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What can we learn from Theresa May’s Leadership style?

Stuart Duff

As Theresa May exits number 10 for the last time as Britain’s second female prime minister, the keys to the door will be handed over to the next leader of the Conservative party – whoever that may be. Contributor Stuart Duff, Head of Development – Pearn Kandola.

As Prime Minister, Theresa May has faced perhaps the most complex political challenge since the second World War. Her premiership has undeniably been overshadowed by Brexit’s endless disagreements and has received a mixed response from commentators. But what can we learn from the way she has led the country for almost three years? What lessons are leaders able to take away?

Resilient, Robust and Rigid
We can categorise May’s entire leadership into three consecutive personality traits; resilience, robustness and rigidity. In the early phase of her leadership, she could be described as resilient; she seemed open to advice and consultation from her colleagues and aides, she was clear on the outcomes that she wanted to achieve but also open to alternative suggestions and to learning. She was willing to listen and face up to her critics. This was in many ways a promising start and a number of commentators highlighted, in particular, May’s resilience in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Resilience is a vital characteristic for leaders of any kind and one that can be maintained simply. By having an awareness of the impact that a setback may have, broadening and deepening their understanding and taking decisive action, leaders are in strong positions to deliver what they have promised and bounce back from defeat.

As she met increased resistance though, May become more robust in attitude and behaviour. She pushed away advisers as her desire was placed firmly on delivering what she had promised to the British people; leaving the European Union. Her growing unwillingness to consult anyone across the spectrum demonstrated that her view on leaving was firmly set, and this cemented the two incredibly polarised groups; remain and leave. Being robust underlines a personal determination to achieve an outcome, but will also increase resistance to cooperation, collaboration and support.

In the final phase of her leadership, May displayed rigidity. Instead of being flexible, she became even more determined and repetitive, as demonstrated by her multiple attempts to win over the House of Commons with effectively the same Brexit deal. Her seeming unwillingness to continue to negotiate the deal she had achieved with the EU, even when faced with huge objections from within her party, illustrated an inability or aversion to change tack and be flexible.

May’s single-minded approach appeared to be heavily ingrained in her mindset, so it’s important to look at its origins. May is a very private and introverted person; her leadership style was always underpinned by her need for clarity. Her decision-making suggests that sees the world in black and white, and right or wrong. She needed a clear way forward and plan of action which she believed and totally backed, without room for deviation on any scale.

There are many advantages to having a clear, focused and structured outlook, but there are disadvantages for any leader in having a fixed mindset. In May’s case, she was often described as showing a lack of empathy and appeared disconnected when faced with humanitarian issues such as the Grenfell Tower disaster or the Windrush scandal. This perceived lack of compassion could be explained by many things, but a need for structure, rigidity and tenacity are the most likely cause. Whilst it would be unfair to suggest she lacks any compassion for her fellow citizens, her set principles make it almost impossible for her to change her narrow view that what she has chosen, and the actions she has carried out are right.

Arguably, May’s biggest mistake during her time as Prime Minister was her failure to listen, a trait that all leaders need to demonstrate competently. Resigning cabinet ministers, of which she faced more than any of her 5 predecessors, often cited May’s inability to listen and compromise as key reasons behind their departures in cabinet.

As a leader, the ability to ‘actively’ listen improves mutual understanding and is vital for effective communication. It encourages people to be open with their opinions, avoids misunderstandings, resolves conflict and builds trust. The high turnover of ministers brings us back to May’s rigidity. She was unwilling to venture away from her set path, even at the cost of potentially embarrassing and very public resignations.

The three traits – resilience, robustness and rigidity – aren’t unique to Theresa May. In times of uncertainty, not dissimilar to the situation that May found herself in, it’s important that all leaders are able to manage difficult conversations or even difficult colleagues. They need to remain resilient instead of becoming rigid; to be able to build and maintain trust and influence in a wide range of uncertain situations.

Ultimately, May’s resignation was a last resort. She had exhausted every possibility of achieving the Brexit deal she had negotiated, and her rigidity has resulted in the deadlocked position that parliament finds itself in. The emotional exhaustion was apparent, and we saw just how much doing what she believed was the right thing mattered to her.

What’s next?
The ten nominations for next party leader, and ultimately Prime Minister, are a varied bag of characters and personalities in comparison to the reserved and guarded May. The candidates have all watched May struggle to lead the country, with a notoriously complex mandate, through some of the most politically uncertain times of the last 100 years. But will her successor have learnt from her mistakes? How should the next Prime Minister, whoever it may be, act to ensure a smoother and more successful tenure?  What traits should a business leader be nurturing to ensure they lead a successful team?

The successful leader must be able to communicate openly, be it to their team or customers, or in politics; to their own party, the opposition and the general public with clear, concise and easily understood messages. They will need to be flexible and open to change and be able to realise quickly when things aren’t working. Unlike May, they need to be able to view the world in more than just black or white; the ambiguous grey in-between needs to be acknowledged. Finally, they should learn from May’s struggles with empathy, and recognise that being able to see and respect the perspective of others is crucial.

May’s inability to reconnect with her initial resilience and flexibility – dynamic and healthy leadership traits which allow for learning – meant she became more and more rigid. She continued to carry on when her chosen path was clearly no longer working, because she was fundamentally unable to change her mind, or her style. Theresa May became Prime Minister at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and ambiguity. Time will tell whether her successor will bring a progressive and energetic leadership to the Conservative Party and to Number 10.

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