12 December 2019
Qualities of a Leader
Responsibilities and duties.
By Lynda Goetz
Last night I watched the news on BBC1. I remembered why I don’t often do this.
“What about the four-year-old boy lying on the floor of Leeds hospital?” insisted the reporter for the second or third time, shoving a large microphone under Boris’s nose.
Eventually, Mr Johnson was forced to stop spouting platitudes about getting Brexit done and at least say how sorry he was for the boy and his family. This still didn’t seem to satisfy the reporter who wanted Boris to admit he had no empathy. This would seem to pose the question as to whether empathy is a required characteristic for good leadership. Some would say ‘definitely’, others might put different qualities higher on their list. The Center for Creative Leadership lists the ‘Characteristics and Qualities of a Good Leader’, based on research and although ‘Caring’ is mentioned in a second list, it does not come in the top ten. ‘Ability to delegate’ however does. (I leave it to you to decide how many of the other Top Ten, Boris might be able to tick.)
This election has sadly not shown any of our politicians in a great light. Nor has it brought out the best in the media or those petulant ‘star’ interviewers like Andrew Neil who appear to think it is their God-given right to summon politicians to appear before them and submit to their particular brand of interrogation. Of course it is incumbent on politicians to tell the public what their policies are and how they intend to deal with power should it be bestowed on them. Nevertheless, there is surely a limit to the extent to which they personally can be responsible for every last thing that happens in the country, both currently and as a result of past decisions which may not have been theirs.
This is not, of course, to say that the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi are not responsible for terrible events happening in their country, but simply that good leaders need to be on top of what is happening but cannot micro-manage all that is going on. This would be impossible. At the end of the day, they are nevertheless ultimately responsible; which is why it has been traditional for leaders in all fields who have failed in this regard to step down or offer their resignation. As Boris Johnson rightly said when he took up the reins of office back in those distant days of summer, ‘The buck stops here’. So it does, although perhaps not for every last tiny detail?
But, you may say, a boy lying on a pile of coats in an emergency admissions ward is not a tiny detail. In a modern economy in a First World country in the 21st century this is not the sort of healthcare the public expects or finds acceptable. Nor, almost certainly, is it the kind of healthcare any leader worth his or her salt (not to mention the consultants and managers in charge) would want to be happening under his or her watch. The problem is that however caring a politician may be, there is a limit to the personal control they have over many situations. The situation in the NHS is almost certainly one of those. The current problems in the NHS may well be the result of years of austerity. They are also the result of a system which was never designed for the population it is now serving nor for the treatments now regarded as mainstream. It was created at a time when expectations were lower and gratitude was greater; demand was lower and lifestyles were very different.
On 14th November this year, Diabetes UK published a report which showed that the number of people with obesity almost doubled in this country in twenty years. There are now 13 million people in the UK who are classified as obese (i.e nearly 20% of the population), up from 6.9 million in 1997. Obesity is the most significant risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. This in turn can lead to life-threatening complications, such as heart attacks or kidney failure. Those who are seriously overweight also frequently suffer other problems such as respiratory and circulation issues. These are people who end up in emergency medical admissions wards putting pressure on already overstretched services. This is currently a massive (no pun intended) issue for the NHS. It should not be. This is partly a problem of education and responsibility for oneself. This does not stop it being a problem which may require government action and intervention, but intervention in the form of education and prevention.
Currently, some at least of the pressure on the NHS is unnecessary and caused by lifestyle ‘choices’. This has a knock-on effect not only on services in general, but on the job satisfaction and stress of those working within a system which is cracking up (as I wrote a few weeks ago*). If we are not very careful and if the public do not see the maintenance of the NHS as their responsibility as well as access to it being their ‘right’, we will not have the medical staff to keep it going at present levels, let alone find more staff to take on. They will simply ‘burn out’ and leave.
Demanding empathy from a potential Prime Minister on the campaign trail for one four-year-old is surely the wrong approach. There are almost certainly other unacceptable scenarios up and down the country, photographs of which have not been uploaded onto social media and hence into the pages of local and then national newspapers and television. Those individual cases are clearly illustrations of a system which is failing. The job of a leader in such a situation is not necessarily to apologise personally to a mother and child for something completely outside his control. It is to emphasise what he can do to change things. He can, if elected with a majority, get rid of the parliamentary gridlock preventing Brexit. If able to govern effectively, he will also be able to look at ways of reforming a broken NHS, ensuring that ill four-year-olds do not end up on piles of coats on the floor, or even on trolleys in the corridor; maybe setting in motion education programmes so that people start to look after themselves before demanding that others minister to them; possibly looking to recoup costs from those who have not paid into our system (in the way all other countries do). That way lies progress and indeed compassion – for all concerned.
Boris Johnson failing to show empathy for a four-year old boy in the chaos of Leeds General Infirmary is absolutely not in the same category as Corbyn’s failure to apologise for racism within his party. That is something clearly within his control. If it wasn’t it should have been. Outrage on the subject is fake, even if the news itself sadly is not**.
As for Aung San Suu Kyi, it is hard to see how one who was feted as a defender of human rights and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign for democracy in her country (Myanmar, which we know as Burma) is now defending that country, of which she has been the leader for a number of years, against accusations of genocide. Her appearance at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Monday,to defend the military’s violence against the Muslim Rohingya in the province of Rakhine, has reignited the questions over her role in the terrible events in 2017, when over 700,000 Rohingya fled the country. It is hard to see that what happened was done without her knowledge or approval. Whether or not she was fully aware of the Generals’ plans, something as serious must always come back to the leader. It will be interesting to see how events in The Hague play out.
In the meantime, I personally am praying for a government here which will be in a position to get Brexit done and maybe, somewhere down the line, address the systemic failures in ‘our NHS’ as well as various other important issues put aside in the stasis of the last few years. What we really cannot afford is another hung parliament. That really will confirm all the fears about the dangers of Brexit – even if it is not Brexit itself, but the lack of it and continuing uncertainty which is the actual problem.