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Do Leaders Have a Sell-By Date?


Simon Hollington muses whether all leaders have a “sell-by” date and questions why some choose to hold on to power in the face of opposition.

In the late 19th Century, Lord Acton is reported to have said: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A cursory investigation of those leaders – both in politics and business – who have overstayed their welcome appears to confirm this statement. Tony Blair’s protracted departure in the face of much criticism and calls for him to go started me thinking about whether leaders have a “sell-by date” and Conrad Black’s recent fall from grace caused me to look deeper. So I looked back into the not too distant past to a similar pair – Margaret Thatcher and Robert Maxwell – to see whether there is indeed a leader’s sell-by date and what might have caused them all to cling on past it. What, I wondered, could we learn from them.

On the surface it appears that as time went on they all simply believed two things: that they were right and others were wrong; and that rules and conventions simply didn’t apply to them. But as I delved more deeply I discovered both differences between the politicians and the businessmen, and some similarities. Conrad Black has been convicted of fraud and Robert Maxwell died before charges could be brought against him leaving his sons and associates to carry the can on his behalf. However all four stayed on in the face of much criticism (though Tony Blair did effect a smooth transition of power) and towards the end of their time in power they all seemed to dismiss criticism and seemed incapable of listening to others’ counsel.

It is fair to say that in their respective fields they were virtually unassailable either because of the enormous balance of power in Parliament (both Blair and Thatcher could virtually ignore their backbenchers) or because of the way that they structured and ran their businesses. Perhaps this ‘absolute’ power was the very thing that allowed them to assume that they did not need others.

What, I wonder, was it that caused them to stay on? Was it simply a lust for power or an inability to change with the times; arrogance or simply losing touch? Not everyone loses touch or fails to see the writing on the wall but it is certainly an accusation that commentators have thrown at all of the four. I recall Jim Callaghan (Margaret Thatcher’s predecessor) being asked if it were true that it only took a few weeks to lose touch. “A few days,” he replied with a smile. That perhaps is the first lesson we can learn from these four – how easy it is to lose touch with the reality of the situation at the coalface. Wellington used a team of young officers to ride out to different parts of the battlefield and then returned to report their findings. He called them “directed telescopes” and he used their reports to add to the official ones so that he had a balanced view of the frontline. It was a system that Thatcher, Blair, Maxwell and Black could well have employed.

I maintain that the key personal attributes of leaders are courage, persistence, self-doubt and an ability to listen. Looking at the latter two attributes, it seems to me that this was perhaps where the four failed. Courage is needed to embark on a new enterprise, or introduce new policies or products but also to ‘look closely in the mirror’. Persistence is needed to keep going when times are tough but that must not become obstinacy, and humility is needed to look at all of our actions in the light of experience and changing circumstances. Listening is a rare skill and one that is much more needed than practised!

Neither Blair nor Thatcher really had to worry about backbench opinion. They both demonstrated significant decisiveness with respective US Presidents (Thatcher with George Bush Snr over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and Blair with Clinton over Kosovo – less so with George W Bush perhaps).

Both Thatcher and Blair seem to me to have become so single minded towards the end of their time that they failed to take notice of any criticism. At the 1990 Tory Party conference, Thatcher’s speech (so important when set against significant backbench unrest and an earlier leadership challenge by Sir Anthony Meyer) was a repetition of her drive for more privatisation and law and order. It was seen by commentators at the time to hark back to 1979 and 1983 rather than looking forward to the changing circumstances of the 1990s. Encouraged and perhaps emboldened by cries from her party faithful of “ten more years”, she seemed deaf to the concerns raised by the Poll Tax riots, the internal unrest caused by the ERM and serious Cabinet divisions. Similarly Blair seemed deaf to the Countryside Alliance marches and similar demonstrations against the War in Iraq.

Maxwell and Black showed similar lack of concern for the thoughts of others. They were not, of course, encumbered by the need to seek re-election at any time and both have been described as bullies in their leadership style. Maxwell was quick to use libel laws against anyone who dared to criticise him, and his sons and employees testified to his swift temper and domineering presence. He was happy to use his papers to voice his opinion and he was by all accounts ruthless with people who crossed him. Black seems to have begun to believe his own publicity and his denunciation of prosecutor and jury members alike during his recent trial could not have endeared him to the judge.

So perhaps the second point that we can learn from those who over-stayed their welcome is the importance of listening and perhaps even more so to those who criticise. Shakespeare called them the “naysayers” and they are a group that can add much. Not to listen to the naysayers is to assume that everything you do is right.

In touch
In his book “The Blair Years”, recalling a meeting at The Ritz with Bill Clinton in July 2003, Alastair Campbell recounts how Bill Clinton suggested that Tony Blair had forgotten to keep telling the UK voters and the Parliamentary Labour Party how much they meant to him. Clinton’s point was that Tony Blair had disconnected from them because of his then much heralded international role over Iraq and the Middle East Peace Policy.

Blair had in effect lost sight of some of his stakeholders in much the same way that Thatcher had done over the Poll Tax in 1990. Thatcher never (to my knowledge) appeared to think that she was or could have been wrong while Campbell notes how many times that Blair said: “I know I am right on this.” It is at this stage that leaders have a difficult path to walk. Leaders aren’t paid to make the inevitable happen and at times they will take difficult and unpopular decisions. They will believe that they are right and will press on seemingly regardless of opposition. It is a mark of great leaders that they do so, but they need to be seen to understand others’ positions.

There are two other aspects that leaders can learn from the four; firstly the need to develop a successor, and secondly the need to move style with time and changing circumstance. Isn’t it one of the prime responsibilities of all leaders – to make themselves redundant? A glib throw away suggestion perhaps but it has a serious side. Assuming that leaders want to see some form of sustainability for their enterprises (whether political party or business) then a key aspect is to ensure that that enterprise is capable of surviving after the leader has gone. Thatcher’s successor (John Major) emerged almost by accident (and a need to stop Michael Heseltine), while Maxwell and Black had no number two.Of the four, only Tony Blair had a natural successor though the relationship between him and Gordon Brown has been distinctly rocky at times.

Of the need to change leadership style to meet the demands of the situation and the stakeholders, none of the four seemed to demonstrate that capability.

So reflecting, what can we learn from leaders who pass their sell by date? Firstly the need to listen particularly to naysayers. Secondly the need to connect to what is actually happening at the coalface. Thirdly to connect to different groups of stakeholders and to be able to use a different style to do so, and finally the need to develop a successor – or two. Without these abilities, we will go on seeing leaders who pass their sell by date.

About the author: Simon Hollington is Chairman of Values Based Leadership Ltd, a company that works with organisations from all sectors to create and run development programmes that improve business performance. Further information is available from or by telephoning the company on 0870 609 1129.


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