What happens when your top team doesn’t agree?
Theresa May faces a challenging dilemma – the Government she leads needs to decide on the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow, the preferred option of the Commission appointed to consider the issue. Unfortunately, several of her Cabinet are opposed to it because of the effect it will have on their constituents. In fact, Mrs May’s own constituency association opposes it. What does she do?
There are many people who argue that politics needs more business-style leadership and management. This, after all, is at the core of Donald Trump’s arguments for his election – that, as a successful businessman he can bring his expertise to bear on political decisions. The decision on Heathrow exposes the weaknesses in this argument, however, and this is why.
In a business, a similar decision (making a major investment, or the closure of a plant) may lead to heated debate amongst senior managers but, once a decision has been made, perhaps by a majority vote or simply by CEO diktat (after all, companies aren’t democracies), then managers have to either support the decision or resign – there’s no middle ground. A manager who opposes what has been decided but then stays and continues to oppose it (or to try to delay it) is guilty of misconduct and is liable to be sacked, and not just from the managerial role but from the company. That’s how business works and is quite legitimate. In fact, it is probably unethical to stay with a company whilst opposing what it is doing.
Politics is different. Leaders lead by virtue of the support that they have from the led – the MPs who elect them. (This of course is the problem Jeremy Corbyn is having to deal with; he is not the choice of most of the MPs in his party and so is unable to exert the power that comes from being selected as leader.) MPs may oppose the decision but still argue that they have a right to stay in place – as MPs if not in the cabinet – because it is through their support for the PM that she remains PM. If enough choose not to follow her, she can no longer assert any authority and will lose her position.
It would be wrong to compare these two different states and argue that one is better than the other. They differ because the role of CEO and PM are not equivalents. They have completely different patterns of accountability and derive their leadership position and their power from very different sources. CEOs are accountable to the owners of the business, as represented by the Board of Directors, who appoint them; Prime Ministers are (normally) accountable to the MPs who choose them and, through them, to the electorate. (Again, this is where a Corbyn anomaly arises; as he is elected by the party membership he is directly accountable to them and to them alone. He has no accountability to the electorate at large because their MPs have not selected him. But that’s another issue!)
Politics and business have similarities, but similarities does not mean that they are the same, and leadership in the two is very different. Being successful in business (or the military) does not make someone necessarily able to perform as well in politics. Neither does a successful politician necessarily have the ability to run a business. Once we recognise that we can better make sense of the nature of leadership as a phenomenon, generally.