Red Lines Don’t Need to be Political

Despite the introductory couple of paragraphs, this is not meant as a political diatribe….it’s just hard to avoid parliamentary affairs currently. I did foreswear following Brexit news for several months after the last deadline in the spring for the sake of my well-being, but somehow I’ve got sucked in again….

We’ve heard a lot about red lines from UK politicians over the past many months. It turns out they didn’t do much to help Theresa May in her negotiating stance with the EU, although we seem to have a different type of rigidity being played out right now (‘die in a ditch’ hardly seems like a pragmatic or flexible approach). The PMs current position looks set to leda to potentially even more disastrous outcomes, hard though it would have been to imagine that a few months back. It is often informative to read the foreign press to see how others view our current political antics. I’m off to Canada soon for a brief visit for the College and was particularly struck by an editorial in their Globe and Mail which was full of pithy, if derogatory comments about the current parliamentary mess and its arch purveyor the country’s prime minister (his Special Advisor didn’t get a look-in in this article, although many see Dominic Cummings as the puppet-master behind the scenes). The article says:

Megashambles? Summa cum laude shambles? Tyrannosaurus shambles? The-Chernobyl-reactor-just-exploded-and-the-dosimeter-reads-15,000-roentgen shambles?

Mr. Johnson is the author of 11 books, some admittedly banged out in the careless haste that is his style. But this week, without breaking a sweat, the PM penned the Odyssey and the Iliad of shambles. He faced his first votes in Parliament and lost them; lost his minority government’s governing majority; sacked 21 of his own MPs, including his party’s longest-serving member and Winston Churchill’s grandson; provoked his own brother into resigning from cabinet, citing a conflict between “family loyalty and the national interest”; and lost control of the House of Commons while remaining so offside the chamber’s confidence that it will not yet allow him to resolve the matter by calling an election. Mr. Johnson did all that, and more, in the space of two days.

(One of those eleven books I actually possess: the one about Winston Churchill based extensively on his papers in Churchill College’s Archives and substantially compiled for Boris Johnson by his research assistant Warren Dockter. I’ve even read it but did not fall for the line that Johnson is a latter-day Churchill, despite it being implied throughout the book by Johnson. Somehow, I now seem to have mislaid that book….)

Nevertheless, whatever you may think about those particular red lines of May’s, let alone dying in ditches, there is no doubt that personally I have sometimes approached difficult meetings with mental red lines in place. I was reminded of this when talking to a younger colleague recently who could see such a meeting speeding towards them (nothing to do with Brexit I should add). Being not that much younger than me, with plenty of managerial/leadership experience, I was surprised that they did not seem to think in these terms. I know when I worked out the importance of creating clear no-go lines before a meeting started rather than on the hoof I felt much more in control.

Even so, I was myself late to the realisation that planning in advance for challenging situations can only be helpful. It is too easy, in my experience, just to think ‘this is going to be dreadful’ allowing panic to filter in rather than organised thought. And panic does tend to bring on absolutely everything you fear because it drives out clear thinking. ‘This is going to be dreadful’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if you would like to think you are merely preparing for the worst. So, the day I went into a tricky meeting about resources around the turn of the century, armed with a bottle of water (to prevent my lips sticking together and my mouth feeling like sand) and some red lines, I felt I came out in better shape and with a better outcome than my experience up till that point might have led me to expect given the other protagonists involved. I emerged with my dignity intact and without being made to concede ground (in this case literal ground, i.e. space – isn’t space always one of the inevitable battle grounds in university life?) beyond what I had known from the outset I would have to give up. I had laid down some conditions of my own which had, apparently, been accepted and I felt I had more confidence in my negotiating abilities than at any point previously in my life.

Unfortunately, although I won that battle ultimately I suspect I lost the war, not least because the convenor of that meeting decided to send an email around widely shortly afterwards which did not entirely reflect what had been agreed. A second lesson to learn there; make sure notes are taken and agreed at the time. In many situations that is a strategy to bear in mind, so that there can be no ambiguity about what decisions have and have not been made. For younger readers note I may be, now, the Master of a Cambridge College but I doubt many of my colleagues would have given good odds on me achieving that accolade at the time of that meeting 15 or more years ago.

I guess, political diatribe apart, my aim in writing this down is twofold. First to pass on the tip – that no one had ever thought to mention to me, however obvious it may be to those born with (too much?) confidence or schooled earlier in tactics rather than pure science – know what you are willing to concede and what is too important to give up without at least some extremely firm resistance and counter-offers. Secondly, not just to those of mature years but those setting out, remember that experience counts for a lot. Many of those at the top of their game are not – unlike former Bullingdon Club members – born with a sense of privilege or an expectation that everything and everyone will bow down in front of them. Remember that senior leaders are not necessarily born with Leader engraved on their foreheads, but have had to learn the hard way what works and what does not, given their own personalities, strengths and quirks. We are all different and our strategies for survival and achieving positive outcomes will also differ. Learning on the job is crucial, reflecting on failed strategies is at least as much, if not more important, than simply thinking about success stories.

So, next time you can see a tricky meeting looming – be it with your supervisor, your head of department or even a grant-funding agency – consider what your red lines are. What is so fundamentally important to you that you would walk away from any agreement in preference to conceding this one issue? What could be a sacrificial pawn? And what are you willing to do to meet in the middle of some disagreement? Don’t be too rigid, but do be prepared.


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2 Responses to Red Lines Don’t Need to be Political


    Excellent perspective.

  2. Gabriel Cavalli says:

    Great guidance. I would disagree on how others would have viewed you and your career 15 years or longer ago, though. Certainly not those of us in the polymer community and outside Cambridge.

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