Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV
Yesterday was a remarkable day in many ways. We heard a passionate but thoughtful debate in the House of Commons. There wasn’t much of the usual ‘yah boo’ and name calling. Some very good speeches, including by Margaret Becket and Hilary Benn reminded us of the power of argument. They also reminded me that, while there is so much to criticize in the way this country is led, I am lucky to live in a democracy where a Prime Minister cannot rely on positional power but who needs to persuade MPs both of the moral and strategic arguments for the things he wants to do. In spite of the common perception of MPs as powerless lobby fodder, it was clear yesterday that many were demonstrably acting according to their consciences, led by their reason. In many ways it was a good day for democracy, respect for differing opinions and the exercise of collective leadership.
In other ways yesterday demonstrated some of the ways in which passion, conscience and reason can be subverted to justify the worst possible behaviour. The problem of bullying, of all sorts of people, in all walks of life, has become part of our understanding of how the world works. Perhaps the word ‘bully’ has lost some of its power because we have applied it so often to such a wide range of behaviours. Maybe we should move away from the generic to the specific and talk about the terrible psychological damage done by ‘insults’, ‘assaults’ and ‘attacks’. The old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is the opposite of the truth. Sometimes words hurt because they exclude – ‘you aren’t one of us’, they vilify – ‘you are one of them’ or they threaten – damage to reputations and careers.
We often look to leaders to set standards, to model good behaviour and hold bullies to account. It’s hard for them to do that when they indulge in that sort of behaviour themselves or fail to deal with it in others. Jeremy Corbyn seems to me to be a gentle, principled man but some of his more extremely left wing colleagues are using his popular support to justify criminal behaviour. To what extent is this his responsibility? He is the leader of his party so it’s absolutely his responsibility. Modelling good behaviour is a necessary but not sufficient element of effective leadership. Action is also required. If Jeremy Corbyn’s sins are of omission, David Cameron’s are definitely of commission. His words about ‘terrorist sympathisers’ makes him a bully because he was seeking both to exclude and to vilify. We’d find that behaviour reprehensible in a child in the the playground and it is utterly unacceptable in the holder of the highest political office.
However, leaders are only human. Everyone makes mistakes under pressure, even leaders. Its what they do then that indicates the extent to which they are really good leaders. Willingness to admit mistakes and to apologise for them demonstrates self-knowledge and humility and those are very attractive attributes in a leader. If someone says they were wrong, we’ll trust them next time they tell us they really are right. If someone tells us they are sorry when they are in the wrong we’ll trust them next time they say they really are in the right.
Refusal to admit mistakes or to apologise for them undermines our trust in leaders. It also give followers a clear message ‘Look at me…I bullied and I got away with it. You can bully and get away with it too’. Nice work Mr Cameron. You won the vote but you diminished your moral authority. Moral authority is the currency of leadership and you’ve squandered yours in support of a vote you would have won anyway. Will that be remembered long after we’ve finished bombing in Syria?
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.