George Osborne and the Dilemmas of Leadership

October 22, 2008
George Osborne

George Osborne

George Osborne hits the headlines accused of illegal soliciting of funds at a dinner party. The case illustrates the dilemmas of leadership, and the specific challenge of balancing public and private activities

George Osborne stands accused of illegal soliciting of funds Public interest is the greater because the story involves figures of great wealth and or political influence.

For me, the interest also lies in the general issue of the dilemmas of leadership, and the specific challenge of balancing public and private activities. It’s a case example which wannabe leaders would do well to reflect on. It’s the sort of thing that crops up in examination papers on leadership.

The context

According to the Telegraph [Oct 22nd 2008]

The son of Lord Rothschild, who usually shuns publicity, wrote to [The Times] yesterday to claim that George Osborne’s visit to the yacht owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire .. was to “solicit a donation” for the Conservatives

The article sketches out the breaking story, claiming that Rothchild had been spooked by the possibility of his links with Deripaska becoming the subject of an investigation.

It’s an extraordinary allegation by [Nat Rothchild] , who was Osborne’s host in Corfu and has been his chum since they were members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. He [Rothchild] has also been involved in fundraising for the Tories under David Cameron, and has made a great part of his estimated £1.3 billion fortune through his association with Deripaska.

A few more complications

The story is already pretty complicated. But there is more. Yesterday, Mr Osborne made a hastily convened statement to the press outside Westminster. In it he denied all wrong-doing. But the press, led by tenacious Nick Robinson at his Clark Kent best, probed on. Nick was on the scent of something.

The story behind the story was hinted at. There had been several meetings during the summer which had been hosted by Nathaniel Rothchild. Among whose guests were Peter Mandelson, and as we know George Osborne. (Rupert Murdoch was also present, and may have played a peripheral role in the drama, as I will suggest below).

The sub-plot involved what Peter Mandelson said in private about the Prime Minister. At the time Mandy was widely assumed to be far removed from Gordon Brown politically, and with a reputation for private indiscretions. At some point, Mandelson was indiscrete in private. Osborne was subsequently indiscrete in public, leaking the rather unsurprising news that Mandy had dripped poison about The Prime Minister into the ears of anyone interested in listening.

Not much of a story. But a few months, and a financial crisis later, Gordon, now redefined as a politician of world stature, brings Mandelson back into Government, ennobling him in the process. Osborne’s story had become hot news.

Mandelson’s revenge?

The story within the story is now explained as the youthful Rothschild, miffed and anxious over intrusions into his business relationship with Deripaska, beginning to see George Osborne and his indiscetions as the cause of his troubles. Max attacks in The Times, perhaps encouraged by Mandelson. (I assume that was implied in the parting shot from Nick Robinson, who asked Osborne if he regretted ‘crossing Peter Mandelson’).

Dilemmas of leadership

So there we are. A nasty little muddle. A rising star of the political right cast as a foolish young man. What can we make of the story from a leadership point of view.

Political blogger Tim Montgomerie suggested in a radio interview that the story was an attempt by political opponents to nobble George Osborne. Montgomerie pointed out the importance of Osborne’s strategic nous to the party. Actually, as a political attack, it would have been just as effective if George was far less significant, on the principle that picking off a weak enemy undermines the stronger ones).

Whether orchestrated or not, the problem clearly gets back to the management of private and public personas. It makes sense for a public figure to have private conversations with those who might be helpful to the public cause. And the rich and powerful are high on the list. But how to ‘keep your wits when all about you are losing theirs .. walk with crowds and keep your virtue .. talk with kings nor lose the common touch’?

The dilemma is between competing values and trade-offs. There is no free lunch even if invited by a billionaire. But you still have a choice of how you pay. And the more powerful expect some reward. What better than offering a personal revelation about another powerful (and absent) figure? Which was why I noted that Rupert Murdoch might have been present, adding to the temptation of those so inclined to drip a bit of poison. But the rules of the game are those of Omerta. The confidentiality of the diner table is not so much sacrosanct as tradable but with great care. George Osborne traded unwisely.

There is another way …

Most political and business satire presents the utterly amoral nature of those scrambling for survival and supremacy in a Darwinian struggle. In contrast, the dynamics of power I have described are largely ignored in the popular inspirational books about the transformational leader.

It seems to me that there is another way of dealing with the dilemmas of leadership. It involves treating leadership as an unfinished challenge. We can study and reflect on experiences such as these. What would we have done? What might have been a better way to have acted? It is a way available to those who believe that leadership can be developed – regardless of accidents of birth and upbringing.