Dilemmas of leadership: The Blears Brown case

May 4, 2009
Hazel Blears

Hazel Blears

Leadership is sometimes described as managing irresolvable dilemmas. The Blears Brown episode is a case in point

Update: The expenses scandal

The original post [May 4th 2009] identified a possible problem for Gordon Brown. It indicated that actions by one of his ministers could present Gordon Brown with a dilemma.

The issue later became part of a wider series of leadership problems for the Prime Minister around what became known as the expenses scandal of Members of Parliament, revealed by The Daily Telegraph.

Hazel Blears continued to figure in the expenses scandal. She stood accused of financial irregularities. Within weeks she was forced into publicly announcing she was paying back some of the incorrectly claimed expenses. She was also to resign her ministerial position at a time and in a matter which which seemed to be deliberately damaging to The Prime Minister. The famous image at the time was Hazel Blears wearing a ‘rocking the boat’ badge as she announced her intentions to resign.

The simple issue of dealing with Hazel Blears became part of a wider issue of a leader having to deal with a more orchestrated attempt to replace him (or her). In that respect you can think of the specific issue as having far wider implications.

Original post follows …

This week continued to bring troubles in battalions to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. A range of incidents seem to be accelerating his political downfall. In Westminster his attempts to deal decisively with a looming scandal over MPs expenses were defeated with opposition aided by defectors from his own ranks. His attempt to reach out to the people, Obama style, through U-tube came across as clumsy, his smile somewhere to the downside of President Nixon’s election-losing image many years ago.

Then when he might have attracted some positive headlines for being in charge, as the authorities appeared to have coped pretty well in managing and communicating the Swine Flu story, a flurry of criticism from cabinet colleagues [May 2nd-3rd 2009]. The BBC picks up the story

It is difficult to describe the government’s communications efforts as a “lamentable failure”, then persuade people you did not mean to criticise the prime minister. That was the position the Communities Secretary Hazel Blears found herself in after news of her Sunday newspaper article broke. Just days earlier Gordon Brown had faced down critics of his YouTube videos and insisted he would use the site again. So when Hazel Blears said “YouTube if you want to”, but traditional methods were best, she both coined a catchy phrase and risked publicly contradicting her boss.

The question now is how will Mr Brown respond? Sacking her in a future reshuffle could look petty. Allowing her to stay could look weak.

Dilemmas of leadership

A nice example of the dilemmas of leadership: Mr Brown can sack Hazel Blears, or not sack her. If she were to be sacked, Gordon Brown would look petty, not sacking her could look weak. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

Surely that can’t be right?

I leave it to Leaders We Deserve subscribers to find a way through this dilemma. It even feels like a story which would make a nice examination question for a formal leadership course. [Hint: Either-or thinking is a barrier to creativity. It signals a simplified version of real-world events. Escaping from either-or thinking may be helped by a leap of imagination or a knight’s move through which the dilemma is reframed. Are there ways that GB can act which disciplines HB without being seen to be petty? Are there ways which turns a threat into an opportunity? ] Perhaps you should send the best of your ideas to the Government via U-tube.

To go more deeply

Knight’s move thinking was described in the context of strategic problem-solving in Creativity and Problem Solving at Work. The process was attributed to Manchester Business School post-graduate Dr Peter Eliott . Either-or thinking can be challenged by reframing as in what ways might we…? .