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Analysing Theresa: Inside the Leadership of Mrs May

03/11/2016 12:19

Our global world is pushing cultures together as never before. Getting under the skin of other cultures is key to success for both business and political leaders.

In his book Cultural DNA, Gurnek Bains, a leading global thinker, presents ground breaking original research and the latest evidence from neuroscience, behavioral genetics, psychology and history to enable people to understand, empathise with and engage people from other cultures in our increasingly connected world.

Bains argues that much previous work in this area has just scratched the surface and he examines the deepest instincts of eight key global cultures to help readers understand the psychological themes at play in regions such as the U.S., Latin America, Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. Evidence from a range of interdisciplinary sources is backed up by insights from an extensive database of 30,000 leaders.

Bains is co-founder and chairman of YSC, one of the world's leading corporate psychology consultancies. YSC has 20 offices around the world and works with 40% of FTSE100 companies, leading U.S. multi-nationals, as well as a host of companies in other regions. He is listed in HR Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People.

With the Government in increasing turmoil following the Brexit vote, I met Gurnek Bains to discuss how applying his framework can help us make sense of the ever-enigmatic Theresa May.

Gurnek, was I alone in thinking that Theresa May's arrival in Downing Street meant stability...a safe pair of hands, if you will?

Not at all. Initially she appeared to bring a much needed Middle-England sense of competence and values to the PM role - a sharp contrast to the free-wheeling, risk taking and somewhat casual style projected by her upper class predecessor. She also showed a strong and sure touch in selecting her cabinet, getting to grips with what the Brexit vote meant, in setting out a One Nation agenda and even in taking control of decisions such as Hinkley Point.

When a leader first assumes office, people are inclined to project all kinds of fantasies on to them. This is particularly so in a crisis - when the natural desire for a heroic figure to save the day leads to a suspension of balanced judgement.

To some extent, Theresa May is still enjoying the glow of this yearning, but the signs of where and how she might struggle are building and they suggest some deep cause for concern.

When did you first start to have concerns about the direction of her leadership?

After strong early signs, she rowed back quickly from her earlier strong stance on immigration, as well as slapping down David Davis when he expressed scepticism about the possibility of staying in the single market. "Brexit means Brexit" turned for a while into "Brexit can mean anything for the moment". But at the Conservative party conference, she has pivoted back to the very same that she slapped David Davis down for merely a few weeks ago.

On Hinkley Point, she has now allowed it to go through with some face saving caveats. But what was the point of alienating the Chinese and setting hares running? Her One Nation instincts seem strong, but how does she square them with her grammar school stance - which threatens to divide children in the country once more into the chosen and those who will just have to make do. And has she thought about how she will get it through the Commons?

What does this tell you about Theresa May as an individual?

Psychologically these steps and her history suggest that Theresa May is a "sensing" individual whose political success has been underpinned by a capacity to read the mood and adjust to it. Sensing individuals are pragmatic, grounded, detail oriented and visually aware. Her modus operandi, as well as dress sense, mirrors these traits. She played her cards well in preparing for and fighting the leadership election, as well as in reading the mood of the country following the Brexit vote.

But when she went to the G20, she read another mood and changed tack on immigration, Brexit and Hinkley Point. Returning to the conference season, her sensing instincts have made her pivot back to what she thinks her party and the country want to see.

But isn't that kind of pragmatism helpful to a political leader?

At one level, such pragmatism is helpful. However, sensing individuals are reactive, suspicious of overarching ideas and rarely create an integrated vision as leaders. Interestingly, May's stint at the Home Office is most notable for her avoiding banana skins, as well as certain clear concrete achievements, rather than an overarching reforming agenda or sense of mission.

What do you make of the inevitable Margaret Thatcher comparisons?

Theresa May is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, but the latter surrounded herself with thinkers and operated with clear philosophical underpinnings. May is reportedly very suspicious of blue-sky theorists and has banished them from her close circle. She is Thatcher in form but less so in substance.

This spells trouble in the PM role, given the pressing need for all offices of State to march to a coherent drumbeat as well as clear sense of Britain's future place in the world. As her plans hit the wall of external reality, expect the lack of deep philosophical clarity to lead to a sea of troubles.

What other inherent factors spell difficulty for Theresa May?

Another clear problematic theme seems to be her liking of drama and a predilection for making bold or controversial decisions. Getting rid of George Osborne, putting Boris Johnston in the Foreign Office and bringing back grammar schools all fit into this camp. Theresa May has form in this regard.

At the Home Office, she seemed to relish reading the riot act to the police, as well as her battles with those opposing her views on a myriad of issues - earning her the reputation of being "difficult". All this suggests that she is both determined, but perhaps also drawn to public displays of bravado. The sense that many of these acts have been chosen - like her shoes - for dramatic impact rather than anything more substantial hangs in the air.

She has also shown an extremely tribal approach to relationships, ruthlessly vanquishing the old guard and surrounding herself with acolytes. This can be an effective step by leaders who have a clear agenda, but in others who lack a unifying sense of purpose, it can just exclude potential allies or suggest insecurity and just plain poor skills in managing difference. Disgruntled murmurings have already started and one wonders how such tribal instincts will play out in a world where she has a razor thin majority? Or when she is required to deal tactfully and thoughtfully with the likes of Nicola Sturgeon or Angela Merkel, who will not be easily bent to her agenda?

If you could advise her on her leadership, what would be the key factors you would focus on?

A crucial dimension when thinking about leaders is the level of control they like to exercise. Already apocryphal stories are circulating in Westminster about May's control freakery and the ghost of Gordon Brown's style once more stalks the corridors of Number 10. A capacity to deal with ambiguity is also critical in today's complex world - something that her clunky style suggests could be somewhat of a challenge. Humour is a powerful signal of a person's intellectual fluidity and this has been singularly lacking in Theresa May's performances to date.

At times when the ambiguity she faces has hit home, May has shown worrying signs of stress and uncertainty. Many of her performances at PMQs following the G20 summit, were less than sure footed - a surprising fact given the ongoing crisis engulfing the Labour party. In times of difficulty, instead of providing clarity of direction, she has often chosen to hide behind process. Late nights and the Sisyphean task of staying on top of everything have also made her often look tired and drawn.

If you could frame your analysis in one paragraph, what are your final thoughts?

Politicians who become PM by accident or circumstance rather than through being opposition leader or winning an election (James Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown) often end up disappointing the nation. Behind the surface confidence and episodic displays of clarity of purpose, the signs are mounting that Theresa May could be the next addition to that list.

Gurnek Bains is founder and chairman of multi-national corporate psychology consultancy YSC. He is the author of business guide Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization (Wylie).

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