Tuition Fees: Power and Promises

9. Effective Leadership and the Environment

If we focus only on the LibDem party and its role in the Coalition,  and on the ‘here and now’, the tuition fees u-turn still might not have had particularly damaging consequences. To paraphrase Andrew Grice, they’re just on a steep learning curve.

If we look at the broader implications for the political environment at large, any complacency soon evaporates.

Effective leadership is also hallmaked by the way the organisation  engages with its environment. Good leadership encourages:

  • a keen awareness of the organisation’s interdependency with the environment;
  • a sense of stewardship toward the environment, which is considered an obligation of operating within it;
  •  a focus on the long-term health and welfare of the environment, which actually influences organisational decisions and actions.

How has the LibDem leadership fared against these leadership considerations?

Time will tell, but the vital signs of the British political system were not good, even before the tuition fees debacle. According to the latest annual British Social Attitudes report (National Centre for Social Research), also reported in the Independent newspaper:

“…the banking crisis, anger at MPs expenses, and the recession have taken their toll on the perceived trustworthiness of politicians. Four in 10 ‘almost never’ trust British governments of any party to put the national interest first..”

This is the highest ever level of distrust recorded, four times the late 1980s level. At these levels, the very sustainability of the political system may be threatened.

Did the LidDem leadership cause this by itself? Of course not.

Is it doing anything constructive to address the issue? No.

Is it making a major contribution to driving these levels of distrust even higher? Undoubtedly so.

Bill Tate has written about the need to see leadership through a systems lens, not simply as a matter of individual competence and attributes. His ‘fish-tank’ analogy puts it well:

“The employees (including managers and leaders) in the organisation are like fish in a fish tank. People outside are adept at seeing the fish, but most fail to recognise that it’s the water that sustains them and gives them organisational life. And the water is dirty! If you will pardon the expression, people…are constantly shitting in it, making it fearful, stressful, murky, confusing and insecure.” (William Tate [2009] The Search for Leadership, Triarchy Press)

Although he is referring to a single organisation, the analogy works just as well for the bigger system or environment, in which many organisations operate.

3 thoughts on “Tuition Fees: Power and Promises

  1. On matters in general I am an idealist. But on tuition fees I am one of Spincop’s pragmatists. The political ‘system’ (of which we are all a part in one way or another) expects political parties to make election commitments, to simplify and avoid nuance, and not to hedge their bets with ‘ifs and buts’. Parties know that they need to win power if they are to achieve anything. So, they make promises to garner our votes. But the public should take election manifestos with a pinch of salt. If the LibDems had been elected to govern, perhaps the critics would have a point, but the Conservatives won the election. The Government is a coalition, with LibDems a minority. All parties to a coalition cannot have their way. Compromise when it comes to Commons voting means that one party or another is going to be open to the charge of breaking a pledge or principle, not sticking to its guns, etc. Politicians would be wise to resist making pre-election promises. The public and media need to grow up. Instead of singling out the big fish to blame, see and understand that the fishtank (aka the system of attaining and exercising political power) is “fearful, stressful, murky, confusing and insecure”. Cleaning up electioneering (as Phil Woolas found to his cost) is necessary, but political fish will never shine as brightly as we’d like them too, because the water is always going to be somewhat dirty. Not just here but in the Middle East too. It’s easy to see and blame the sharks in Sharm el-Sheikh’s blue waters, but it’s people who dump food waste in those waters and feed fish to get nearer to them and take better pictures. A few days ago I passed a road sign saying ‘Don’t complain about the traffic: you are the traffic’. Well, we are all a part of a politician’s environment: they sometimes feed us promises because they know that is what we want to hear them say, and then we reward them. So stop feeding them in return. Vote for the ‘no promises’ party! Most of them are really trying to do their best in the circumstances. That all we should hold them accountable for.

    1. Bill – this is a good, robust response to the post, much of which I’m in agreement with. I am critical of Clegg, but I accept your point that he’s been swimming in filthy water for some time! I would just like to see a leader (of any political persuasion) make a start, no matter how small, on cleaning it up.

      My particular concern here is that people in high profile leadership roles (in public life and in business) are undermining the credibility of leadership when they act in this way. A classic example is calling for restraint, belt-tightening and sacrifice. This only has any real power if your own record on these matters stands up to scrutiny.

      When it doesn’t, you just water the seeds of cycnicism. How many more percentage points can the ‘I never trust a politican’ score increase by before the whole system is in terminal disrepute? There are some pretty unsavoury political movements swimming in the waters already; people in power should be careful not to provide them with a food supply. Thanks again for your excellent feedback.

  2. I’d have some sympathy with the cry of ‘we didn’t know how bad it was until we were in power, and so that is why we are going back on our promise’ if they didn’t all read the same briefings, walk down the same corridors, and drink in the same bars. In business, if you are externally recruited this cry washes, if you are promoted or transferred from another unit it does not. I suggest that Clegg has been promoted or perhaps transferred from another unit.

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