What can we learn from Theresa May’s leadership style?

Theresa May has been accused of "caving in" to Conservative Brexiteers

As Theresa May exits number 10 for the last time as Britain’s second female prime minister, the keys to the door will be handed over to the next leader of the Conservative party – whoever that may be.

Her premiership has undeniably been overshadowed by Brexit’s endless complexities and has received a mixed response from commentators. Stuart Duff, Head of Development at Pearn Kandola looks at what can we learn from the way she has led the country for almost three years? What lessons are leaders able to take away?

Resilient, Robust and Rigid

We can categorise May’s entire leadership into three consecutive personality traits; resilience, robustness and rigidity. Initially, she could be described as resilient; open to advice and consultation from her colleagues and aides. She was willing to listen and face up to her critics, a trait which slipped away as her time in power went on. This was a promising start. Resilience is a vital characteristic for leaders of any kind and one that can be maintained simply. By having an awareness of the impact that a knockback may have, broadening and deepening their understanding and taking decisive action, leaders are in strong positions to deliver what they have promised and bounce back from defeat.

As she met resistance though, May become more robust and pushed away advisers, as her desire was placed firmly on delivering what she had promised to the British people; leaving the European Union. Her growing unwillingness to consult anyone across the spectrum demonstrated that her view on leaving was firmly set, and this cemented the two incredibly polarised groups; remain and leave.

The final trait that May displayed was rigidity. Instead of being flexible, she became even more rigid and repetitive, as demonstrated by her multiple attempts to win over the House of Commons with the same Brexit deal. Her seeming unwillingness to continue to negotiate the deal she had achieved with the EU, even when faced with huge objections from within her party, illustrates her inability to change her tact and be flexible.

May’s single-minded approach appeared to be heavily ingrained in her mindset, so it’s important to look at its origins. May is a textbook introvert; her leadership style was always underpinned by her need for clarity. She sees the world in black and white, and right or wrong. She needed a clear way forward and plan of action which she believed and totally backed, without room for deviation on any scale.

There are other disadvantages of having a fixed mindset, which can impact any leader. In May’s case, she was often described as showing a lack of empathy and appeared disconnected when faced with humanitarian issues such as the Grenfell Tower disaster or the Windrush scandal. This perceived lack of compassion could be explained by many things, but her deep-rooted introversion is the most likely cause. Whilst it would be unfair to suggest she lacks any compassion for her fellow citizens, her set principles make it almost impossible for her to change her narrow view that what she has chosen, and the actions she has carried out are right.

Arguably, May’s biggest mistake across her 34-month period as Prime Minister, was her failure to listen, a trait that all leaders must exercise competently. Resigning cabinet ministers, of which she faced more than any of her 5 predecessors, often cited her inability to listen and compromise as key reasons behind their departures in cabinet.

As a leader, the ability to ‘actively’ listen improves mutual understanding and is vital for effective communication, as it encourages people to be open with their opinions, avoids misunderstandings, resolves conflict and builds trust. The high turnover of ministers brings us back to May’s rigidity. She was unwilling to venture away from her set path, even at the cost of potentially embarrassing and very public resignations.

These three traits; resilience, robustness and rigidity, aren’t unique to Theresa May. In times of uncertainty, not dissimilar to the situation that May found herself in, it’s important that all leaders are able to manage difficult conversations or even difficult colleagues. They need to remain resilient instead of becoming robust; to be able to build and maintain trust and assert themselves in a range of situations.

Ultimately, May’s resignation was a last resort. She had exhausted every possibility of achieving the Brexit deal she had negotiated, and her rigidity has resulted in the deadlocked position that parliament finds itself in. The emotional exhaustion was apparent, and we saw just how much doing what she believed was the right thing mattered to her.

What’s next?

The front runners for next party leader, and ultimately Prime Minister, are a varied bag of characters and personalities in comparison to the awkward and introverted May. The candidates have all sat back and watched her struggle to lead the country, with a notoriously complex mandate, through some of the most politically uncertain times of the last 100 years. But will her successor have learnt from her mistakes? How should the next Prime Minister, whoever it may be, act to ensure a smoother and more successful tenure?  What traits should a business leader be nurturing to ensure they lead a successful team?

Firstly, a successful leader must be able to communicate openly, be it to their team or customers, or in politics; to their own party, the opposition and the general public with clear, concise and easily understood messages. They will need to be flexible and open to change and be able to realise quickly when things aren’t working. Unlike May, they need to be able to view the world in more than just black or white; the ambiguous grey in-between needs to be acknowledged. Finally, they should learn from May’s struggles with empathy, and recognise that being able to see and respect the perspective of others is crucial.

May’s inability to reconnect with her initial resilience and flexibility, dynamic and healthy leadership traits which allow for learning, meant she became more and more rigid. She continued to carry on when her chosen path was clearly no longer working, because she was fundamentally unable to change her mind, or her style. Theresa May became Prime Minister at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and ambiguity. Time will tell whether her successor will bring a progressive and energetic leadership to the Conservative Party and to Number 10.