Downing Street disasters | The key to avoiding the mistakes of failed leaders

The key to avoiding the mistakes of failed leaders

Updated on Friday 21st October 2022

Headlines will no doubt be rife today with the news that the United Kingdom will soon see its third Prime Minister take to the front benches of the House of Commons within the space of mere months, following the resignation of Liz Truss.

For many leaders, the same issues that ultimately spelled the end of our most-recent PM are also those that are keeping them up at night: the ability to provide stability, both psychological and physical, for their people; the need for a clear mandate to lead; and the skills to scale uncertainty, along with the seemingly impossible hurdles that lay ahead.

However, to find answers to these key issues, let’s move away from Whitehall, and instead explore an individual who managed to achieve what many thought was impossible.

The case of Philippe Petit

On August 7, 1974, a French high-wire artist by the name of Philippe Petit took his position on the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, and looked out at a thin wire stretched over the 131-feet chasm in front of him, to the tower’s twin. He took a deep breath, and confidently walked out over the 1,350 feet tall gap separating him from the street below. He wore no harness.

In that moment, nothing stood between Philippe Petit and oblivion, other the skills he’d painstakingly honed over many years. Whilst his task was physical, his challenge was psychological. One wobble, one single error could have started a chain reaction that ultimately would have led to a chaotic fall. Yet, as a result of his ability to stay calm, collected and -ironically – grounded, moments later, he arrived unscathed, back on solid ground.

Read more from us

You’d be forgiven for wondering exactly what Petit’s feat of endurance has to do with the current situation in which the UK finds itself. However, I’d argue that in many ways, leaders are very much in a similar position, teetering on a wire, facing down the threats of economic volatility, cultural instability and political turmoil. The tasks ahead are physical, yet the ability to stay in control, to maintain stability and inspire the confidence of your people, is almost entirely psychological. As a leader, it’s your balancing act to maintain.

Mandates make a leader

What the hundreds of people watching Petit calmly achieve his goal from street level didn’t see in the moment, was the team of people who made it possible. Those who spent innumerable hours planning and working on the infrastructure needed to achieve Petit’s vision. Their unwavering dedication to his mission and their absolute belief in his ability to achieve what he set out to do are what allowed him to succeed. Their collective investment gave him a strong mandate that made the utterly impossible, totally achievable, with the right leadership. It’s this mandate that formed the cornerstone of his achievement, and it’s this mandate that leaders need above all else.

So, how can you build a mandate? Executive Coach and Author, Anton Guinea, recently wrote that a mandate to lead comes from three key areas. The first is values alignment; if integrity is the cornerstone of your business, yet you yourself don’t live up to this value, it’s likely that your mandate to lead will be eroded in the process. It’s debatably based on this issue that former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lost his mandate to lead. Surprisingly, Guinea’s research found that a massive 90% of leaders have never assessed their values, or considered how they align with their businesses’.

The second key point, as Guinea sees it, is the ability to be a transformational leader. This is the area of a leadership mandate that evidences the presence of agility. The perception among your people that in times of uncertainty, you’ll be able to pivot quickly, revise your plans and deliver on your goals, is essential. It’s perhaps this issue that Liz Truss was fundamentally unable to follow through – or at least, this was the perception among those on whom she relied.

Leading Through Change: Measuring the Impact of Your Leadership

Leading Through Change: Measuring the Impact of Your Leadership

Leadership is no longer confined to a top-down approach where authority alone defines success.

Effective leaders must excel in a variety of roles and adapt to diverse situations. They must be agile, capable of addressing immediate issues, and guiding their teams through uncharted territory, all while shaping the organisation's culture and fostering innovation.

Download this guide to equip yourself with the knowledge and skills to make a meaningful difference to your organisation and workforce.

You will learn:

  • The need to perform and transform 

  • The 4 levels of leadership impact

  • The key framework for greater leadership impact

Show more
Show less

And finally, the third key to building a mandate to lead among your people is what Guinea calls ‘created conscious control’. In essence, this is the ability to bypass knee-jerk decision making, and maintain a level head. In other words, this is the part of leadership from which the perception of stability is derived. Leaders who react immediately to the conditions they find themselves in open themselves up to the scrutiny of their people when an ill-conceived idea falls flat.

“This mandate is the self-mandate because it is incumbent upon leaders to have conscious control. Without conscious control, leaders don’t have behavioural control, and without behavioural control, leaders have zero chance of having situational control. And with leaders being under so much pressure, they need to be able to manage high pressure situations and high stress encounters. That is the job at times,” Guinea recently noted in a LinkedIn post.

Is it possible to repair damage done?

When a mandate to lead has been damaged beyond repair, the obvious solution for any business is to change leadership. However, when so much damage has been done, is it possible to reignite the flame of trust within the organisation as a whole? Given the current state of British politics, this is of course a loaded question. And the answer isn’t a simple one.

As any leader will no doubt know, trust is incredibly hard to build, but takes minutes to crumble. As Author and business leader Kevin Wyche states in his book ‘Corner Office Rules: The 10 Realities of Executive Life’, he states that when an earnest effort to rebuild reputation is undertaken, people are willing to try to move on, but only once.

Read more from us

"We are a country of second chances, but we are not very fond of third ones. When leaders come out and say they are reformed, and it's found there is a relapse, you very rarely see them again. You can only make that mistake once," he states.

But then, what are the first steps in rebuilding? The starting point is always communication. Being slow to admit a fault, or worse, staying silent on a difficult subject, will only serve to further reduce reputational credit. Any ‘mea culpa’ must be heartfelt – a media statement, heavily vetted by a legal team and delivered under duress, will undermine, not repair, a reputation. Leader in this situation must be open about what has gone wrong, and clear about the steps being taken to rectify the problem.

You are currently previewing this article.

This is the last preview available to you for 30 days.

To access more news, features, columns and opinions every day, create a free myGrapevine account.