Theresa May’s style of leadership has been heavily criticised. But some of that criticism should be directed at the environment that she’s had to adapt to on the way to the top.
When Theresa May became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 2016, her main task was to get the country through the path to Brexit process. It’s been hard. Predictably, her leadership has been shredded over and over again in the media, and by colleagues who have abandoned any show of loyalty. Having fought the last election under the slogan ‘strong and stable’, she has been both. The problem is that these haven’t been seen as leadership virtues, but as flaws. One of her own party, Mark Francois, harangued her in the commons: ‘Patience is a virtue, but sheer obstinacy is not’.
She has been surrounded by resignations and rebellions. Colleagues tell journalists she’s impossible – not communicating, not engaging, and not budging. May’s isolation is profound. And most commentators seem certain that the blame for this isolation lies entirely with her and her single-minded determination to push her own deal through. We’re told that ‘she has shown that she has a lethal blend of tunnel vision and obstinacy that automatically produces ill-judged decisions.’ Also that ‘she has shown shortcomings on the central dimensions of symbolic and practical leadership’.
Amongst all the heated discussion, there is one overlooked factor. One of the many reasons that May is isolated is that she’s a woman.
I have been struck recently by the similarity between her situation and the situations of many women occupying leadership roles in business. In the work that I do, helping people on a one-to-one basis with their communication at work, I end up seeing some of the women I work with as surprisingly isolated: no mentor, no sponsor, no peers who’ve got their back, no sense of natural belonging. It’s not only women, and it’s not all women – I should make that clear. But I feel I can detect a common pattern. It goes something like this…
A young woman is intelligent, ambitious, talented and hard-working. She does well at school by diligently completing assignments to objective standards. She doesn’t rebel; what she does is understand what is expected of her and deliver it faultlessly, or as close to that as humanly possible. She’s modest, ducking the spotlight. This continues into university and her first job, where she is just as dedicated. Outwardly unassuming, she is inwardly driven. She takes feedback seriously but is hesitant about asking for it in an environment where it is not freely offered.
Throughout it all, her attitude seems to be ‘If you need to judge me; look at my work’. She tries to succeed on the basis of her achievements, not her ability to sell herself or negotiate social and political traps. So she’s disheartened that her work will only get her so far. Sooner or later she understands that she will need to promote herself actively, or risk falling behind. If she gets to the top of her profession she is doubly isolated: first, because there are fewer women at the top; second, because she has not actively cultivated allies and amassed soft capital.
When I sketch out this ‘type’ to some of the leaders I work with, they nod back at me, recognising themselves in this description.
Contrast this with the opposite type. This is someone who makes it his goal to actively forge links with colleagues, swapping tips, and digging for information. This person is programmed to read the political weather and positions himself adeptly to get on the right side of important people. He goes out of his way to create a rapport with everyone he can, and these channels of communication carry a lot of informal feedback and mentoring. He gets a nudge or a ‘heads up’ message when he’s getting something wrong. His own idea that he is the right person in the right place is reinforced for him by his daily interactions at work. He wants to have a good brand and a good network. His way of thinking is ‘Here’s my work; look at who did it – me’. He finds the transition to leadership is less of a jump. This is more likely to be a man.
Theresa May seems to be an example of the first type. And the problem with that way of thinking is that it is more of a survival tactic than a leadership style. Because she doesn’t build up a brand or network instinctively, she can end up as a leader without followers. People may acknowledge her ability or achievements, but they don’t buy into her as an idea.
May’s critics seem happy to conclude that May is isolated because of her own failings. But some of those failings are adaptations to an environment that is not created for her to succeed. Politics is all about network and image. Maybe she didn’t network because she couldn’t. She had friends from her time at Oxford and no doubt made others along the way, but it’s hard to imagine her circulating in the members’ bar at Parliament, making her mark there. And in the debating chamber, the odds are against women too. The House of Commons is literally a shouting gallery, often of relatively childish or boorish remarks, where the sound of May’s voice is no match for most of the men’s.
I’m convinced that Theresa May’s image would be very different if she’d been a man, and that she would be more likely to have a close, loyal, band of followers, and good contacts in the media – something that she currently seems to lack. This wouldn’t solve the political problems that she faces, but it would affect the verdict on her leadership.
What I feel we see in May’s story is a vicious circle that is found in many other contexts. First, you have a retiring type of person. They become resilient by isolating themselves from the factors that hold them back – factors that weren’t their strong point anyway, like keeping in with the right people and gauging the mood of the gang. The problem with retaining this strategy as a leader is that you don’t listen or engage enough with the people that you lead. As a result, you don’t win enough backing, which increases the feeling of isolation, and the danger is that you then double-down – becoming more determined to push through your decisions rather than seek consensus.
In the office, how can we break the cycle? The first thing is that we mustn’t keep heaping the blame at the door of the isolated leader, however many faults we can enumerate in their style. There are certainly things that they could do to ‘open up’ and ‘engage’ better. But we need to create new environments which allow them to do these things, in their own way.
So we need to create environments where:
1. People are respected for being flexible and revising their views. It shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness to listen and change your mind.
2. People trust that the system is fair. They know that promotions are not given out on the basis of favour or image.
3. Difference is seen as a positive feature, a valuable addition to the mix – not a departure from the desirable norm.
In this article, I’ve focused on gender. But as I said earlier it’s not just about gender. Many men who don’t fit the ‘alpha male’ stereotype face similar challenges. So too do members of minorities or outsiders who detect that there is a core culture at work that they don’t readily fit into.
In conclusion, these leaders can take some responsibility themselves. They can find ways of extending their influence by connecting with people throughout and beyond their zone of influence. They need to find a way of doing this where they still feel comfortable and authentic – not trying to be something they’re not.
But their efforts won’t count for much if they’re in an environment where being part of the dominant group or culture is a big advantage, stacking the odds against anyone who departs from the norm. And the statistics tell the story: to be a woman at the top of almost any profession is a departure from the norm.