While the world sinks into financial gloom, one man is thoroughly enjoying himself. Colleagues say that they haven’t seen Gordon Brown this happy for years. The financial crisis has boosted his ratings in the opinion polls and earned him praise from governments around the world.
The new spring in his step is not surprising. Gordon Brown is back in his comfort zone. His area of expertise is the economy and that’s where he feels most secure. He’s doing his old job again and that gives him confidence and makes him feel less vulnerable.
It’s not uncommon to see leaders of organisations do this. They get promoted through their technical expertise and they struggle to make the leap to being more generalist and having to rely on others for technical backing. Their successors in the technical roles have a tough time too. The boss always thinks he knows more.
I remember one senior local authority manager who had been promoted to run one of the authority’s mega-departments. In this role he had to control a huge budget and deliver a wide range of services, while keeping councillors and government departments on-side. However, he had come up through the ranks as a housing manager and he just couldn’t leave it alone. The poor chap who he had appointed as Housing Director was never allowed to do his own thing as the boss kept interfering. The organisation efectively ended up with two Housing Directors and nobody really looking at the big picture. In future, people may come to call this situation ‘The Alistair Darling Effect’.
This tendency to cling to a favourite area of expertise becomes even more pronounced in a crisis. If the crisis lends itself to your specific skills, and if you are clever enough to prove to everyone else that it does, you can stay in your comfort zone for ages, under the pretext of solving something urgent.
I would not accuse Gordon Brown of doing so, but some managers even create crises so that they can manage their way out of them and show how good they are. It’s easier to show leadership and to motivate people in a crisis than it is during the day-to-day grind of running an organisation.
A crisis also makes managers feel important. I worked with one senior manager who was usually on the phone or in her car, often both, heading from one urgent meeting to the next. The huge mobile phone bills and thousands of business miles proved to her and everyone else that she was important. Without her, how would the problems get solved? After working with her for a while, I began to realise that she created the crises as she went along.
The trouble is, you can’t do this for ever. Too many panics lead to panic fatigue and, after a while, if crisis becomes normal you no longer get the energetic response when you sound the alarm. Inevitably, all senior executives eventually have to deal with the day-to-day business of running the organisation. This involves making decisions about things outside your area of expertise, relying on others for guidance and information and, critically, showing leadership in areas where you don’t have a full grasp of the detail.
Eventually, all senior executives have to let go of their technical comfort blankets if they are to be truly effective. Gordon Brown is no different. When the crisis passes, he to will have to go back to doing the stuff he doesn’t like and which clearly made him uncomfortable over the last year or so. Hopefully, history will remember him as the man who saved us from the financial crisis but it will take more than that to be a good prime minister – and to win the next election.