Riots in London and the economic crisis have resulted in the predictable cry from opposition politicians for the leaders of the country to cut short their holidays and “get a grip”. Aside from the rather puerile nature of such demands (is it any wonder that so many people hold politicians in such low regard when politics seems to be nothing more than verbal ping-pong?), two issues come to mind. The first is just how many people seem to misunderstand what leadership actually is; and the second is the importance of holidays.
When I think of politicians “taking control” of incidents the picture that comes to mind is of a top-hatted Winston Churchill at the Sidney Street siege in 1911. The less said about his calling in of the Scots Guards and the firing of artillery guns the better. The image is important, however, because there are still politicians and business leaders who believe that their role, especially in a crisis, is that of decisive leadership. And that means doing things and making decisions. In fact, they are often the least qualified people to decide and their actions often prove disastrous. Perhaps they should abide by the maxim: “don’t just do something, stand there.”
It is a fallacy that leadership is about doing things. True leadership is about creating the environment in which things can happen. It is about building and nurturing teams of people who, in turn, use their skills and experience to solve complex issues. Returning to Churchill, he may well be venerated as a great war leader (which he undoubtedly was) but it was his team of specialists who won the war, as the war diaries of Lord Allenbrooke, inter alia, will testify.
One area where Churchill was ahead of the game was in his taking of holidays. He understood the need for the mind and the body to take the time necessary to relax. Even in the middle of the worst times of the war, senior politicians and military leaders were taking the sorts of lengthy holidays that today’s leaders can only dream of. Allenbrooke used to relax by going bird-watching. Occasionally he would return from a day alone deep in the countryside to find a telegram waiting. Today’s leaders, however, are rarely out of email contact for minutes, let alone hours. The idea of a relaxing holiday which includes an hour a day on email is a nonsense. The mind needs to switch off as much, if not more, than the body. So let people enjoy their breaks. Let them be with their family. And let the experts and deputies prove their worth.