“Leadership is an action, not a position.”
Donald McGannon – USA television broadcasting pioneer
Last month there was a horrific fire that killed over 80 people in a high-rise building in London. The British Prime Minister Theresa May took 3 days for her to visit the survivors. Her handling of the situation drew a storm of criticism.
She could not have influenced the management of the crisis.
Surely visiting the site of the fire was an empty gesture as she could not influence the outcome. Perhaps she should be spending her valuable time running the country?
However, her actions or lack of action, depending on your view, raises the important question of leadership.
Should Mrs May have visited the site and met with the survivors earlier?
The answer is ‘YES” because that’s what prime ministers do. Gestures are important and her responsibility as a leader is to convey to the country her appreciation of the gravity of the event, how the nation feels and how everyone respects the sorrow the survivors and those who have lost loved ones.
Is leadership an art?
Leaders are not bureaucrats. Mrs May is not the head bureaucrat. She is a political leader and is expected to display leadership in both the good times and times of adversity. Policy is easy, but leadership is hard. It requires judgement.
By comparison one of her predecessors, Sir Winston Churchill was a leader. During World War II, against what seemed insurmountable odds, he gave strength and purpose to the stand against the evils of Nazi Germany. He painted a picture. This evil had to be destroyed and despite the odds, Britain survived. Furthermore, this was reinforced by his actions in visiting bombed sites in London, speaking to survivors, and visiting troops as far away as North Africa.
Remember the BP Horizon Deepwater oil spill in 2010 where 11 workers were killed in a horrific explosion?
The spill was the worst oil spill in USA history, disrupting commerce, peoples’ livelihoods as well as causing massive environmental damage. The CEO of BP, Tony Haywood stated during the disaster “we’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” He even participated in a boat race in a boat he co-owned whilst the oil spill continued. Haywood was replaced as CEO within 6 months of the tragedy. This would seem to be punishment for his appalling judgement and leadership.
The former Victorian Chief Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon who in Black Saturday Bushfires where 173 people died, left the operations centre and went to dinner with friends after she was told of the likelihood of bushfire deaths.
She stated “Whether or not me being there or not would have made any difference to the fires is a whole other issue.”
This statement, like Tony Hayward’s misses the essence of being a good leader.
A leader understands what is necessary. Churchill was seen to be leading. May, Hayward and Nixon’s leadership showed through their actions they did not understand “what is necessary”. Leadership is an art and although many gestures politicians make may be insincere, gestures such as being seen at disasters are what is expected. This is no different to leaders at work or in community organisations.
Gestures are as important as the leadership characteristics of leading by example (https://5-dimensionz.com.au/2013/05/28/leadership-v-management/), communicating your vision to others and having a sense of direction. The wrong gestures can destroy the standing of a leader in the eyes of their team or the public.
As a leader, do you understand that gestures and to be seen doing the right thing is a vital trait of being a successful leader?