Dominic Cummings: A model of disruptive leadership?

"The best way to spot those at the vanguard of disruption is by their unpopularity."

by John Philpott
Last Updated: 07 Feb 2020

Disruption, dynamism, discontinuity.

Sit through any management conference presentation nowadays and these words will feature as prominently as the Trinity in an old school Bible class. Change, we are told, is the only constant in a fast-changing world, making ongoing innovation and the so-called ‘disruptive leadership’ needed to deliver this the key imperatives of any successful organisation.

You’re doubtless well-versed in depictions of visionary masterminds who take on the status quo. People so keen to push boundaries they will eagerly tear up the best-practice manual to move organisations forward. Yet look beyond the frequently quoted examples of such individuals – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs, for instance – and it’s actually quite hard to spot much effective disruptive leadership in action, least of all here in the UK.

While we are clearly living through an era of technological disruption, which is serving to undermine established business models by enabling new AI-based corporations to contest markets, any management response has been remarkably subdued.

One symptom of this has been the well- documented flatlining of growth in productivity. This phenomenon is not unique to the UK and is clearly in part a consequence of the global financial crisis of the late noughties. Nonetheless, our productivity malaise is worse than most, with pitiable rates of investment in both capital and people the principal underlying cause. Brexit uncertainty hasn’t helped but the fundamental cause was apparent long before the EU referendum. Rather than genuinely embrace the challenge of change, our organisational leaders have been willing custodians of a slow-growing labour-intensive economy unable to generate any net increase in average real wages for more than a decade. Some have paid the price for this, with many a household name once considered a permanent feature of the commercial landscape sinking without trace.

One might reasonably conclude from this that, contrary to all the hype about change, our current generation of leaders is among the least dynamic of the past 100 years. But it would be unfair to attribute this solely to lack of leadership talent or drive. The underlying problem is widespread institutional inertia that serves to contain rather than facilitate change. Leaders soon realise that being truly disruptive carries risks that either they, their board-level superiors, or those they lead find hard to tolerate. Few therefore follow through on good intentions, the common default being safety first. 

Small-c conservatism is so pervasive that wannabe disruptive leaders face an uphill struggle. Indeed, though the few who succeed can achieve near-cult status in management circles, the best way to spot those at the vanguard of disruption is by their unpopularity. A contemporary British example of this can be seen in the near-hysterical negative comment that has surrounded Dominic Cummings since his appointment last year as Downing Street chief of staff.

Cummings ticks every box in the disruptive leadership handbook. According to a profile in The New Statesman he wants to be the Steve Jobs of politics and clearly doesn’t lack vision, his aim being to deliver “huge long-term value for humanity”. Those that know him describe Cummings as a Marmite figure who sharply divides admirers and detractors, but his critics have been louder of voice in the public square.

This is partly due to political differences. Cummings masterminded the successful Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum, enough to earn anyone bogeyman status in the eyes of Europhiles. He was brought into Number 10 to help Boris Johnson face off Remainer opposition in parliament to ‘getting Brexit done’, and successfully advised on an electoral strategy to secure Brexit on the back of a Conservative majority. However, what really seems to bug the anti-Cummings brigade is not his politics per se – indeed, he eschews formal party affiliation – but a disruptive leadership style that can also upset those nominally on his side.

Rightly or wrongly, Cummings believes the UK is being held back by a cosy establishment that stands in the way of reform. He openly disdains convention, as when deliberately bypassing traditional campaigning methods to sell Vote Leave’s ‘Take Back Control’ message, even if this means sailing close to the ethical wind.

You can tell that Cummings hits raw nerves because criticism of his modus operandi is laced with attacks on everything from his personal manner to his dress sense. But you wouldn’t bet on him lasting much longer in the Whitehall machine. The quicksand of inertia has a habit of swallowing disrupters in organisations a lot less complex and cunning than that of government.

Change rhetoric might tell us that we need more people prepared to break the mould but our recent political experience indicates that having the will to disrupt rarely guarantees success against stubborn guardians of the ‘same old, same old’. 

Image credit: Peter Summers/Stringer via Getty Images

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