The warmest temperatures may have subsided (at least here in Scotland), but the Tory leadership race continues to heat up as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss prepare for another live TV debate tonight, with stances on China and immigration set to be hot button issues. Elsewhere, stubborn traffic jams at the Eurotunnel remain an unenticing holiday advertisement.
In this morning’s View from the Street, Anna Dickens ponders a dilemma that has rankled political leaders for centuries – is it more desirable to be liked or to be powerful? – and considers how her own perception of Theresa May has evolved since the former Prime Minister’s return to the backbenches.
Is it better to be liked or powerful? How you answer that question probably says a lot about you, but I’m not aiming to conduct psychoanalysis today. The question has been ruminating in my mind since Theresa May reportedly wore a ball gown to submit her vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson.
First a bit of background. As an LGBTQ+ immigrant, Theresa May is someone I have never particularly liked. After years of voting against gay rights, she and the Conservative Party thankfully changed their views. However, the way in which she has been referred to – and presumably allowed herself to be referred to – as the ‘unsung hero’ of gay and equal rights feels like an attempt to re-write history which ruffles many of us in the LGBTQ+ community.
Worse still was my experience of immigrating to the UK through a system designed – by Theresa May as home secretary – to be hostile. But that’s probably a story for another day.
All of this is just to explain why I’ve disliked Theresa May. Yet there I was on the 6th of June, completely amused by the idea of her submitting her revenge in a ball gown. I felt warmed to her, and I didn’t understand why. Upon reflection, I realised that as a backbench MP her power over my life was limited and I felt less threatened by her. The change in the power dynamic made her more vulnerable, and I could open myself to feeling empathetic toward her.
The contrast between May and Johnson’s downfalls is interesting. In some respects, Theresa May failed because she was trying too hard to be liked and attempting to achieve the impossible – to please everyone with a Brexit deal. Meanwhile Boris Johnson barrelled through controversies and the truth to “deliver on his mandate” and stay in power, but he forgot that to deliver a mandate and have power you need to keep those in government and parliament on side with clear and truthful communication.
I believe there is something anyone in a leadership position can learn from these situations. If you focus on pleasing everyone and making decisions by committee, you will likely not get anywhere. Meanwhile, if you focus solely on your vision, power, and objectives – ignoring the relationships with the people working to deliver that vision – you will also fail. Anyone who has experienced good and bad leadership knows the balance between respecting and valuing your team and having a clear vision and strategy is crucial.
Just like my changing feelings toward Theresa May, power dynamics have a lot to do with how the people who work view the people who lead. Anyone in a leadership position should be aware of those power dynamics; have a vision and a plan; and treat everyone with kindness and respect. Foundational to all of this is having open, honest, two-way communication and shared values around how you work. If leaders get this right, it may just be possible to balance power and popularity.