Thinking aloud: Is David Cameron a manager, not a leader?

Close up of Rodin's The Thinker - copyright Brian Hillegas

Image copyright Brian Hillegas

I read this article by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian a little while ago, and I was struck by how much what he was saying resonated with the sort of things I’ve been thinking about lately.

I’m currently writing the first assignment for my Masters’ degree, on the topic of leadership. Leadership is a pretty huge area of study, so I started off focusing on the idea of leadership being about creating a shared vision. As a brand professional, this has broad appeal for me, as shared visions are very much bound up in the concept of brand. Transformational leadership theory sees this concept of a shared vision as being a key aspect of successful leadership. But the wonderful thing about doing this degree is that you never know where the reading is going to take you – you follow your nose, and end up somewhere else entirely.

Leadership creates meaning

In one of the books I’m reading, a researcher named Podolny talks compellingly about how what leaders do goes beyond shared vision or purpose to create meaning for their followers.

Meaning is something that has been talked about extensively by social theorists such as Weber and Durkheim, and is about something that is connected to the vital parts of our lives – somewhere after food and shelter on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Without meaning, we are not complete, and we do not feel fulfilled or engaged. Weber’s theory was that people used to derive meaning in their lives from religion, or community, but that rationalism and bureaucracy were eroding these structures, leaving a gap in people’s lives that can’t be filled with money or success.

Podolny also points to similar sources of meaning, invoking two key theories about how we can find meaning: action towards an ideal (e.g. a cause or a religion), or strong social relationships (e.g. a community, a religion, a movement).

Instinctively, this feels right to me. We know  from hearing people’s stories that throwing ourselves into something we believe in helps us find meaning in our lives. We also know that strong social relationships are essential for our mental health and ability to cope with and enjoy life. Being lonely is incredibly destructive to the human psyche. (Now if this was my university assignment, I’d have to reference that statement with evidence. As it isn’t, you’ll just have to accept that it’s my opinion, and hopefully true. Sorry about that.)

Governments should create meaning for their citizens

So according to Podolny and his colleagues, an important part of the leadership role is to help followers (whether they’re workers, citizens or members of a community) find meaning in their work or, in the case of a government, in their lives. It struck me that this is partly what Russell Brand is talking about when he told Jeremy Paxman that he doesn’t vote. If people don’t see any meaning in their lives or their society, then they are not engaged and interested in its state of health, or its future. So why would they vote for a stake in something in which they are not engaged? If the current government is not either providing a compelling ideal towards which we can strive, and/or strengthening our society’s relationships, then how can we all find meaning in what we do, as citizens?

So many recent policies and decisions seem designed actively to destroy social relationships – from the families on housing benefit being moved far away from their communities because of the benefit cap, to closing the Sure Start centres, which were vital in supporting those who found themselves isolated and struggling to raise a family. The  bedroom tax also threatens to uproot people from places where they have built a life, and rehouse them in a strange place where no-one knows their name.

On the other hand in terms of an ideal for us to aspire to, Cameron initially talked about the Big Society and National Wellbeing , but they’ve been replaced in his discourse with a relentless focus on growth and the recovery. But growth does not tell the whole story – what about meaning, and happiness, and equality? The National Wellbeing Survey is still reporting, but we don’t seem to be seeing a compelling attempt to use this to shape policy or to create a vision of the future. 

Measuring meaning

Of course a big problem with meaning is how you measure it. Podolny talks about there having been a ‘decoupling’ of meaning from leadership which he attributes in part to the fact that measuring meaning is so difficult. Back in 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy set up the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress in France to try and come up with ways others than GDP of measuring the health of French society.  Leading the Commission were Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist who has written a number of books critiquing current economic models, and Amartya Sen, a Harvard economist and an authority on poverty. The report is damning about the inadequacies of GDP as a measure of a society’s success, and suggests measuring not just economic well-being, but also social well-being, and whether the well-being is sustainable, as better indicators of whether society is in good shape.

This is not a particularly new idea – back in 1985, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus were saying “We seek lives not measured solely in terms of income, societies not assessed on gasoline consumption, and freedom from that most beguiling and misleading of all valuations, GDP.” Many others have also pointed out that using growth as a measure of success ultimately results in inequality and poverty – this piece in the Guardian by Vandana Shiva makes the point eloquently (hat tip to Keep the Game, Change the Rules for that one).

So I’m disappointed that Cameron doesn’t talk about the National Wellbeing Survey any more. By focusing on growth and economic recovery, I think he’s missing the opportunity to create a vision of the future that we can all buy into – one where we measure our nation’s success by more than just money, and we can find meaningful existence as a result. Russell Brand’s vocal critiques, Jonathan Freedland’s article, people’s interest in holding companies to account for the morality of their tax arrangements, for me they’re all symptoms of a search for meaning.

A constant debate in the field of management is whether management and leadership are the same thing. Many researchers see them as different concepts, and describe  management as being about providing order and consistency, stability and getting things done efficiently. Leadership, however, is about producing constructive change, inspiring movement and action through influencing others. So to maintain the status quo, you need a manager, but to change the way people think or act, you need leadership.

If we’re going to move to a society that provides meaning as well as economic and social well-being, and that is sustainable, we a government to provide real leadership. As this Guardian journalist says, “We don’t need incremental change, but visionaries who can imagine what a new economic system could look like.” Sadly, what we’ve got right now is a Cabinet full of managers.

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