Opinion: Is everything we think we know about leadership wrong? | News

Opinion: Is everything we think we know about leadership wrong?

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

Sack the board! Just like flare-throwing football fans, that’s what we call for every time something goes badly wrong in housing. But are we right to do so? I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s new book Doom – The Politics of Catastrophe where he asks us to think again. As is his wont, Niall trails far and wide through history for disasters to learn from. 

Here is what he has to say about Grenfell: “…the attempt…to make a Conservative councillor the villain of the piece in England’s Grenfell Tower disaster deserves to fail…the building’s vulnerability was a consequence of overly complex regulation, overlapping jurisdictions, and unclear responsibilities.” Niall’s not hanging about to find out what way the Inquiry goes. Why is that?

He thinks that Grenfell is just another example of how Tolstoy got it spot on in War and Peace. Tolstoy believes Napoleon had no real influence on history. Charging around the battlefields of Europe astride Marengo was neither here nor there. Putting it very simply, the force of events meant that leaders had no more freedom to act than foot soldiers. Perhaps in Niall Ferguson’s house there’s a chess set comprised only of pawns. 

Bringing his theory up to date Niall argues that: “…it is usually a version of Tolstoy’s Napoleon fallacy to attribute a crucial role to a leader in a disaster….the point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organization chart.” 

I will let the Grenfell Inquiry do its work for itself. But is there anything we can take out of Niall’s analysis? Let’s work through it step-by-step. 

One of the plinths of the book is that leaders become incompetent because their progress to the top is too straightforward. That’s why they’re the pawns of history: they cannot conceivably be anything more. 

You hear versions of this accusation quite a lot in housing. It sort of goes like this: how can a housing association possibly go wrong with index-linked rents, government grants, and low-cost loans? Sadly, as we know, it’s not so easy. Some associations run very well and others not at all well. So, I do think ability has a big part to play. For me, the trials and tribulations of running an association are a tough enough obstacle course to produce a cohort of decent leaders. I certainly couldn’t win that race. 

That said, we do need to see a bit more humility from time to time. The people who get to the top may do so in part due to advantages of class, race, and gender. When they reach the summit they can look good because government policy and the economy are going their way. To be fair to Napoleon, he did want lucky generals. Maybe in his heart of hearts he got Tolstoy’s point. 

I think it’s a good idea for leaders to start from the point of view that they’re more likely than not to be at the mercy of events rather than the architect of them. 

S&P Global tell us that the sections of US company annual reports’ covering risk factors have tripled in length since 2006 and now average over 11,000 words. Much the same applies to us. So, there’s a lot to get on top of. Only a fool would think that any leader would have a grip on all of this. 

One lesson we’ve drawn from Grenfell is that we lengthen the odds on disasters happening by listening to residents. They see and hear things before the bosses and can cut through the hype. We should also pay heed to what Niall calls the middle managers. As the Inquiry unfolds it’s clear that some of these people did try to raise important matters but got nowhere. 

Within their organisation leaders should be humble, recognise the limit of their powers, and listen as much as they can. That much is obvious.

But outside the organisation, I’m sorry to say, you’ll get the blame for everything. That’s just the way of the world. So, it’s a case of humility within and dignity without. 

Finally, one piece of evidence suggests Niall Ferguson actually has a point. In his foreword to the White Paper, Boris Johnson talks about how landlords displayed a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards residents when he was a cub reporter 30 years ago. Daniel Hewitt on ITV is saying the exact same thing today. 

Financial and regulatory regimes have come and gone. Yet the song remains the same. What impact are leaders making? Are you content to be a pawn?