This Lady’s not for rushing…and maybe that’s ok?


September 16th, 2016

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Credit: Getty - Source:

Photo Credit: Getty – Source: The Telegraph

At such an early stage of her premiership, for many, the jury is still out regarding Theresa May, the new UK Prime Minister. Some are suggesting that her position on the periphery of the official photograph at the opening of the recent G20 summit showed how the G20 leaders regard her. However, the Guardian wisely pointed out that the protocol for where people stand is tightly controlled by objective criteria ie how long they have been at the top on the world stage. If she sticks around long enough, she will see herself gradually moving nearer to centre stage.

However, one thing is becoming clear: Theresa May will not be rushed into invoking Article 50 and the UK’s subsequent exit from the EU. How long she can maintain that position remains to be seen. President Obama’s and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe’s remarks at the summit tried to galvanise her into speedier action. Comments since the summit from the media, from her fellow conservative politicians and from her political leaders in Europe, continue to pile on the pressure to move more quickly. And the pause button she pressed in making the final decision about Hinkley Point power station (now finally released) certainly won her no friends in the Chinese Government – the major investor in the project.

And yet, the most effective leadership is not always demonstrated by those that move the quickest. Professor Keith Grint of Warwick Business School (and Visiting Professor at Roffey Park) speaks of the most complex or ‘Wicked’ problems we face needing a collaborative solution. And that takes time. If President Obama looks back long enough to the beginning of his time in the White House, he will remember being severely criticised for the length of time he took to decide on his Afghanistan policy. Some reports suggested he was the most indecisive American president in history. However, I suspect, when we read the inevitable memoirs he will publish after leaving office, we will see that he recognised the complexity of the issue and was collaborating widely before making a decision. If we look back still further, many historians believe that if JFK hadn’t slowed down his decision-making at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in spite of the intense pressure of the situation and with Hawkish military commanders breathing down his neck, we may be living today in a post-nuclear winter.

But in this fast-paced world, doesn’t the race tend to go the quickest? Not necessarily, if Jim Collins’ and Morten Hansen’s 2011 Great by Choice study of organisations that thrive in fast-paced, volatile and unpredictable environments is to be believed. He uses the contrasting approaches of Amundsen and Scott battling to be the first to reach the South Pole to bring out some perhaps counter-intuitive messages about how to survive in volatile conditions. If the weather was good, Scott would take his expedition party as far as they could go each day, even if they dropped exhausted at the end of it. Unfortunately, when the weather turned against them, they were then battling against it from a position of exhaustion. Amundsen, in contrast, set his men the discipline of 20 mile marches each day – whatever the weather – to ensure they paced themselves for the long-haul. Collins points out that companies like South-West Airlines survived volatility in a similar way. In 1999, 100 US cities were clamouring for their services. They only opened in four. Collins said that the seven companies that stood out at being particularly adept at surviving volatile conditions seemed to live by the mantra: ‘Go as slow as you can and as fast as you must’.

The UK’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously said of herself: ‘This Lady’s not for turning’ at the 1980 Conservative Party Conference, in response to pressure to slow down her liberalisation of the UK economy. She had already been labelled, ‘The Iron Lady’ in a Soviet newspaper in 1976 in response to her tough stance against what she saw as a creeping ‘Russian imperialism’. It was a title she seemed to relish.

It remains to be seen how Theresa May will come to be known. She will need to use all her political and personal savvy to navigate the turbulent post-referendum waters over the coming few years. Perhaps ‘The Steel Lady’ might be a title she will need to earn as a descriptor of the necessary quality of her nerves over this period. But, at least for now, ‘the Lady’s not for rushing’. And maybe that’s a good thing.