Dissent At The Top Is Not Disloyalty
Two stories in the British media this week reflect the importance of healthy dissent in the process of leadership.
This week, the Chilcot Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain's entry into the Iraq war featured testimony from several key ministers in the Blair cabinet.
Among them, certainly the most outspoken, was former international development secretary Clare Short.
As I watched part of her testimony, it seemed to me that Ms Short is a person who would find team-work difficult at the best of times, a truly independent spirit who is determined to strike out on her own in most situations. She cannot have been easy to work with in a cabinet arrangement.
That said, her testimony revealed that in the lead up to the war any degree of dissent was unwelcome at the highest level of government.
This, of course, may be understandable once the nation had committed itself. But a culture discouraging dissent apparently continued even while Mr. Blair and others were telling the nation that no firm decisions had yet been made, that open debate was ongoing at the highest levels of government.
On another front, Sir Thomas Legg this week released his long-awaited review into MPs expenses.
He was critical not only of MPs but of the fees authority which failed to challenge expense claims, preferring as he put it to show deference to MPs rather than calling them to account for suspect claims.
It is a fundamental tenet of leadership that dissent is not the same as disloyalty.
In any enterprise, a healthy team culture will be open to voices of disagreement, provided they are motivated not by a desire to destroy or demean but to improve the overall game-plan.
It is always more comfortable for a busy leader, whose time and talents are often stretched to the limit, to hear subordinates and colleagues say 'yes' to his/her wishes and get on with the job. Yet at times a 'no' is healthier, both for the leader and for the organisation - or nation.
When it comes to innovation, resistance is inevitable - people dislike change - but the finest ideas are only strengthened when challenged.
Apparently, this is a principle the scientific community should take on board, too, especially in its efforts to garner public support to tackle climate change.
It was a fear of dissent that led certain key advocates and researchers to hype or shade statistics or projections in favour of their argument.
In the end, they have succeeded only in breeding a sense of public unease, a suspicion that if spin can be used to help justify a war, it can also be employed to sell the ideas like human-sourced global warming.
In all spheres of leadership, including business, politics and science, there comes a time for declaring the way forward, articulating the vision and marking out the strategy for the future.
But if leaders expect their people to feel a sense of ownership of and loyalty to decisions taken, they must allow people into the decision-making process. Some of leadership is, of necessity, top-down, unilateral and fast-moving, but much of it is middle-up, based on consensus and more deliberative.
Even where unilateral decisions must be made, leaders help themselves when they explain their thinking, openly, honestly and as quickly as possible after the event.
Aligned with the ability to handle dissent is a willingness to take responsibility for the failure of decisions taken.
A graph featured in The Times more than a year ago tracked the number of incidences of certain key words in its news and editorials from 1985 to the present.
Predictably, one of the most oft-used words in that time was 'terrorism' which showed a sharp peak in 2001.
The line on the graph that I found most interesting, though, was the one representing the word 'sorry' as spoken by public figures. It followed a sharp and steady incline.
As politics becomes more personality-driven, it seems people want their leaders to take responsibility and to show that they take seriously the idea of accountability.
The ability to handle dissent, integrating opposing views, along with a solemn commitment to accountability is especially vital with decisions which will have a national or global impact.
In a world of rapid change and technology that makes the global local, we need leaders who will allow and even encourage healthy dissent; where the disagreement is based not on an anarchistic drive to destroy people in power, but a sincere desire to move society forward in a positive direction.
Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2010.
Keywords: politics | clare short | tony blair | chilcot | mps expenses | legg
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