The Achilles Heel of Strong Leadership

Strong leadership is generally seen as a good thing, presented with the unspoken assumption that the alternative is weak. But this assumption contains a devastating flaw.  The Achilles heel of ‘strong leadership’, is that it’s very easy to cross the fine line from intelligence to belligerence.

The top brass of the First World War were undoubtedly ‘strong’ – sending millions Over The Top to pointlessly certain death. They may seem like dinosaurs from another era, derided for their myopia, but their attitude was the same as ‘The Lady’s not for turning’ mantra that inspires so many Thatcher fans in business and in politics today.

Unflinchingly ‘strong’ leadership though, requires the courage to acknowledge when things are going wrong. Unless our strong leaders have a ‘U turn policy’, their fear of being seen to be weak can overpower their intelligence.

My U turn policy would look like this: ‘If new evidence comes to light, which suggests my earlier decisions were poor – I will accept that I did my best given what I knew at the time, and change my course’.

A policy like this clearly stated and repeated when necessary, would be a strong defence against accusations of weakness. Better yet, it could also undermine aggressive challenges to leadership by detractors because it invites progressive learning over defensive evasion.  Here’s real strength, courage and power.

Let’s imagine there were a contentious, tricky leadership issue afoot – something like, Brexit, say.   With a U turn policy in place, it would be acceptable to challenge ‘the decision’ of our referendum on leaving or remaining in the EU with the charge of insufficient intelligence.

Nobody in their right mind would consider a risky course of surgical treatment if they discovered the doctor who persuaded them had failed to weigh up the medical evidence. Certainly not if the majority of doctors they subsequently met were able to point out damaging side-effects and less risky, less invasive alternatives.  And yet, this is exactly what our political establishment (on both sides of The House) seems to be doing with Brexit.

There’s a great deal of fear and political cowardice in hiding behind a belligerent statement that ‘Britain is leaving the EU because the people have spoken’. As evidence flows in thick and fast suggesting the snap decision to Leave may have been ill-considered, we need some truly strong leaders with the courage to hold up their U turn policy and say “We might have got this wrong”.  It is their responsibility as the nation’s elected representatives and leaders, to give us safe passage through life.  As it is, we seem to be steaming full steam ahead in hazardous waters with poor visibility.  Sure, we all want to be heard, but we wouldn’t expect the crew of a ship to ask the passengers what to do when danger looms…

Medics who ignore valid evidence are rightly pilloried for putting lives at risk.  Scientists who do the same, are pilloried for failing in their duty to advance understanding.  In the same way, politicians who refuse to acknowledge valid evidence should also be pilloried for failing in their duty to advance society.

Let’s hope politicians on both sides of the Channel adopt a U turn policy with the power to break the deathly embrace of increasing belligerence. That’s the kind of strong leadership I’d like to see.