Controversy has hung like a pall of smoke over two of the most senior leadership figures in the government, following foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s decision to publish a 4,500-word essay in the Telegraph outlining his vision for a ‘hard Brexit’.
The article was seen by insiders and pundits alike as a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the weakened state of Prime Minister Theresa May, who lost her party’s majority in the summer’s General Election. Veteran Tory and former chancellor Ken Clarke remarked: “Sounding off personally in this way is totally unhelpful and [Johnson] shouldn’t exploit the fact that [May] hasn’t got a majority in parliament. And he knows perfectly well that, normally, a foreign secretary would be sacked instantly for doing that.”
Questioning the timing of the article – coverage of which coincided with the heightened terror alert in the wake of the Parson’s Green Tube incendiary – Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson noted: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”
The impression that Johnson is undermining the Prime Minister to boost his own profile – perhaps with long-term, strategic goals in mind – is hard to avoid. And behaviour of that type can blight leadership processes in organisations of any shape or size, and in any field. What must a leader do to control or contain a c-suite colleague who appears to be undermining them?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper explains: “Leaders of senior teams need gifted colleagues – people with skills that they don’t have; people with qualities and attributes that they can bring to the organisation in order to make it successful. So in a way, you should want people who are pushing and striving and have ambition, because of all the energy and enthusiasm that brings with it.
“But at the same time, you want a degree of loyalty and trust. So, a high-performing team will be made up of individuals who have a degree of ambition – but what should be absolutely non-negotiable is that trust and loyalty. And on those terms, it is perhaps reasonable to require the talents around you to sacrifice their more personal ambitions in favour of broader, organisational goals or targets. If you can’t trust the people you work with, then at what price are their skills and qualities? What are they bringing to the table that could be worth the risks that their disloyalty would present?
Cooper adds: “You need ambition from your colleagues. You need talent. Trust is of paramount importance. Loyalty is vital for you to be able to concentrate on the job in hand, so that you’re not worrying about what your team members are getting up to. But you do also need challenge, and that requires the figures on your team to be able to fearlessly express their honest assessments of specific issues or scenarios.
“With all those factors in mind, it is clear that these sorts of relationships can be very difficult to build, and may be quite fragile to maintain. So your key assets here are time, focus and consistency. These interpersonal connections really do require an enormous amount of effort and time investment to ensure they meet mutual, not singular, aims.”
For further thoughts on how to build trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of Boris Johnson courtesy of Nazar Gonchar, via Shutterstock