Leadership for Our Times

Much has been made recently of Theresa May’s leadership, or rather the lack of it. It reminds me how when I first took up the reins at Churchill College, several people told me the story of an earlier Master, William Hawthorne. Eminent engineer though he may have been, when it came to sensing the mood of the fellowship over the possibility of admitting women he seems to have got it badly wrong. However, instead of recognizing he was out of step, he pushed on making it absolutely clear at the Governing Body meeting where the crucial vote was taken, that he was opposed. He lost, and therefore ended up on the wrong side of history, an example of ‘how not to be a Master’, and one that I was early on and regularly regaled with when I arrived in the college. I have taken it to heart.

On International Women’s Day this year I discussed some of this publicly with Alison Finch, one of the first women fellows in the College (the recording will go up on the Churchill website soon*). She told me that even when she arrived, a couple of years after that vote, Hawthorne still went out of his way to tell her how he had voted against women’s admission, as fellows or students. Quite apart from the ungraciousness of making a young woman feel uncomfortable in this way upon her arrival, it still strikes me as bad leadership. To my mind a more statesmanlike approach would have been to say how the ‘will of the people’ (ugh) had made him realise that times had changed and he now welcomed the admission of women at all levels in the college. The parallels with our modern politicians, I am sure needs no driving home to this readership.

But leadership is undoubtedly a tricky issue for which few of us have had much formal training, in academia or in modern politics (where captains of industry used to leadership, of the sort so familiar to our predecessors, are conspicuously absent). This has certainly been obviously a weakness in our Prime Minister, who doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of reaching out to opponents, or listening to what they say. It matters in academia too, where differences of opinion can get robust, be it about research or where to place the bicycle sheds (a well-known contentious issue in a city such as Cambridge). Microcosmographia Academica may be an early version of The Onion when it comes to describing political matters, but it is not entirely wrong in its depiction of local behaviours.

I have always been a great believer in learning by watching other people’s mistakes – as well as what they do when things go right, although I think the latter is actually often less useful. It is how I learned about Twitter. We all make mistakes in our own way, but it is an aid in identifying them to see howlers in action perpetrated by others. Watching what people do wrong in chairing meetings I think is really helpful in working out what not to do, but the tactic can perhaps be utilised in many different spheres, be it negotiating Brexit or handling those damn cycle sheds again. (Not, I hasten to add, something that has led to divisions within my college in my own time.)

But leadership is about far more than debating points in committees, and listening is another key skill that many in academia are perhaps reluctant to practise. I am currently reading the recent book by Allen Packwood, the College Archivist, entitled How Churchill Waged War, and the first chapter is devoted to a discussion of whether Churchill was a Chair or a Chief Executive. Allen’s view is that Churchill indubitably was a Chief Executive, and that it was the role he had wanted and waited for over many years. Finally as Prime Minister he could achieve his aim. But that was in time of war and he was presiding over a government of national unity, a government ‘of all the talents’. The UK has not yet reached this point and it would seem that May might do better behaving as a Chair – as long as she can manage to be a good chair.

So what do I think, from years of watching ideal and not-so-ideal chairs, makes up a good one? Not someone who let the conversations waffle and wander on; not one who cuts off discussion too soon so people feel short-changed; someone who keeps to time (with comfort breaks); someone who is able to bring the different strands into the conversation; who doesn’t allow one speaker to talk over another one, who reminds someone trying to claim a bright idea as theirs that someone else (typically, but not necessarily, a woman) had already made that point; someone who is aware of when a shy newcomer is trying to pluck up the courage to speak and makes it easy for them; someone who knows when to wrap up a discussion before the same points are made time and time again in marginally different ways. All those skills are useful in the academic world. I hope I have managed to achieve some of them at least some of the time. They are, I suspect, less pertinent in the House of Commons where arcane rules rule – rules so arcane that I wonder how many people understand them (vide John Bercow’s unexpected introduction of a precedent from 1604 in denying the third meaningful vote last week).

This post will, rapidly, become less topical as some level of clarity emerges from the mists of Brexit, as it must over the next couple of weeks. However the points about being a good leader remain. Churchill is seen as the archetypal charismatic leader, but that was under special circumstances. Faced with the current situation, talking of blood, toil, tears and sweat might not go down so well as when the Nazis were at our door in 1940. Context matters and judging the mood of a committee – or a nation – makes a difference to what will fly. My predecessor William Hawthorne got it wrong, and I think we can safely say our Prime Minister is likewise adrift.

* Available as of 29-3-19 here.


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One Response to Leadership for Our Times

  1. Bill Harvey says:

    I agree that it is important to learn from our mistakes ad those of others. But really, watching someone do it well can be the only way to understand what a well done task is. I saw many examples of bad chairmanship down the years. Only when I saw it done well did I properly understand how different that was.

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