Margaret Thatcher presented to the Conservative party conference in 1980 and coined the phrase “the lady’s not for turning”, a demonstration to the world and the trade unions that this Prime Minister was here to demonstrate her strength of leadership and resilience. Her marker for change was a reflection on the former conservative leaders who had failed in the past to stamp their authority on Britain’s mandates during the 1970’s. Margaret Thatcher was a strong and bearing leader who was resolute in decision, but never turned back from a poor or outdated decision she made. Was this a weakness in her leadership or a strength and was this a warning to future leaders?
The current pandemic has forced change upon the world as a whole and the sporadic changes and rate of decision-making has, and still is, causing uncertainty and confusion; ‘Welcome to the new norm’. More recently the strange handling of the A Level results saw a defending Minister for Education put his faith in a reassuring Ofqual and a computer algorithm resulting in a fierce backlash across the country. The mass of emotionally distressed students, angry parents and bewildered teachers piled on the pressure to reverse the concrete decision set by Gavin Williamson. The sceptics say that he forced himself into such an inflexible position by decrying the action taken by the Scottish Government with regard to their rapid U-turn over the Scottish results but, whatever the reason, he had to do his own U-turn shortly afterwards.
Leaving aside the issue of whether the Ofqual algorithm discriminated against the most disadvantaged; surely the protests and parades of disappointed students in Scotland should have been an indicator of what would happen in England when a similar scale of downgrading took place? A view taken by many was that a government who claimed to be creating a level playing field for all was actually bringing inequality to capable students from schools who were under performing. We could argue that the greater issue wasn’t the 180 degrees change in decision, but the time taken to do it. If the decision had been a show of unity with the rest of the United Kingdom with a quick and fair action would the Minister be facing a crisis and calls for his resignation?
So, the question should be asked “Is it OK to U- turn?”
The truth is that we change our minds every day, at work in the home and on social media where everyone has an opinion and is free to express it without fear of reprisal. Then why should people whose job it is to steer this country into calmer waters face constant haranguing from their opposite numbers and the public? Why is it that leadership, it’s thought process and character traits are so strongly criticised in some but ignored and forgotten in others? Its time to accept the course of change as a regular occurrence not now and again.
Now, regardless of position or profession, Jemima Kelly from the Financial Times argues that “contrary to its negative image, a U-turn is a sign of a healthy and functional democracy; a demonstration that a government and a country is willing to listen and that the media, opposition parties and public have the power to hold all leadership and those in the spotlight to account”. However, it appears that unless you are a politician, the U-turn is not a subject to get too worked up about.
In the world of sport, U-turning and change is an everyday occurrence. Michael Jordan is possibly the most famous and successful basketball player in history. He caused uproar at the beginning of the 1993/4 season when he retired from basketball to pursue a career in baseball following the murder of his father. This was a great U-turn, however in March 1995 he announced his comeback with a two-word press release, “I’m back.” Jordan again retired in January 1999 but returned to the sport a year later as part owner and President of Basketball Operations for the Washington Wizards. However, in September 2001 he made his second basketball comeback, as a player for the Wizards. Jordan eventually ended his career in his final game against the Philadelphia 76ers on 16th April 2003 to cap a remarkable career full of high-profile U-turns.
The ‘so what’ of this? The Jordan example lays out the argument that it seems perfectly acceptable amongst most that icons such as Jordan can change their mind whenever it suits, although team-mates, coaches and supporters may beg to differ; whereas an individual from a different profession is not granted the same courtesy. Is this double standard purely down to our perceived image and constant rhetoric of politician’s misgivings or is it basically those in politics have the ability to influence our futures as individuals? Is it easier to like sports persons rather than politicians?
Culturally it seems wrong to let down those who depend on your leadership and direction but the culture and more so image that exists in sport and politics is hugely influenced by the same antagonists namely the media and general public. Sport is littered with personalities who retired but then miraculously returned invigorated and ready to join the fight, the likes of Pele, Tyson Fury, Michael Phelps, and Michael Jordan. So, what we can take from this is that it’s not perhaps the U turn for the sportsperson that is important or recognised by wider public, but why they chose to change their minds, whether it was financial, the pressure of no adoration, we would like to think that to them it was important and that’s why they returned or U turned and the nation accepts that.
A good example of acceptance to change and agile process is the ability of industry and business who confidently display that the U-turn is not a negative aspect of decision-making but shows strength of leadership. Companies know that if their business model is not working, they must continually alter course to keep the confidence of stake and shareholders. This is commonly known as a “pivot”, a term made famous by Silicon Valley. Moving away from a radical and damaging 180-degree turn, pivoting encompasses small adjustments as information and the wider picture begins to emerge and take shape, this method to date seems to be universally accepted by the market.
In our personal lives too, we tend to see those who can take criticism on board and adjust their behaviour accordingly as praiseworthy and broad-minded, while regarding those who are unwilling to listen to other opinions or advice as pig-headed or arrogant. For what it’s worth the Education Secretary did listen to those subject matter experts (SME’s) around him and the information, although perceived to be correct, did not reflect the previous crisis narrowly avoided by the Scottish Government. We need to learn from others and continue to listen but it’s the job of leadership to decide when the potential hazards can harm the future of many.
The main problem of U turning seems to be the reluctance of leaders in certain professions to be confident enough to change their mind and be decisive for fear of dismissal and shaming. For them to succeed in a crisis they need the right information at the right time, something that unfortunately, they won’t always have. The problem with others under that rule and the opposition is that they seem reluctant to allow mistakes to be made by those in power, thus growing a culture of dishonesty and mistrust. Let us not forget that its human to make errors.
So, before we jump to applaud or seek retribution of leadership, maybe we all need to accept and live with the U-turn; with leaders identifying when the plan needs to change and having the courage to do so; and that we should see it as a strength not a weakness…