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.