Britain is about to get a new boss, again. Next week either Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, or Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, will become the country’s fourth new prime minister in 12 years. This rate of turnover is what you might expect to see at a troubled business, or in other, supposedly less stable countries.
Whoever takes over will be facing a daunting list of challenges. The traditional new leader timeframe of “the first 100 days” feels like a leisurely deadline in these circumstances. Truss, who is the favourite to win, seems unconcerned. In the summer she declared: “I’m ready to deliver as prime minister on day one.” Whatever else she may have to deal with, a lack of confidence is not going to be a problem.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University’s graduate school of business, has set out in his latest book 7 Rules of Power the steps that are needed to forge a path to the top.
He advises the ambitious to “get out of your own way”—that is, speak with confidence and do not undersell yourself; “break the rules”—do the unexpected; “show up in powerful fashion”—with conscious body language and actual language; “create a powerful brand”; “network relentlessly”; “use your power”—do not be afraid to wield power once you have it; and finally to remember that “success excuses (almost) everything”—the powerful attract and retain support.
By these measures Truss has performed well. But ironically it is Sunak who has an MBA from Stanford. Does Pfeffer remember him at all? “No… no,” he tells me. But in fairness, he has been teaching students there since 1979. That is a lot of names and faces to remember.
Certainly, candidate Truss displays no squeamishness about the prospect of wielding power. A former cabinet minister told the Guardian: “She is wherever the power is, which I find extraordinary… But on the other hand, those people tend to win.”
There are some familiar traps to fall into for people who take on a new leadership role. Colleagues who used to be candid and friendly may become more guarded and distant, editing their views. At the same time, the new boss’s previously unremarkable (or worse) attempts at humour may suddenly be met with displays of hilarity. There will be flattery and fake enthusiasm, perhaps a lot of it. Just because these hazards are well-known does not mean that human beings under pressure will avoid them.
So how should new leaders approach their task? And what is needed in today’s volatile circumstances? “A big mistake leaders can make when they are promoted is that they still think they are doing their old job,” says Charlene Li, chief research officer at PA Consulting. “You were promoted because you were really good at your old job. This is a new job. It’s extremely important to establish what’s required now.”
Her firm has just published “A new way to lead,” a report based on a survey of 300 corporate leaders around the world. They found a split between those leaders whom they label “survivors,” just under half of their respondents, who are mainly focused on reducing costs, and “revivers,” 56 per cent of respondents, who are looking to invest in growth and innovation.
“Revivers see disruption as an opportunity,” Li says. “They run towards it. Fundamentally leaders create change,” she adds. “The leaders who get promoted are very often revivers. Except in risk averse firms, you don’t get promoted for being a survivor.” (Truss sees herself as a disruptor and quite possibly a reviver, too.)
Li says that what is needed is “realistic optimism”: leaders who are optimistic about what the future could look like, but who are also realistic about the situation today.
If, as most Westminster observers expect, Truss wins the Tory leadership contest, we can expect her to “prioritise” and attempt to “strip away the crap,” a close colleague told the FT.
But crap happens. An earlier Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once said that what troubled him most was “the opposition of events” (a remark which, over time, has been rephrased inaccurately as “events, dear boy, events”).
This is also something that leaders cannot duck. Whoever the new prime minister is, he or she is in for an eventful time.
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