Jul 14, 2019

Follow your gut instinct — and be prepared to make enemies

written by Lisa Eason

The recent BBC documentary series on Margaret Thatcher revealed that she had a poem by her desk: No Enemies, written by Charles Mackay. This mocks the person who claims to have no foes — for, according to the poet, such a “coward” has neither “mingled in the fray” nor “turned the wrong to right”.

All modern leaders should memorise this short rhyme, because anyone who wants to lead must be prepared to be disliked. The era of deference is truly over and every important decision will upset certain factions. Perhaps society has always been very divided but previous generations did not voice their criticism and vitriol so readily. Now all feel empowered to express their trenchant views loudly and widely, be they staff, customers, voters or taxpayers — let alone the media.

Part of a leader’s job is to cut through the noise, withstand the criticism and make difficult choices. Public bodies, charities and companies all have to place bets with imperfect information. They cannot be democracies.

I recall being very sceptical when I was a trustee of the University of the Arts London about relocating Central Saint Martin’s College to King’s Cross, then a building site in a decidedly mixed area of the city. The process involved selling three buildings and constructing a new one at huge expense. My worries were misplaced: the management’s gamble paid off handsomely. In hindsight, it was a brilliant move — yet at the time it was not a universally popular idea.

Unfortunately, conflict is unavoidable in most roles that involve responsibility. Start-ups disrupt markets and upset competitors; legitimately undercutting rivals or headhunting their staff is bound to gain their enmity; restructurings usually involve painful actions such as making people redundant. Even the most diplomatic bosses find that people end up despising them. Consequently, those with a thin skin should not apply.

In so many conversations I hear complaints about the quality of our politicians, yet they are disparaged in such a remorseless and vicious fashion that I’m surprised any intelligent individuals opt for politics as a career.

Even though politicians may be hungry for fame and power, I’m sure all of them also possess a powerful belief in public service. No one who is remotely sensitive could possibly stand the onslaught that awaits those seeking high office. Journalists — and they probably only reflect public opinion — see politicians as the ultimate fair game, to be denounced at every turn. Social media has exacerbated this tendency enormously. It is surprisingly easy to throw metaphorical rocks and undermine — and arduous to make things happen and to create.

It can be hard embarking on a journey knowing it will involve little praise and much carping. The world is mostly quick to find fault and slow to give credit. Leaders learn that they cannot afford sleepless nights trying to please everyone: that will only produce institutional paralysis.

Decide who the vital constituents are — customers, shareholders, staff, banks, regulators — and focus on them. Don’t obsess about the views of passing observers, some of whom will have an axe to grind. Others will hate you whatever you do; trying to win them over is a pointless task. Reviews, online comment forums — life is too short to let such stuff upset you.

Meanwhile, conducting feuds and holding grudges is a mug’s game. If someone abuses you, try not to waste energy fighting them. Just move on and concentrate on relationships that matter, working with positive partners.

Occasionally life hits a fork in the road and it becomes necessary to choose sides. In the 1970s my father, who had been a prominent socialist, publicly switched his political allegiance from left to right because he saw how the Labour Party was in thrall to the unions and realised they were jointly destroying the economy. He lost friends but did what he believed was right. Those who long for approval will never take a contrarian stance, even if it means joining a consensus they know to be wrong.

Interestingly, the poet Charles Mackay also wrote a classic book on crowd psychology, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It includes a racy chapter on financial bubbles, including the South Sea Bubble and the railway mania of the 1840s. It is always hard to resist groupthink and swim against the tide, but from time to time it is necessary for the soul.