Thursday, April 8, 2021

Creative Tension in Downing Street

Earlier posts on this blog have explored Creative Tension in the White House - from FDR to the Donald - and analysed them in terms of my OrgIntelligence framework. In this post, I want to look at the UK experience, drawing on a recent report in the Guardian.

Those who worked closely with him say Johnson encourages rows and tensions over policies as he considers all sides of the argument and figures out what he will do next. Some argue that it generates a creative energy in which he thrives and is the process by which he arrives at a final decision. Ask others, and they say he cannot make up his mind until options have been whittled down by time and after those he relies on to walk out in exasperation. Syal

The article quotes several people talking about the Prime Minister's leadership style, based on various ideas about decision-making, risk and diversity. There are also some remarks about the ethical implications.

Previous articles about Mr Johnson's leadership discuss his management style with cabinet colleagues and advisers (Simpson), and his style when addressing the nation (Moss). Whatever he may think in private about the challenges of Brexit or COVID-19, and whatever difficulties he gets into when discussing solutions with his colleagues and advisers, the Prime Minister's instinct apparently leads him to present them to the public in extremely simple and confident terms.

Post-heroic leadership seems to be the order of the day. Stokes and Stern talk about the need to adopt a less gung-ho style when presenting the government's approach to wicked problems. They quote from a paper by Keith Grint advocating several supposedly anti-heroic behaviours: curiosity and sense-making ("asking questions"), bricolage ("clumsy solutions"), and ranking collective intelligence above individual genius.

The UK government's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has sometimes seemed erratic and inconsistent. But given the complexity of the problem, and the volatile and ambiguous data on which decisions and policies were supposedly based, a more consistent and single-minded approach might not have turned out any better. 

In Greek myth, the Gordian knot stands for wicked problems, and Alexander's simple yet imaginative solution quickly resolves the problem. To the supporters of Brexit, this represents the only possible escape from European satrapy. Nothing post-heroic about Alexander. 

So what does that tell us about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson?


Keith Grint, Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership (Clinical Leader 1/2, December 2008)

Gloria Moss, Is Boris Johnson's leadership style inclusive? (HR Magazine, 23 August 2019)

Per Morten Schiefloe, The Corona crisis: a wicked problem (Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2021; 49: 5–8)

Paul Simpson, What is Boris Johnson's leadership style? (Management Today, 11 October 2019)

Jon Stokes and Stefan Stern, Boris Johnson needs to show a ‘post-heroic’ style of leadership now (The Conversation, 27 April 2020)

Rajeev Syal, Does Boris Johnson stir up team conflict to help make up his mind? (The Guardian, 1 March 2021)

Related posts: Creative Tension in the White House (April 2017)

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