Margaret Thatcher said of Lord Young, one of her most loyal ministers: “Others bring me problems, David brings solutions.” That, ultimately, is what every leader wants from their subordinates, be it in government or in business.
No one emerges with much credit from WhatsApp messages between Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson that the former leaked this week, least of all Cummings. In particular, they suggest that, in the midst of a once-in-a-generation crisis, Cummings was apparently in a panic at every turn, furnishing the Prime Minister with just as many problems as solutions – if not more.
Which is bizarre when you think about it. Because Cummings wasn’t just an adviser to Johnson, he also had a leadership role within the Government. Any direct read-across from the private sector to the world of Whitehall will be slightly off; governments just don’t work like businesses. Nevertheless it seems that Cummings inhabited a kind of chief operating officer role at No 10, acting as the boss’s right-hand man and pulling the levers of power. It is also clear, almost from day one, that he was constitutionally unsuited to the task.
Leaders need to keep calm (at least outwardly) in a crisis, however much turmoil they are actually experiencing. The tone of the messages from Cummings, by contrast, suggests the kind of boss who’d add his own screams to the blare of the fire alarm. The old Rudyard Kipling line comes to mind: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…”
“It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position, in my personal opinion,” Cummings told MPs last month. “I’m not smart, I’ve not built great things in the world. It’s just completely crackers.” Modest as that was, such contrition doesn’t seem to be present in his panicky WhatsApp messages to the PM. Nor in the 92-tweet thread he has been adding to over the last few weeks.
Boris Cummings text 3
When it comes to being a good leader, the Kipling adage is still true says Beverley Stone, a chartered business psychologist. “If most of the time your leader is collaborative, mutually respectful, then, in a time of crisis, says ‘Don’t ask me why, just do it’, people will likely do it. But if most of the time your leader is difficult and disrespectful, they won’t. In a time of crisis you can use the trust and good grace you’ve earned.”
Business psychologist Mamta Saha agrees. “Calm, confident leaders inspire calm, confident teams. Headless chickens might get a good result in the short term, but will you build a team that doesn’t also have burnout, mistrust and high turnover? No. You cannot have consistent success like that.”
Looking at his messages, it’s difficult to say who seems more lost in the crisis; the Prime Minister calling his senior ministers “hopeless” and ringing his adviser after midnight, or the adviser, heralded as a genius, who suddenly has no answers. Cummings has explained that he was distracted by a difficult domestic situation at the time, but watching him sprint out of Downing Street at the height of the pandemic did not look like a man in control.
To his fans, the early appeal of Cummings was clear. Much about the British state is stodgy and overly bureaucratic. It is, in business parlance, in need of a turnaround expert. Cummings appears to have considered Whitehall fundamentally unreformable and simply wanted to dynamite the entire edifice and build anew from the smouldering ruins.
One of his former professors at Exeter College, Oxford has described Cummings as “like a Robespierre – someone determined to bring down things that don’t work”. In normal times, having someone going against the grain can bring its own advantage. However, being dogmatic about it and constantly butting heads in the midst of a crisis can be disastrous.
Boris Cummings timelines
Talk to any chief executive and they will say very similar things about the art of leadership. The way to get an organisation pulling together and changing direction is to build consensus, first by listening and then through the relentless communication of your objectives. You also need to empower people to take responsibility for meeting those goals.
This sounds incredibly simple but is actually fiendishly difficult to pull off – especially if the wheels are threatening to come off. It requires people skills and discipline. It seems Cummings didn’t even try. Instead he went to war with half of Whitehall.
Over the past few years, many Civil Service departments, even before the pandemic, had reduced the initiatives they were working on because they didn’t really know what No 10 wanted and lived in perpetual expectation of being vetoed. They weren’t empowered; they were disenfranchised.
Once in charge of running almost everything, Cummings complained about how everything was run. If Whitehall was bad before Dom turned up, it became worse once he was in charge.
He has been described as a “disruptor”, an “eccentric”, a “genius” and a “maverick”. Those can all be good attributes, but not for a leader. Former colleagues paint a picture of someone who would sit in a corner and sulk one minute but perk up the next. He worked hard but very much on his own timetable.
“There is absolutely nothing worse than unpredictability in a leader,” says Stone. “If they don’t know what to expect, people will be cautious to bring anything to your attention or ask for help, because they’re terrified they’ll be told off. Leaders have to be authentic and consistent, so their charges can learn about them, then feel confident they know how they’ll react to good or bad news.”
Saha likens it to a mercurial star footballer who is undoubtedly a talented and essential member of the squad, but also has an attitude problem and throws tantrums. Would you give that player the captaincy? Not in a hurry. Might you drop them for the greater harmony of the team? Possibly. The England cricketer Kevin Pietersen springs to mind.
“You cannot be volatile in leadership,” says Saha. “If you oscillate between calm and unpredictable panic, people won’t know what they’re going to get. They’ll stay in a state of fight or flight. So is he getting the best out of people, or himself even? Probably not.”
Carol Wilson, founder and managing director at Culture at Work, says: “You can be introvert or extrovert, all a good leader has to do is show you’re listening and encourage people.”
Wilson started her career with a young Richard Branson at Virgin. Like Cummings in a pandemic, Branson didn’t know much about the granular detail of some of the issues with which he was confronted, but he surrounded himself with experts, listened, stayed composed, and made informed decisions.
“That’s all leadership is, putting it simply,” says Wilson.
It’s difficult to imagine any of Cummings’ Civil Service charges citing him as their greatest leadership inspiration in years to come. A maverick? Undoubtedly. But a leader who can rise to the occasion and deliver a calm solution in a crisis? That requires a cool head.