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Theresa May And The Myth Of Hyperleadership

29/05/2017 15:39
Leon Neal via Getty Images

Leadership, leadership, leadership. The British General Election of 2017 has been remarkable for the attempt by some to reduce politics to an individual's qualities as a leader. While the opposition parties have sought to focus on policies, the ruling Conservative Party has chosen to make everything about the head of government.

Their plan rolled into action at the start of the year. Knowing the importance of establishing her name and image as a "leader," in January Theresa May scrambled to Washington to be the first foreign politician to stand at the White House with President Donald Trump. Her team knew that no matter how badly he was viewed, that pictures alongside the President would confirm her status as a leader. If the President became even more controversial than he had been during the campaign, more people would see that May's ability to talk to him could matter. There would be nothing to lose.

During the campaign, no Conservative politician has appeared in the media without repeating the phrase "strong and stable leadership," and making the case that the election is simply a choice of leader, rather than competing party philosophies, priorities and policy programmes.

The idea that the functioning of a whole nation might depend on the ability of one person to get other people to act, has its roots in the end of the Cold War. Since then, in most counties around the world, we saw the spread of big business into all walks of life. Old organisations were swept aside and international corporations with new management were installed. The existing motivations of staff to work were at risk of decline. While the rise of the knowledge and services economy meant that their motivation would matter more than ever. Companies wanted their staff to believe in their managers. So across the world we were asked to see managers as leaders, and a huge industry of training managers to think of themselves as leaders took off. Staff were no longer expected just to work. Now we were meant to believe.

This process was happening in the workplace but would go on to promote a view of leadership in politics. Managers need to find compromise and gain agreement. Whereas leaders need to be decisive and followed. So the idea of the consensual politician went into decline. The fear that grew after 9/11 meant some people sought reassurance from those in roles of authority. The stresses arising from the financial crisis would only compound that process, especially for those of us not making the connections between recession, austerity and the way the state had been captured by banking interests.

Analysing these trends before the crisis, in 2007 two historians published a warning: "the stage has been set for the resurgence of authoritative leaders offering unambiguous and easily consumable but fundamentally ineffective messages..." they wrote. They predicted more "...leaders who know their own truth, do not tolerate disloyalty, do not bother with argument or evidence and which make decisions guided by their own self-interest."

Though these scholars published their critique as a warning, ten years later it had become a blueprint for Theresa May's premiership. After she left President Trump in Washington the Prime Minister continued with a flight to Turkey to meet the controversial President Erdogan. The news reported they signed a deal for fighter jets. Such deals are actually a matter for corporate lawyers and customs officials, not Prime Ministers. But that wasn't allowed to interfere with telling the story of Theresa May single-handedly leading Britain. If she could fly planes, they would probably report that she piloted the jet to Istanbul.

Over the next months, Theresa May began to see Britain as we rarely do, from above, as she criss-crossed the country in helicopters to land amongst vetted groups of supporters. In February, her two flights to Cumbria in the space of a fortnight indicated that the plan was ramping up a gear. Why let the opposition have advance warning of an election, when you can just say you changed your mind after a walk in the hills?

With the rest of the Conservative Party reduced to "Team May", with the election of 2017 we have begun to witness an era of what I call "hyperleadership," where the only thing said to matter is the individual with the most senior role.

The demise of this idea of hyperleadership is inevitable because it relies on a myth which evaporates once people turn away from the political theatre on their TV screens and discuss the idea. We know that a team doesn't win just because the captain plays well. We know that if any of our workmates kept telling us they were "strong and stable" they would be on their way out at the next restructure.

Given that hyperleadership has its origins in the spread of international business, it is ironic that the latest thinking on business leadership is leaving such myths behind. In the rare moment that the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn talked about his leadership, he said he welcomed dissent to ensure power is held to account, and that for him leadership was about equipping us all with more power. Both of those ideas were explored in the past year in the Harvard Business Review, the world's leading voice on management ideas. And it's the way we teach leadership at the University of Cumbria.

A week out from the election, it is yet to be seen whether this is just a moment or a new era of hyperleadership. Rising against it is a very different notion of collective leadership, where professionals from outside politics are organising to enable people to vote tactically for whoever might beat one of Theresa's team.

On June 9th we will find out to what extent the British public are becoming leaders, or succumbing to them.

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