Cracks in the coalition and the lessons for leaders

Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg insist that the work of the coalition Government will continue following the result of the alternative vote (AV) referendum. However, although the result may not directly affect the work of the coalition, the way that the campaign was publicly fought by the Prime Minister and his deputy almost certainly will.

During the AV campaign, both Cameron and Clegg have shown that they are happy to criticise each other in public. Some might say that this shows their honesty with each other and with the electorate. Others may feel that it reveals a lack of unity and commitment to their shared leadership role.

Both are true, I believe. But, as a lesson in leadership, it shows us how damaging it can be to people’s confidence in their leaders when those leaders reveal that their individual opinions or interests are more important to them than their collective responsibility as leaders of the organisation. Or, in the case of Cameron and Clegg, the country.

The AV campaign has caused the greatest rift the public has seen between the coalition leaders since last year’s election. Clegg admitted on Radio 4’s Today programme that he had been “naïve” to think that the referendum would not cause cracks in the Government. He said he had hoped that the debate on AV would rise above party politics.

Simon Hayward
Simon Hayward, managing partner, Cirrus

Cameron has continued to insist the coalition is cohesive and strong, claiming that the “robust argument” over AV has not prevented a joint approach to other issues such as terrorist threats and welfare reform. Even should this be the case, leaders need to be aware that how their actions are perceived by others is critical. What the public has witnessed during the AV debate is at best disharmony, at worst personal attacks.

Few expect relations between the two leaders to heal quickly. Clegg is clearly disillusioned by what he sees as a broken promise by Cameron. It has been widely reported that the Lib Dem leader believed that he had assurances that the Prime Minister would not engage fully in the “No” campaign. It must, therefore, have come as quite a surprise when Cameron campaigned so wholeheartedly against AV in the three weeks leading up to the vote. Lib Dem fury intensified as polls increasingly swung against the “Yes” campaign.

The energy secretary and former Lib Dem leadership candidate Chris Huhne was particularly angered by the vociferous support from Cameron and his fellow Tories for the “No” campaign. Cabinet colleagues reported an outburst from Huhne at a recent cabinet meeting, where he accused Conservative ministers of endorsing political and personal attacks on Nick Clegg.

Lord Ashdown, one of Clegg’s closest allies, accused Cameron of a “breach of faith”, criticising the Prime Minister’s refusal to dissociate himself from what he described as the “regiment of lies” poured out by the “No” campaign. Lord Ashdown also said that the bonhomie, goodwill and trust which has “lubricated” the coalition has been destroyed by bitter campaigning which he believes will have long-term negative consequences for the partnership.

Leaders have a responsibility to make the organisation they lead their priority. Whether the organisation is a large business or an entire nation, its leaders set the tone. When leaders bicker, pursue vested interests or play politics, they are saying that their own interests are more important than those of the organisation they represent. The message for people in the team, the business or the nation is clear. They know that were they the priority, were their shared interests the focus, their leaders would put vested interests to one side in the wider interests of the people they lead.

A year ago, Cameron and Clegg stood side by side in the garden of 10 Downing Street at their first joint press conference as coalition leaders. They offered the British public a “new politics” and “a new kind of government.” They pledged to put the differences and animosity of electioneering firmly in the past – even laughing off and apologising for some of the swipes that they had taken at each other.

The economic downturn has already made many people increasingly cynical about both politics and big business. Rhetoric alone no longer wins hearts and minds: people want to see words and promises backed up by real action. They want honesty and integrity from their leaders.

Had Cameron and Clegg conducted their respective campaigns with respect for each other’s views and with real dignity, the impact on the strength of the coalition might have been more positive. In order to rebuild trust (never an easy task, given the British public’s inherent mistrust of politicians), the two will now need to demonstrate genuine joint leadership, shared responsibility and respect. I suggest that this will require a fundamental realignment of their personal and political interests if it is to be of any genuine long-term value.

In business, as in politics, real collaboration between leaders not only ensures smooth and successful team-working at senior level – it also sends a strong message to others across the organisation that unity is important in order to achieve objectives. Leaders are powerful role models, and often their actions and attitude influence others more than the words they use.

In politics, as in working life, we respect leaders with principles.

Simon Hayward is managing partner at Cirrus, a specialist in leadership development and strategic employee engagement, and welcomes your views on this article.

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