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Leading in a tough market

5 April 2017 By Will Brodie

Theresa May. Image by newstatesman.com
Theresa May. Image by newstatesman.com

Is there a national leader in the developed world facing tougher challenges than British Prime Minister Theresa May?

She supported remaining in the European Union while Home Secretary, but now administers Great Britain’s complex retreat from Europe.

Scotland wants a second referendum on independence from Great Britain; the Great Repeal Bill involves re-tooling thousands of regulations; there are concerns about the rights of individual British and EU citizens; the financial cost of the exit will be at least 30 billion pounds; and, if all the above is negotiated within an exacting two-year timetable, the whole package may still be rejected by the divided UK parliament.

She must deal with extremists who want no deal at all with the EU, and angry Europeans keen to set an example by 'punishing' Great Britain.

Former foreign minister William Hague says Brexit is "the most complex situation in British foreign policy since the 1940s."

Phew.

May’s sensible, strong and "steadying" demeanour impressed most in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and she’s admired for her rigour, sense of duty, and tenacity.

But the honeymoon is over. She is accused of indecision. She is being nicknamed ‘Theresa Maybe’. 

How should she proceed?

Zahira Jaser from the University of London believes May must embrace ‘transformational leadership’.

She says May is an "unstoppable" manager, "a great pragmatic and meticulous doer and planner".

But she says nations need leaders, not managers, and May lacks a “well-crafted vision for the country”.

"She needs to become more attuned at motivating, supporting and guiding people… She must define a unifying ideology that underpins the change."

This is transformational leadership – providing a clear vision of the future and inspiring others to work towards it.

The transformational leader is “energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” writes the author and educator Kendra Cherry.

"Through the strength of their vision and personality, transformational leaders are able to inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations to work towards common goals."

Writer David Straker says transformational leaders must be "up-front", "always visible", always motivating and rallying their followers.

This is not Theresa May.

Jaser says “you never hear her described as a visionary, as empathetic or inspiring”.

May admits she's not a "showy" politician and she doesn’t "wear her heart on her sleeve". She feels that empathy is a “today” word.

"In an era of personality, May projects reliability," wrote Vogue’s Gaby Wood. She describes May’s mission as "practical, dogged, uncharismatic…"

But perhaps that’s part of her appeal for the British public. They don't want a celebrity politician, a Donald Trump.

"It’s not a popularity stakes, being prime minister," May told Wood. "I think what’s important is for people to feel that I’m delivering for them.

"One of the things we’ve seen happening in recent years in politics is an increasing lack of trust between people and the politicians. I think it’s very important that people feel that politicians are holding faith with them."

Theresa May is measured. Reserved. Reflective. Hard-working. Humble. Dependable. Not inspiring or emotional.

But by seeking a middle way and honouring a verdict she didn’t herself support, she appears to have won the trust of many Britons.

Her subdued approach might challenge prevailing wisdom about leadership in times of change. Maybe sometimes a manager is as necessary as a leader. 

Perhaps her style recalls a message from the turbulent 1940s: Keep Calm and Carry On.