by Achim Nowak

Lessons from a Leadership Trainwreck

October 24, 2022

I confess.

I watched the Liz Truss train-wreck with glee. Couldn’t get enough of the news. Even her most ardent detractors didn’t expect Truss to derail as quickly as she did. Watching the debacle unravel was akin to witnessing the performance of a 5-act Greek tragedy distilled into 15 minutes. All heightened. Condensed. So inevitable.

And in many ways so satisfying.

I trust the precis of what happened is still vivid. In a time of high inflation, a new prime minister institutes unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy and an equally unfunded 2-year subsidy on energy costs for her citizens. The financial markets rebel. The country’s financial infrastructure starts to collapse. The media ridicules her.

The leadership juice, however, is in the details.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently." 

Warren Buffett

While the trainwreck shone light on the ugliness of retail politics, allow me to take this moment to reflect on how the lessons from the Liz Truss debacle inform the choices a corporate leader makes. The dynamics in a corporate playground do not perfectly parallel those in politics. The human foibles that derailed this train, however, have the power to impact human behavior in any situation.

Don’t make the Truss mistakes. Mind the following beliefs that, conscious or subterranean, will impede your personal impact in YOUR professional arena.

The norms don’t apply to me.

In her eagerness to act quickly, fueled by the arrogance of a leader who believes that her marginal economic value system will be the “stroke of genius” that fixes longstanding structural problems, Truss chose an organizational by-pass to get it done.

Ms. Truss, writes Max Colchester in The Wall Street Journal (Colchester, WSJ, 10/20/22, “Liz Truss Resigns as U.K. Prime Minister After Tax Plan Caused Market Turmoil”), a former chartered accountant for Shell PLC and other companies, and her allies refused to have the tax-cut and energy subsidy plans assessed by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which normally publishes an analysis alongside new government budgets to account for their impact on public finances.

The desire to by-pass norms is often animated by an outsized belief in the brilliance of our ideas, a sense of grandiosity, and a ferocious personal ambition, even when we downplay it publicly to “act nice.” In her brilliant and scathing opinion piece in The New York Times, published 2 days prior to Truss’s resignation, Tanya Gold put it as follows: Ms. Truss is as close to ambition for its own sake as you can find, and the spectacle of her failure carries a certain thrill. (Gold. NY Times, 10/18/22, “Liz Truss Is Finished”).

Ambition, beware.

I will throw you under the bus if I have to.

When her economic plans invoked instant and near universal backlash, Truss summoned her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Karteng, home from a US trip and promptly fired him. I mean, someone had to take the fall, right?

Karteng had been Truss’s closest political ally for years. He had announced a tax and subsidy plan that was very much Truss’s plan. He was the agent of their shared ideas and values. In the act of swiftly dismissing her closest political ally and friend, Truss made it very clear: Please don’t trust me. Don’t think I have your back. I will kick you to the curb if I have to. In a flash.

Shakespearean character flaws. Nothing new, unambiguously displayed. They made it just as easy for others to then kick Truss to the curb.

Loyalty wins the long game. Always does.

They chose me because they want big changes.

It’s one of the most fatal leadership beliefs. I see it in my corporate coaching practice, all the time. You are hired because things aren’t working in the Status Quo. You are told that changes are needed. Big changes. And you’re told that you have been hired to make those changes.

Guess what. When they said changes they meant mini-changes. Baby steps. Band-aid solutions. You sneer at that notion because you know that incremental changes offer only incremental relief. You are right, of course. You missed entirely, however, that your organization is not ready for the BIG changes you champion. They like to hear you talk about big ideas. They want baby steps.

You believed them. That was a fatal flaw.

I have support for my ideas.

You likely counted the votes prior to a key stakeholder meeting. You have lobbied behind the scenes. You have a pretty good idea of who will support a perhaps controversial proposal you’re about to make. And you’re proud of yourself. Because they do, indeed, vote with you.

Great start. Liz Truss learned very quickly that immediate-vote-count support only gets you so far. In any business situation, there are legions of other stakeholders. Does your immediate team who has to execute your initiative support it? Are the workers on the factory floor who are impacted by your initiative ready to execute it? And if you’re a publicly traded company – do analysts who shape the public narrative about your firm support it?

Building support for an initiative takes more than a few chats with key power brokers. Liz Truss never got that memo.

One of the most fatal derailers for any leader is the inability to fully, deeply appreciate context. Context is real. It is invariably complex, and it will never be ignored. Liz Truss’s leadership errors unraveled in the midst of a powerful historical context that Truss, I surmise, reveled in but did not fully grasp. The aforementioned Tanya Gold describes is as follows:

Queen Elizabeth II’s death, on the third day of the new prime minister’s tenure, left Britain morning a leader it loved. The defenestration of Ms. Truss, I feel, is an unacknowledged part of that public mourning, a way of honoring one Elizabeth by rejecting another. Ms. Truss certainly invited opprobrium with her recklessness: Only 6 percent of the country supports her tax cuts, while Elizabeth II preached unity and love. That is the kind of authoritarianism the British like, the velvet kind. In comparison, Ms. Truss looked tinny and pitiful. She could be dismissed.

When a tinny and pitiful leader tosses an economic hand grenade into a mourning crowd, support is not the outcome.

Context rules. Always does. Let us honor it, please, and not ever forget.

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