We define a good leader as one who is appropriate for the situation: someone who brings stability to chaotic upheaval, or conversely someone who brings disruptive change to stagnant inertia. In politics as in business the risk lies in applying the wrong leadership qualities to the situation in hand, or failing to respond to subtle changes in the political or commercial landscape.
In July last year the Conservative party elected Boris Johnson as its leader in order to break the deadlock of Brexit negotiations which under Theresa May had failed to secure agreement. The Johnson style became apparent within a month when parliament was prorogued on 28 August in order to stifle debate on the Brexit terms. This prorogation was later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court on 24 September and parliament resumed on 25 September. However the damage was done, both party and public became aware of what type of disruption the new leader had in mind.
Exonerating ministers and advisors for reprehensible behaviour (viz Cummings, Patel) should not come a surprise given the leadership style, a preference for ideological fit over competence in office. However the Internal Market bill is surely the supreme disruptive act so far as it risks the country’s international reputation for the sake of short term political convenience. Only the Lords have so far prevented this becoming law although it sadly passed through the Commons with ease. Perhaps the warning from president-elect Biden will bring the party elders to reign in the Conservative disruptor- in-chief. Where are the ‘men in grey suits’ when you most need them these days?
Donald Trump won the Republican party leadership race on the disruptor ticket, speaking to those who felt Washington needed to be shaken up by someone whose personal wealth made him incorruptible, the best person to breathe fresh air into stale American politics. Well after four years, the trail of evidence is there, but he refuses to accept defeat in the public vote on 3 November. With over 70 million republicans voting for him as a personality cult, the party is wary of ditching him for fear of losing their support. The value of charismatic and maverick leaders is always a fine balance between asset and liability. Who has the authority to tell the emperor his clothes are gone?
The trouble with disruptors is they are energized by destruction, in the UK Johnson sees the politically neutral civil service as an obstacle to change, and in the US Trump believes the electoral system is somehow against him. The real problem is that change takes time and if you only have mandate for a 4-5 year window of opportunity, you will be in a hurry to achieve change faster than the system is designed to allow. Democracies want to be led people they trust to get things done; they want safe stewardship not impatient narcissists looking to cement their personal legacy. The risk for any electorate is, as the Stones song had it: ‘you don’t always get what you want’.