Lessons in leadership from Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury is, according to his friends, shocked by the reaction to his comments in an interview with the BBC, in which he suggested that some aspects of sharia law should be recognised in the UK. That he made the comments in the first place and that he is surprised by the reaction shows a startling political naivety from someone so well educated and who has spent so long working his way up through an organisation like the Church of England

That said, this failure to think through the consequences of throwaway statements is not uncommon among leaders. Gerald Ratner is the most obvious example of someone who destroyed his business with one ill thought out aside.

The problem for many leaders is that they don’t realise how powerful they are. Yet even the utterances of the least charismatic leader will, by virtue of his position, carry a lot of weight. As Edgar Schein told us, more than twenty years ago, leaders create behaviours and cultural assumptions by their actions, whether they plan to or not. People watch and listen to what leaders do and say, then take action accordingly. If followers are particularly nervous about something, they often seize on whatever the leader says on the subject and draw conclusions that confirm their fears.

A friend of mine once worked for a company that was going through a restructure. At a meeting, some senior managers were discussing a number of options when one made a casual remark about the possibility of selling off the maintenance division. Within 24 hours, the story that the maintenance division was being sold off and that it was a done deal had spread to every outpost of the organisation, from Scotland to Cornwall. And this was in a company that claimed to have a problem with its internal communications. As a result, senior managers were besieged by anxious employees and the unions were up in arms.

Something similar has happened to Rowan Williams. He made the mistake of musing in public on an issue about which those who look to him for leadership are very sensitive. But, when you are in a leadership role, you can’t toss ideas around in public. Dr Williams might have got away with his utterances if he had made them in the Senior Common Room at Wadham College or in the confines of Lambeth Palace but thinking out loud on World at One was bound to get him into trouble.

So it is in any leadership position. If you are going to think-the-unthinkable and kick around some radical options for the company’s future, you need to do it with a few trusted colleagues and test their reactions before you take your ideas out to a wider audience. Whether you like it or not, when you are in a leadership position people hang on to your every word. The more powerful you are, the more they look for signals to confirm or refute their hopes and fears. One casual aside or dreamy reflection could set off a reaction that you might not be able to control. As Rowan Williams found to his cost last week.

Update: Guru is somewhat less charitable about Dr Williams.

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