At what point in a crisis does a leader have to make the decision to resign?

I can still remember with some vividety the Falklands War of 1982. I was in my very early twenties when it happened. I recall the shock, the chaos, the emerging pride in the armed forces as a task force was assembled with incredible speed, and then the tension of the next few months until the war was over and then a feeling that the United Kingdom had become great again. What I also remember very clearly is the resignation of the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, which happened within days of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. I have been reflecting on this swift, very high profile, resignation over the past few days, particularly in light of the Grenfell Tower block fire and tragedy.

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The Grenfell tragedy has highlighted an interesting leadership situation. We have seen HM The Queen visit the victims and survivors, the Mayor of London attend the scene, the Prime Minister form a task force to manage the post-crisis situation (as well as visit the scene), and local councillors and officials from Kensington and Chelsea Council attempt to manage the crisis on-site. Even the opposition party has become involved by attempting to score political points from the tragedy. To a lay person you could forgive them for feeling confused as to who is ultimately in charge and leading in the post-tragedy environment. In a way this leads to the growing sense of public frustration and is ammunition for the mainstream media and social media commentators to create and maintain a feverish state of angst and calling for those responsible to be held to account before any realistic inquiry findings could be published.

In the past 48 hours the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council has now resigned – the first person in these many layers of involvement to do so. But, this is 11 days after the tragedy. Was he right to resign? Indeed, when is it appropriate for a leader to resign in a crisis?

The true test of a leader is how they handle problems and take action. Unfortunately, despite training and practice, no one in a leadership position really knows how they will perform in a crisis, and it is often a case of ‘baptism by fire’. Inevitably some leaders do not perform when the pressure is on, and it is, in my view, appropriate that they should step aside and accept their own limitations. It can be a very sobering moment of self-reflection.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Harvard Business Review June 2, 2014, ‘When to Resign, and When to Clean Up the Mess’) concluded ‘Cleaning up a mess requires strong will, fast action, new approaches, and a lot of credibility. One resignation doesn’t restore trust, but it opens the door for someone who can’.

A problem/crisis will normally see a leader move through 3 stages of performance and decision:

1) Did they cause, or know in advance about, the problem? One-off problems will always arise, but is this a widespread systemic problem?  Do they therefore believe they are best placed to manage it?

2) Are they able to rely on the confidence and trust of those around them?

3) Once managing it begins are they able to cope? Does their performance (or lack of) become the story?

I would advocate in (1) a leader should resign – it will lead to (2), and you cannot lead without followers. In the case of (3) once your performance (poor) becomes the story you must resign. In the case of the leader of the Council he was found sadly lacking in any of the leadership skills necessary to manage the tragedy (notwithstanding I am sure he was competent as an administrator in his day-to-day role), and those took some time to emerge – the delay in his reaching the decision to resign made him the story, and with no choice but to go.

The opposite of course to all of this are those leaders who rise to the challenge and are superb are managing problems and crisis. They understand it is how the problem/crisis is managed – communications, timing, accountability and above all their displays of compassion. Unfortunately today we too often find a sense of self-first where leaders appear more interested in keeping their jobs than solving the problem. It doesn’t take courage to self-reflect and make a judgment on behalf the greater needs of the mission, it should in fact be second nature in a not-for-profit world where values-based leadership qualities are so important.

Returning to Lord Carrington, he took immediate full responsibility for the complacency and failures in the Foreign And Commonwealth Office, and in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister said “….the right course, and one which deserves the undivided support of Parliament and of the country. But I have concluded with regret that this support will more easily be maintained if the Foreign Office is entrusted to someone else.” Lord Carrington felt that ”it was a matter of honour that he should go.”

And his story is one worth keeping in mind as a leader. His resignation was not the end of his career. He stepped aside for the greater need of the nation and the mission – yet, two years later, he was appointed Secretary General of NATO, and went on to hold a number of distinguished positions. He remains the longest serving member of the House of Lords. The word honour sadly is often looked as anachronistic in today’s society, but the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right is one of the great foundations of life, as those of us fortunate enough to have been instructed as such at School and as military officers know too well. Lord Carrington displayed such honour and courage, and his reputation remained intact. I’m not so sure the leaders of the Grenfell tragedy will emerge in the same manner.

 

The Power of Collective Responsibility – Trustee Decisions

I recently heard of an interesting situation with a Chair of a Board of Trustees not understanding the concept of collective responsibility. Surely, I asked myself, everyone who serves as a Trustee knows this basic principle – I therefore set out to conduct some simple research by asking colleagues and was surprised to find how many thought collective responsibility was an optional element of decision making!
The situation I encountered is an interesting example of this. It arose when the Chair apparently wished to take a certain course of action but the Board executive committee wished a different course. Having failed to reach consensus it was agreed the two opposing views would be presented to the full board for a decision. The Chair believed if his course was not followed there would be many serious repercussions – a form of ‘project fear’ began! Shortly before the board meeting the Chair, when circulating the agenda and the two opposing papers, declared that the minutes of the meeting would list all the Trustees and how they voted on the issue. Some Trustees viewed this as intimidation. When challenged during the meeting to justify the decision to record names the Chair stated it was an opportunity for at a later stage (assuming he lost the vote and all his fears came true of problems) those who lost the vote (himself included) to respond to external criticism by saying it was not their fault because they voted against it.
The Chair was challenged by some Trustees over collective responsibility – he indicated he understood the principle, but claimed it did not apply if one states in the minutes you did not support the relevant decision. Extraordinary.
The power of the concept of collective responsibility should not be, in my view, under estimated. It helps brings a board together, it encourages open and free debate, it ensures decisions made (especially the very difficult ones) are robust and can stand up to scrutiny.
For those of you unfamiliar with the guidelines for collective decisions I have set out the basic principles below:
  • It is a legal requirement that all Trustees have a duty to make decisions ‘collectively’ (jointly). It does not usually mean that the Trustees must all agree, or that a decision can only be made if every Trustee takes part.
  • Once a decision has been made, all Trustees must support, abide by,  and carry out that decision.
  • An absent Trustee will still share responsibility for the decision that the other Trustees made.
  • If a Trustee strongly disagrees with a decision, they can ask for their disagreement to be recorded in the minutes. Even if a Trustee asks for their disagreement with a decision to be recorded, they will still, under the principle of collective responsibility, be held jointly responsible.
  • A Trustee might feel so strongly that a decision is not in the interests of the charity that they have no choice but to resign.
Sources: Charity Commission For England and Wales: Guidance ‘It’s your decision: charity trustees and decision making (CC27)

Thoughts on achieving more by working less

Whilst preparing my annual report to the board of trustees and referring back to my previous year’s report my first reaction is that I seem to have achieved more in 2016 than I managed in 2015. In some respects this would be a logical outcome based on 2016 being my second full year in this CEO role, and a direct result of becoming more familiar with my tasks. However, my diary tends to tell a different story in that the number of hours I seem to be committing to the task of being CEO has significantly declined.

Always looking for an opportunity to research and learn from experiences I noted the following comparisons:

2015:

A typical working week, with no out-of-office appointments:

07:30 am – 8:45 am. Commute on the train, working on papers and emails.

08:50 am – 09:30 am. Commute Underground train, reading working papers.

09:30 am – 4:40 pm. Typical working day, no lunch break

4:35 pm – 5:20 pm. Commute Underground train, reading working papers.

5:30 pm – 6:40 pm. Commute on the train, working on papers and emails.

Five days a week results in 55 hours a week.

2016:

A typical working week, with no out-of-office appointments:

07:30 am – 8:45 am. Commute on the train, planning and thinking

08:50 am – 09:30 am. Commute Underground train, private reading (books, magazines)

09:30 am – 4:20 pm. Typical working day, one hour for lunch at the gym or walking

4:30 pm – 5:10 pm. Commute Underground train, private reading (books, magazines)

5:30 pm – 6:40 pm. Commute on the train, working on papers and emails.

Four days a week results in 34 hours a week. Fridays I now work from home and usually work for 7 hours, allowing time for a swim at lunchtime and two dog walks at the beginning and end of the working day. Total of 41 hours – a saving of 14 hours a week.

Where and how have I saved those 14 hours? It could be improved plans, the new strategy, method, order, technology, spending more time mentoring my staff, indeed there are many ideas I have embraced over the past year. What I do know is I am achieving a lot more in less hours per week. Moreover, I am using those saved hours for reading, writing, exercising, relaxing and volunteer activities – despite spending 4 1/2 hours a day commuting my quality of life has never been better.

Over the coming weeks I will explore in this blog some of the ideas I have embraced which has directly resulted in significant time savings and efficiencies.