On Leadership & Morale

Moaning. The rule inside Systematic Innovation HQ is this. Anyone is allowed to take a minute to moan about any topic they like. Beyond that minute, unless you’re doing something to fix the source of the moan, your job is to shut-up. Often, the moaning focuses around the difficulties of getting books shipped to the EU. Or ‘who stole the damn parcel tape?’ Or ‘why does the volume always go up when there’s a Swans CD in the player?’ Brexit-related problems aside, these sorts of moan usually get fixed. We’ve also had quite a long phase of moaning about the depressing state of British politics. That’s probably where the one-minute rule came from. Short of a Cromwell-like insurrection, there’s not an awful lot we can do to get our global-laughing-stock, uber-liar Prime Minister out of office. Unless you count collective willpower. Which is probably going to require a few million wills as opposed to the SI collective.

Some encouragement on this front, however, appeared in the news today, when we saw a few thousand of what ought to have been Clown—Boy’s biggest (Royalist) fans roundly booing him as he walked into Day Two of the Jubilee celebrations. All power to them.

Meanwhile, I haven’t been able to get the self-appointed King Of The World’s car-crash interview with Mumsnet out of my mind since it came to light on Tuesday. I imagine he agree to the interview because, unlike most other pockets of the British media, on the face of it, talking to Mumsnet probably sounded like an easy gig. The first you-are-a-proven-habitual-liar question swiftly let him know that this wasn’t going to be the case. That he chose to try and answer it by justifying his crass PartyGate behaviour was probably telling in its own right. As was the moment, later in the interview when he was asked about what books he liked reading to his latest offspring at night, where he swiftly dug himself into another hole that not only re-confirmed he was a liar, but also showed that he was a shit dad too.

Here’s what he said about why it was okay for him to be holding parties in Downing Street when the rest of the country was under lockdown and people couldn’t visit dying relatives in hospital: “We had to keep morale high. Everybody was working blindingly hard… what I thought I was doing was simply doing what is right for a leader in any circumstances and that’s to thank people for their service. If you don’t do that people feel under-appreciated.”

Putting aside the fact that the majority of the parties seemed to start around mid-afternoon and therefore didn’t seem to suggest the kind of ‘blindingly hard’ work that I’ve ever had the privilege to experience, the response seemed to me to reveal not just some rather half-baked thinking, but also, like the Mumsnet reading-to-the-kid gaff, that if that’s what he really thinks being a good leader is about, he’s also a shit boss.

Here’s my logic. Which, these days, typically begins with some kind of 2×2 matrix. This one is based on what I think are the two main dimensions that will determine staff morale:

The first dimension relates to the level of meaning contained in the work that people are tasked with doing. The latest Gartner survey on staff engagement, published earlier this year, reveals an all time low 13% of the global workforce are engaged in their work. The other 87% (87%!) being either passively or actively dis-engaged. My suspicion is that the reducing engagement trend is causally linked to the reduction in meaningful work being given to employees. Now, in theory, out of all the jobs in the world, the one that at the top of the meaningful work league table, ought to belong to a civil servant working in Downing Street. If that were the case, I think it would be safe to say that the morale of those people would almost inherently be as high as it could possibly be. Everyone wants to make a positive difference in the world, and how could you not make a difference working at the literal epicentre of national government? The implication of Clown-Boy’s morale-building parties was that people in Downing Street are not doing meaningful work.

Before I get too depressed about that thought, I need to look at the second dimension on the matrix. This one talks about the effect of leadership on morale. My thinking in this situation starts with one of the most frequently used aphorisms I hear when I get to talk to people that have moved or are thinking about moving to a new employer: ‘people don’t leave jobs, they leave arseholes.’ A boss with poor (EQ) leadership skills, in other words, could be another reason why morale among staff might be low. We’ll try and forget for a second that a majority of the lockdown parties Johnson threw were leaving parties.

The question is which quadrant of the Meaning/Leadership matrix the Downing Street civil servants and their tousle-haired narcissist leader sit? My answer to that question stems from experiences working with myriad different leaders over the course of the last 25 years. This experience firmly indicates that any leader that believes getting a suitcase of Prosecco in to the office to improve morale is the sort of leader that is a) someone who wouldn’t know meaningful work if it hit him over the head with a baseball bat, and b) was an archetypal snake-in-suit sociopath. Britain’s current Prime Minister – a man that, lest we forget, has spent the last two years saving his job and the Conservative Party while letting the rest of the country descends into chaos – thus sits in the bottom-left corner of the matrix. Which, by my reckoning, puts him in the same category as the Emperor Nero. Or David Brent. Or, if you’re a little older, Major Frank Burns from M*A*S*H. Either way, I find myself thinking about collective willpower again. And what I’m going to do now my minute is up.