by Stefan Stern
One industry that seems likely to be recession-proof is the one that is constantly coming up with new management fads and theories about leadership. The production line of gurus with books to sell and lecture halls to fill never sleeps. With a Twitter feed and a Facebook page we can all be experts now. This may or may not represent progress.
Leadership provokes more guru-fuelled debate than any other topic. The subject is discussed not merely on the business pages, but in the sports sections and of course in political coverage. You are about to get a few more paragraphs on the subject here (leave quietly if you’ve already heard enough). Because it is David Cameron’s particular brand – pun intended – of leadership that lies at the heart of the continuing “big society” debate. The idea will sink or swim thanks to the Cameron approach. That is why I think it is already sinking, if it isn’t quite sunk, yet.
In spite of his first class degree from Oxford, David Cameron does not give the impression of being someone who wants to be detained for very long by serious argument. He knows what he thinks, is happy in his beliefs, and does not see the need to dwell on them for very long. Initially, his laid-back, hands-off chairmanship of government was praised for bringing relief from the technocratic excesses of New Labour. He has come unstuck very fast as the troublesome business of government has turned out to require greater attention to detail than he thought would be necessary.
Having chosen to pursue an aggressive, even extreme, policy of cuts, the prime minister has needed an alternative and more uplifting story to tell about his government. The “big society” is it. Superficially it sounds appealing. After all, few would argue in favour of a “small society”. Who is against volunteering in principle – if people have the time and energy and can afford to volunteer? Cameron gives us his best sunny face and asks: “Wouldn’t it be nice if everything were nice”? To which, I suppose, the answer is: “Well, yes, it would”.
But now we come to the leadership problem. Cameron claims the “big society” is his “duty”, his “mission”. But it’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that his mission was accomplished on Tuesday May 11 last year, when he made that self-consciously slow walk up to the door of No. 10 Downing Street to begin his term as prime minister. He had won first prize in the great game. The fun was about to begin.
Leaders with genuine missions are uneasy, not sunny, at least for extended periods. They are restless and relentless. They have profound beliefs which they are prepared to fight for. And when faced with opposition they argue, they knock heads together, they fight on.
But David Cameron is not offering this sort of leadership on his “mission” to build a “big society”. He is offering charisma, and glib, windy speeches, and photo opportunities. It is a synthetic, 2011 version of what he and his advisers think leadership should look like on the evening news. It dooms the “big society” – whatever you think of it – to failure.
Compare and contrast the efforts to launch the national health service in the post-war years. Then, the country was in far worse economic shape than it is today, exhausted and pulverised. Nye Bevan faced vicious, aggressive opposition, including from a Conservative party that was prepared to vote against the founding of the NHS again and again. The professionals (many of them, anyway) were against him, and only acquiesced once their mouths had been “stuffed with gold”, as Bevan put it.
Bevan, and Labour, fought on, and the NHS remains today, at its best, the embodiment of what a real “big society” should look like. Will we see sustained effort from prime minister Cameron, beyond the photo opps and the small rooms full of vetted supporters, to fight for his “mission”, his “duty”? Or will there be instead a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, as the PM swallows the evidence of opinion polls and writes off this venture as a blunder and a vote loser?
You can’t bring about big and difficult change with soundbites and a charisma that is merely skin deep. People have to remember (and believe in) what the cause is all about once the speaker has left the room. There has to be something underneath the gloss worth fighting for. And there has to be more to the leader than a cheerful manner, a winning tone of voice, and an easy, born-to-rule confidence.
Stefan Stern was the FT’s management columnist 2006 – 2010