A labour of stoicism - RSA

A labour of stoicism


I wrote in my last post about the need for leaders to name, own and manage the feelings of vulnerability and self pity which tend to lurk deep in the organisational psyche. Now I want to touch on another underrated leadership virtue: stoicism.

I will use a thought experiment about Labour leader Ed Miliband to illustrate my point. If nothing else my account may be a little bit more original that the crashingly predictable right and left responses to Labour's travails among today's op ed pieces.

On one account Miliband is now well and truly hoist by his own petard. He stood and won against his brother despite David being more popular with the voters. ( It is an interesting aspect of modern party leadership that 'likability to the Party' is on the 'essential characteristics' list of the person specification while 'likability to the public' is merely on the 'desirable' list; perhaps it was ever thus.)

Since his election as leader Miliband's problem with public credibility has persisted and, if anything, deepened, even when he has performed well. But now the platform on which the Labour Party elected him has been well and truly dismantled.

Ed beat David because he was more left wing (less Blairite), he was more personable (many found David rather aloof) and because he had the backing of the trade unions. Now Miliband sounds centrist on public spending, immigration and welfare, he seems to be realising you can't be a credible leader without taking on troublesome former allies and his relationship with the most powerful trade union is in tatters.

However, some people interpret the last three years differently. In this account the inevitable point of inflection between what what most Labour Party and trade union activists tend to want and what voters will support could not have happened before now without either civil war in the Party or a victory for an unelectable leftism. It is worth noting that political parties are rarely very attractive beasts  in the years after losing power. Whatever its problems, Ed Miliband's 2013 Labour is in a better shape than William Hague's Conservatives in 2000 or Michael Foot in 1982.

It is, of course, impossible to verify the second interpretation as it relies on a counter factual hypothesis (Labour would have imploded without Miliband's willingness to tack left, turn a blind eye to the shenanigans in his Party and tolerate a wide tent). It is not as if Miliband could have been elected in if he had told his Party his secret plan. It is possible that a future memoir by the Labour leader or one of his advisors will claim there was a unfolding strategy, but how would we know that this wasn't simply a post hoc rationalisation? (The proliferation of self serving autobiographies is in part a sign of a declining capacity for stoicism in our political class.)

Things are anyway rarely that linear. More likely Ed Miliband simply felt he was the right person to take over in 2010, that he would be the right person to compete in 2015, but that the route between the two was bound to be bumpy and circuitous. The judgement of history will largely depend on the outcome of the next general election. But even then we will never know whether Labour would have won/lost whoever was its leader.

The point is not restricted to politics; leaders need a capacity for stoicism. You cannot dip your hand in the same stream twice. Important things rarely look the same in hindsight as they do in the present moment. The question of whether Ed Miliband is a blundering  opportunist driven by ambition or a shrewd pragmatist driven by principle  is unlikely ever to receive an answer to which everyone can agree.

Being popular is rarely the same as being wise. Ultimately, self justification is a poor use of time, effort and headspace. Stoicism is a virtue to be sought in leaders, but by its nature we will never really know when it is being exercised.


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