Theresa May's leadership under the microscope

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In a day full of drama, the 1922 Committee of the Conservative party voted by 200 to 117 against a no-confidence vote in Theresa May

She survived the vote but Jacob Rees-Mogg described the result as a terrible one for the prime minister, leaving her to lead without the support of her backbenchers.

Frustration with May is perhaps understandable: a cancelled vote in parliament, an attempt to seek changes in Europe despite having previously insisted the deal is in the ‘national interest’, 17 resignations (and counting), and stalled progress with Europe... these are just some of the reasons the vote took place.

But could May’s leadership style also be part of the problem? Ex-secretary of state for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab counselled the PM to "listen and change course”. Even May’s stalwart supporter Amber Rudd has referred to May as “not always forthcoming” about what she wants.

Theresa May’s leadership style

The modern word on leadership is that it should be results- and process-oriented. The Civil Service, for example, has introduced an appraisal system that gives equal weight to the what and how in term of results achieved. With the Brexit deal now set to potentially fall through, the focus should perhaps shift to how May has led the Brexit effort.

She has political stewardship at a time of momentous change. Experts on change management professors Julia Balogun and Veronica Hope-Hailey advise that change only happens when people "change their way of doing business". In several studies at Buckinghamshire New University on leadership, both in industry and in higher education, the clear finding is that people – whether employees or students – are vastly more productive when listened to and engaged. So how inclusive is Theresa May?

Inclusive leader?

Definitions are all-important and our studies created a definition rooted in 15 attributes, derived from transformational and servant leadership. Transformational leadership rests on motivation, intellectual stimulation, individualised consideration and idealised influence. Servant leadership rests on unqualified acceptance, empathy, listening, persuasion, confidence-building, growth, foresight, awareness, conceptualisation, stewardship and healing.The million-dollar question relates to how well Theresa May fares against these attributes.

Putting politics to one side, comparing her leadership track record against these attributes does not paint a picture of resounding success (see table below).

Leadership attribute Example of Theresa May's behaviour in relation to the attribute
Listening Little evidence of change in policy following the departure of 17 government ministers
Inspirational motivation When trying to sell the Brexit deal to the British people MPs perceived May to be going over their heads. MPs felt affronted when invitations to meetings at Downing Street transpired as being with unelected officials rather than ministers
Individualised consideration May frequently refers to the British public as ‘ordinary working people’ and ‘factory workers’
Persuasion Losing the support of 117 MPs suggests a failure here
Empathy Not clear, but there are reports of Cabinet members crying at meetings
Growth The 17 resignations have disrupted careers
Awareness and healing of others May spoke largely with the emergency services, not victims, on a visit to Grenfell Tower

Lessons from business

Does history validate the PM’s somewhat-aloof approach? Richard Greenbury, executive chairman of M&S from 1988 to 1999, achieved the distinction of making the retailer the UK’s first to reach pre-tax profits of more than £1 billion. But his autocratic style left directors unwilling to challenge his views and store managers reluctant to disclose bad news. The honeymoon period peaked at the end of 1998 with a decline in pre-tax profits to £0.14 billion and a drop in the share price from £6.60 in October 1997 to £1.70 in 2000.

What about the track record of inclusive leadership? Colin Marshall, former CEO of British Airways, turned around the fortunes of an ailing British Airways through understanding his staff and customers. He attended 95% of the ‘customer-first’ training programmes and would come into the airport before 7am at the weekend to share a hot drink with frontline staff in the check-in and baggage loading restrooms. Within nine years he had turned a loss of £140 million in 1981 into profits of £434 million in 1992.

Lessons for HR

History and rigorous studies of leadership teach us to move towards a less directive style of leadership. This is challenging but achievable with the help of those British organisations and experts now leading the way. Underpinning this could be 360-degree feedback to allow those at the receiving end of leadership to offer their opinions. HR then needs to listen and act on the findings.

Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Buckinghamshire New University and author of Inclusive Leadership, out April 2019. She also runs workshops for organisations on inclusive leadership

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