By Andrew Saunders Friday, 30 March 2012

Politics, petrol strikes and leadership

After a rollercoaster week for the nation's politicians and motorists, it looks like the tanker strikes have been called off.

How do you cause all the disruption, lost business and general chaos of a tanker drivers’ strike, without actually needing to have a strike? That’s a question that Francis Maude seems to have inadvertently answered when he made his ill-advised remarks about drivers topping up their tanks just in case.
 
The ensuing wave of panic buying and opprobium that resulted must have had him wondering whether the life of a tanker driver, striking or otherwise, was not preferable to that of a hounded Cabinet Office Minister. There have even been calls for him to resign.
 
The leaders of the Unite union must have hardly been able to believe their good fortune: the Coalition Government, normally no friend of pay-based industrial action, delivered them a huge PR win, prompting a live demo of the kind of mess that both businesses and individuals could expect from a tanker strike without the union actually having to have one. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.
 
Not that life was exactly a bowl of cherries for the opposition either - the week that started out with Pastygate and talk of a Labour resurgence ended in humiliating defeat at the hands of old nemesis Gorgeous George Galloway, the new MP for Bradford West. While the opposition top team were looking the other way, George snuck in and stole a safe seat from under their noses.
 
Of course politics is not business (thank goodness for that we hear you cry). But the events if the past seven days do serve as a valuable reminder of an important universal principle of leadership. A good leader always keeps an eye on what’s going on out in the field. Whether it’s non-striking strikers, panic petrol buyers or long-suffering supporters suddenly going sour, if you’re out of touch you are riding for a fall.
 
Leaders do have to inspire, and sometimes a little distance from the task in hand can help them do so. But they also have to know what’s going on, what’s new and how views and sentiments in their organisations or in society are shifting. If they don’t manage to do both then the ground can shift under theory feet very quickly, and when that happened you’re lucky if you come out of it looking only very fuellish…

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