The weekend’s media was full of the leadership lessons from David Cameron’s performance in last week’s parliamentary debate on Syria. Depending on your political point of view it was either a big disaster with the prime minister holed close to the waterline or an exemplar lesson in boldness, dignity and democracy in action.
The leadership lessons range across failure to do the homework first, for example not waiting for evidence from the weapons inspectors’ report to failing to do the numbers on how many of the ruling party would vote against the government.
There seem to be two significant lessons though. First, accusations that ministerial and Number 10 teams failed to manage the process. Clearly, if you’re going to secure your own way on a big issue then first and foremost you need confidence in the people around you to help galvanise a successful outcome.
Chief executives of any organisation are only as good as the team around them. It can hardly be surprising that ministerial sackings are said to be on the cards. You can fail and survive but it solely depends on the size of the failure. Making your boss look something of a fool on the world stage must count as a big failure.
The second significant lesson is listening. There seemed to be too many people outside government who were urging caution but not many inside government hearing the message. Failing to listen is probably the single biggest weakness of leaders. Too many leaders believe that leadership is about talking and dominating discussion rather than listening to the views of others and − equally importantly − reading the non-verbal messages.
What does this mean for the NHS? Well, analyse the 130-plus inquiries into adverse care over the last 50 years and what’s one of the common themes? That’s right, poor communication − specifically, the failure of leaders, managers, boards, regulators and governments to listen to what they were being told and to read what was happening around them.
As a recent Forbes piece said: “Show me a leader who doesn’t recognise the value of listening to others and I’ll show you a train wreck in the making.”