


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We have long been in the grip of sound-bite politics. May has the unhappy knack of repeating mantras that are neither authentic nor thoughtful. The role of leader against this backdrop is devalued and the leader is at risk of being perceived as out of their depth, perhaps even as a charlatan. Politics in the UK has followed the US lead and become more dominated by the cult of the leader's (or potential leader's) personality. May resides in a charisma-free zone and, for a time, retained a degree of support amongst the electorate, not because she inspired through her leadership, but because she provoked pity. This has now worn thin. Unfortunately for the country, the crisis we face is one of leadership in addition to one of constitution, politics and economics: The leadership alternatives to May are even less compelling than her.


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