Talking Leadership in Toronto

I’ve recently been in North America meeting up with Churchill College alumni, flying into New York City and out from Toronto, with a delightful flight with gorgeous views over New England in between. It was rather exhausting but was also something of a trip down memory lane, initially triggered by a nasty incident. A few days before travelling I had had my wallet stolen in Cambridge, pickpocketed, and although this became clear very quickly so all my cards could be stopped, it meant significant worry and inconvenience. In fact the replacement cards came fast enough that I was able to travel abroad with them (taking piles of cash feels so old-fashioned, although I got myself prepared courtesy of my husband’s visits to holes-in-walls), but it reminded me of what happened when I went to the USA for the first time.

Immediately after the end of my PhD and accompanying viva, in early October 1977, I was due to travel to Cornell (in Ithaca, NY) to take up a post-doc position, my husband already having travelled earlier to start his course. It was the time of ‘standby’ flights across the Atlantic, the idea being that if you turned up early enough in the day you could purchase any empty seats on major transatlantic airlines. I dutifully turned up at crack of dawn and got a seat at my first attempt (I think I even managed to buy a ticket for a connecting flight on to Ithaca). Having a lot of time to kill before the flight I set off to buy a cup of coffee, managing to leave my purse behind in the café. My final phone call to my mother for many months was therefore ‘please tell the police’, so I could claim on my insurance. My finances, my state of mind not to mention my ‘status’ as it were, were very different upon arrival this time at JFK compared with that previous trip! The timid and impoverished postdoc who turned up that first time could never have imagined that 40+ years on I would return, essentially also wallet-less but otherwise a totally different person.

One of the events I did for Cambridge University alumni was with Churchill alumnus Bruce Simpson, a Senior Partner at McKinsey, in Toronto. Together we talked about leadership. Bruce discussed leadership in the present day, while I could steal lots of appropriate quotes from papers held in the Churchill Archives when talking about the very different styles of leadership of Winston Churchill and Maggie Thatcher, including their attitudes towards science. In this vein it has always struck me, however bad Churchill may have been at maths at school and lacking any formal science training, through his friendship with HG Wells he developed far more interest and curiosity in science than really comes across in Thatcher’s actions, despite her degree in chemistry.

Churchill had a child-like curiosity towards inventions, whereas Thatcher’s attitude seems to have been far more utilitarian. Jon Agar’s recent book Science Policy under Thatcher spells this out in depressing detail. In Thatcher’s view scientists needed constant scrutiny, a view which in turn led to the introduction in 1986 of the (much lighter touch) predecessor of the Research Excellence Framework. Churchill, on the other hand, was prepared to commit huge sums of money to the uncertain end of nuclear weapons through the so-called Tube Alloys project, work that later crucially underpinned the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb. Whereas Thatcher expected to be fully engaged in decisions about scientific policy, dispensing with or ignoring the chief scientific advisor for much of her premiership, Churchill just wanted to be kept informed and involved by his close friend Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), despite the latter being such a contrasting personality in his approach to food and drink.

Nevertheless Thatcher’s scientific background stood her in good stead when it came to some of the big scientific issues of her day: the first signs of climate change and AIDS/HIV. On the former she spoke passionately at the UN in 1989.

“It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.

What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate—all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.”

Ronald Reagan at the time would not have uttered those words, and it is perhaps even harder to imagine the current President echoing them, even over Twitter.

Both Bruce and I referred to the gender angle in leadership. He referred to a recent Harvard Business Review article discussing the skills women possess when it comes to leadership, an article I had read when it first appeared this summer. Surveys of corporate America using so-called 360o techniques have showed that women most certainly are viewed as possessing the necessary attributes to succeed. Indeed on many fronts they out-perform their male colleagues, according to the evidence. But there are still only a tiny number of senior female leaders in Corporate America. As the article says

“Leaders need to take a hard look at what gets in the way of promoting women in their organizations. Clearly, the unconscious bias that women don’t belong in senior level positions plays a big role.”

It isn’t that women aren’t competent; it is that too often they aren’t believed to be competent.

I faced this myself years back when told kindly to my face by an older male faculty member that ‘it would be my turn next’ to be head of department, despite the fact that I was older both in years and seniority (if you call possessing an FRS as I did at the time ‘seniority’) than the other – needless to say male – contender. He got the job. He was, I hasten to say, a very good head of department, but that completely biased statement based on very little (it was not a faculty member I’d ever worked with or knew more than distantly) rankled then and rankles now. It is anecdote not data but I internalised it as how, in the absence of other evidence, gender trumps facts.

Yet, the evidence is constantly building up that diversity in an organisation’s senior leadership really matters in achieving successful outcomes. A study from 2018 showed this clearly when considering profits (not, of course, the only important outcome), but to be effective it does require diversity to be broadly defined not just in terms of gender, but also including ethnicity, education and socioeconomic background. If we are to get the best leaders we must not just look for clones of past CEOs. Interestingly, the colleges in Cambridge are now essentially equally split between male and female heads for the first time this coming October, with several powerful new (external) heads joining colleges old and new.

Leadership is a tricky beast. Many of us (certainly when it comes to heads of colleges) learn on the job rather than through the formal training of an MBA or equivalent. Our present-day politicians likewise seem to be making it up as they go along. Watching them is not edifying. Whatever one may feel about Churchill and Thatcher and their policies it is hard not to think they made a better fist of leadership than the current bunch.



This entry was posted in Equality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.