Leadership and “principles”

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others.” – Groucho Marx

As leadership goes, we are at an interesting juncture regarding principles.

The literature on principled leadership suggests that the principled leader operates from a set of philosophies and values that shape her/ his behaviours that make them trustworthy in the eyes of those they lead.

But casting an eye upon some of the leaders in the news leaves me scratching my head.

Arch Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK is, at the time of writing, resisting his party’s calls to oppose Brexit. Because, well, principles. Never mind, Labour may lose the next election if he continues to be immovable on his position. But he is steadfast in his principles.

There is also Theresa “daughter of a vicar, granddaughter of a soldier” May, whose divine sense of duty is scaring many of us witless as she leads the charge of going over the cliff. Can’t say she is not committed to the principle of respecting the people’s will (which seems to be turning but never mind that, it appears this lady, too, is not for turning!)

Over in the USA, the shutdown is rolling into its third week and their leader is insisting on a wall, which was reportedly just a shorthand for immigration stances and is now boxing him in. Because, well, election promise translated into a snazzy soundbite is now an unbendable principle. While furloughed workers share their #shutdownstories, TSA agents start calling in sick, airlines pilots outline the dangers of flying during the shutdown, the supreme leader refuses to budge.

All of these leaders have been elected into their positions (I do not intend to write a treatise on democracy since we cannot only like democracy when we like the outcome).

When does steadfast “adherence to principles” turn “principled leaders” into fingers-in-the-ears na-na-na-na-not-listening cut-your-face-to-spite-your-nose stubborn hot messes?

The idea that if any of these were a CEO of a business, she/he would have long been fired too is wishful thinking. Boards do not act till things come to a head (case in point – Uber) and activist shareholders are a relatively new phenomenon. While financial performance is often believed to be the key reason why CEOs get fired, it is mismanaging change that is often the actual top reason for CEO firings. On its heels follows “ignoring customers. The leaders’ principles no doubt shape their behaviours and choices. None of the leaders I mention is doing a great job of managing the change they seem to be leading.

The crucial factor here is the leader’s accountability, whether in politics or in business.

Who is holding the leader accountable?

Through what mechanism?

How frequent is the check-in and how is it reported?

What actions are taken if the leader refuses to be held accountable or otherwise does not perform on their remit?

And how often do we test the fitness for purpose of both the accountability mechanisms and the agents holding leaders accountable?

While business is already grappling with the need to deliver greater accountability towards the societal context they operate in, politics in liberal democracies is due an overhaul. Including leadership and the mechanisms for their accountability.

Ironically the overhaul will require another wave of leaders with conviction and principles. Surely some revelation is at hand.

While choosing the leaders next, we could do worse than remember Yeats from exactly a century ago, as we choose the nature, the pace and the scope of change we need.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The “best” need to do better. Especially in keeping a watchful eye on when operating from principles in choosing behaviours and actions begins to morph into “being principled” as a marker of identity from which behaviours and actions start to flow.