What Makes a Good Leader? Part Two

Sir Winston S Churchill

Sir Winston S Churchill

This is my second post in the two part series “What Makes a Good Leader?” This exciting series was prompted by an absurd article in the Huffington Post, claiming that certain politicians – to wit, Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson – need plastic surgery if they are to have a hope in hell of reaching the top of the greasy pole.

All this is nonsense of course. It’s a person’s inner qualities that count. In my first post, I discussed the ability of a boss to delegate. This second post talks about how important it is that a boss should be decisive.

Or, out it another way:

A good boss knows how to make a decision

Some of you may want to modify this to:

A good boss knows how to make difficult decisions


A good boss knows how to make difficult decisions under pressure

But as for me – frankly, from what I’ve seen in my own working life, I’d be happy just with someone who can make a normal every day decision, without faffing about. Believe me, in the legal world, we have plenty of ditherers.

Christina Hendricks. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

Christina Hendricks. Photo by Eva Rinaldi on Flickr

How long should it take to hire a new secretary? One month? Two months? Half a year? Yes, that’s how long it took in one of my workplaces. Boss couldn’t make his mind up. In another place, the boss actually did make his mind up – but after having found someone perfectly satisfactory, he wanted to start the whole recruitment process all over again, just to “see what else who might be out there.”

Why? Who exactly were you expecting to turn up? Christina Hendricks? And if she did turn up, do you really think she’s going to want to work for someone like you? No. The Christinas of this world have other fish to fry than to work for a boring old lawyer. Frankly, I’d rather work for Specsavers…

How to make a decision – think like a general

I used to play chess once. One of my first lessons was that after I’d developed all my pieces, I had to have a plan. The plan could be “capture the castle”, or “occupy that black square in the middle of the board” – whatever it was, it was essential to have a goal to reach for. I remember the words very clearly:

“A bad plan is better than no plan.”

Chess is a war game, and to play it well, you can’t just dither along the way. It’s no surprise that quite a few ex army/navy people are to be found in the corporate world on the board of directors.

Sir John Harvey Jones

Sir John Harvey Jones

I’m thinking of Sir John Harvey Jones who used to be CEO of ICI, and who wowed the nation with his TV series Troubleshooter, his no-nonsense approach and snazzy ties. Harvey Jones used to be in the navy.

Sir Raymond Lygo was also in the navy. Quite senior in fact – he was Vice Chief of Naval Staff according to his Wikipedia entry. Afterwards he became CEO of British Aerospace. I actually saw him once at my brother’s graduation – he was the one awarding degrees and shaking hands with the new graduates.

One piece of advice I remember him giving those about to enter the World of Work was:

“Whatever you do, don’t ever get into the state where the decisions are foisted onto some committee.”

The word “committee” was said with such disdain that we all got the message. I still remember this, years and years later. My God, rule by committee. Nothing ever gets done. 

“Yes Prime Minister” anyone?

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

Anyone remember Gordon Brown? I have to admit, I’m one of the few people who have a spark of respect for him, and feel a tad sorry for him – though not too much. However, I have to say, that although he “looked” like a leader, when he became PM – he had the bearing and gravitas – he proved to be no such thing. As I’ve said at the start of this article, you can’t judge by a person’s looks.

As various members of the last Labour Government start dishing the dirt writing their memoirs, and talking to the press to generate book sales put their point of view forward, one of the inevitable topics is one James Gordon Brown. And what is coming across, is that most of his former colleagues don’t think he was cut out to be a leader.

This is what former Cabinet minister Jack Straw said in a radio interview:

“He just lacked the fundamental qualities to do it.

“He didn’t understand that if you’re prime minister, you’re faced with decisions which come in the door and the window all the time and that wasn’t the case when he was running the British economy – where he had four big sets of decisions to make a year.

“He didn’t properly understand the importance of how you bring together a team.”

That’s quite a damning verdict. Note what he says about Brown’s ability to make decisions. This was in fact apparent quite early on in Brown’s premiership. I remember throughout October of 2007, there was considerable speculation about whether he was going to call a snap election. On the plus side, an election victory would have cemented his position within his own party – on the minus side, a loss would have made his tenure at the top the shortest within living memory.

Brown dithered when he saw opinion polls favouring the Tories. He just couldn’t bite the bullet, and so a golden opportunity was lost.

Churchill and Attlee

Of course, everyone knows about Winston Churchill. He’s the man who won the war! (With a huge amount of help from the Americans and the Russians). Churchill is viewed as a great wartime leader, who lifted the morale of the nation.

Clement Attlee was Churchill’s deputy in a coalition government consisting of Tories, Conservatives and Liberals. Attlee took over as Prime Minister in 1945, when Labour won a landslide victory – the first time the Labour Party actually achieved a majority. Under Attlee, Britain underwent a radical transformation, with the introduction of the modern Welfare State – the NHS, the nationalisation of the coal and steel industries, and even the nationalisation of the Bank of England.

Churchill used to lampoon Attlee mercilessly.

“A modest man, with much to be modest about”

And what about this:

“An empty taxi drew up to the House of Commons and Clement Attlee got out.”

But in private, Churchill had a lot of respect for his erstwhile deputy. In fact, while Churchilll was running the war, Attlee was effectively running the country.

I don’t think either Attlee or Churchill would have a chance of leadership in this photogenic age. And yet, both are considered to be amongst the greatest leaders this country has ever had.

Attlee rates high in rankings of great Prime Ministers – even above Churchill. According to his Wikepedia entry, in 2004, he was voted the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century in a poll of 139 academics organised by MORI.

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

This is a picture of Attlee. Does he look like a leader? Does he look like a David Cameron, or a Nick Clegg?

When I first saw his picture, he looked like an old fashioned bank manager to me. Not the modern kind, that falls over himself trying to get you to sign up to a dodgy mortgage. I’m talking about the old school bank managers who tell you off for overdrawing your account.

And yet one of the qualities that politicians of all parties admire, is his leadership style. Even Margaret Thatcher – who was at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

This is what Maggie had to say about Clem:

“Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show”

Like the Marquess of Salisbury, Attlee viewed himself as primus inter pares – the Chairman of a Board of directors. Cabinet meetings were made by consensus – after sufficient discussion, Attlee would sum up at the end, stating what had been discussed and most importantly, what decision had been made.

Whenever I think about how important it is to be decisive, I think of Attlee, rather than Churchill. I was influenced by an anecdote I came across in Peter Hennessy’s massive tome on Whitehall.

A senior civil servant who worked with both Churchill and Attlee, used to tell this story at dinner parties. When asked to compare the two leaders, he began:

“Well, one of them was like a major general, sharp, quick decisive.” And everyone in the room would shake their heads knowingly. Ah, yes, Winston, of course. Then he continued:

“The other one used to find taking decisions quite difficult. He’d dither on for a bit and then say “Oh, I don’t know, just send the papers down to Chartwell and I’ll look at them during the weekend”.

At the words Chartwell, there would be a collective gasp in the audience – for Chartwell happened to be Winston’s country home!

Yes, whenever I have to make a decision, it’s Attlee that I think about. I pretend there’s a Cabinet discussion going on, and after enough to-ing and fro-ing and umming and ahhing – snap! Decision made and move on.

If only my old boss could have done the same.

Link: – BBC article on  Troubleshooter – how they all fared after a visit by Sir John Harvey Jones.

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