The invisible man(ager)

David Cameron, by all accounts, takes a pretty hands-off approach to leading his party, his coalition government and by extension, the country. He’s had to re-affirm that he’s even in charge because he’s not in the country. Which I thought was a bit odd. I mean, as anyone who’s worked in a giant global corporation knows, just because your manager may be in a different country, doesn’t mean he’s not your boss.

Technology has of course made this easier. Cameron reminded us that in the age where you have Blackberrys, email and social media, you don’t really leave work when you leave work. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I don’t read work email or answers work calls after a certain time of day, because it would encroach on my personal life. I expect others to feel the same so I don’t make those calls either, but I know several people who simply can’t not answer an email, even when on holiday on a beach in the Caribbean. These people are mostly senior leaders, so perhaps if I ever want to reach those lofty heights, I should start being more contactable – but I’d rather have my leisure time than money.

I would expect the leader of the country to be the same as those Crackberry addicts – always checking (or at least having minions to check) your email, making sure memos and reports are timely and on my desk or in my briefcase, that messages are returned and calls are made. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to believe that when Cameron is trolling the Middle East for more money, he’s also keeping an eye on anything important kicking off in this country.

But, and here’s the big but, he might be in charge but to many of his ministers and direct reports, out of sight, out of mind. It seems that while he’s away, it’s less the mice will play and more the mice will relax, not pay attention to some memos and then realise they have two crises on their hands at the same time and panic. It’s a bit galling (or gauling) when the French beat you to evacuating your people from a rioting country.

Is this Cameron’s fault? There’s a lot of finger pointing and apologies being made, and while we’re slow at getting people out of Libya, we are doing it now. I take the rare move of defending the government when I hear those holiday makers saying that the government didn’t tell them if and when to leave the country. I’m sorry, there’s gunfire and bombs and mercenaries roaming the streets, and you have to have your government several thousand miles away make the decision to leave for you? Fuck off and use your common sense. Flights have been cancelled since Tuesday but this has been going on for over a week.

But for those in this country with friends and family members living out there complaining that they aren’t getting the information and planes should be chartered to get them out sooner, I do think that perhaps his management approach isn’t the best. While I hate micro-managers, you would think that he’d take a greater interest in the welfare of the British people.

The Guardian reports that his managerial style is causing a certain vagueness to descend on Whitehall – a lack of communication perhaps:

“Critics blamed the set-up on Cameron’s hands-off approach, akin to a chairman of the board rather than a chief executive, for the failure to get a grip over Whitehall.”

I personally don’t see a CEO having more hands-on experience than a Chairman, just more visibility, but I do see their point – a vague patriarchal interest in ministerial matters ain’t going to cut it – he needs to know what’s going on, take an active interest and make decisions when it’s necessary. No use sitting back and saying ‘I’m the leader, I do the foreign tours and make the speeches and kiss the babies and meet the Queen and you guys do all the work’, you need to be able to say you know what’s going on and why. We have a fairly inquisitive media and a slightly hostile public, you can’t take the helicopter view all the time as leader, there has to be some substance.

And that’s perhaps the problem. Because when it comes to Cameron, so much of what he says and does seems intangible, all smoke and mirrors. From the fact that the percentage of people who understood the Big Society went down after the re-launch (63% didn’t understand it at the end of January, 72% didn’t understand it mid-February), to his speech mentioning Egypt once and instead focusing on how we should be afraid of Muslims who don’t integrate (terrible speech), he doesn’t seem to have his finger on the pulse. And in today’s tech-heavy, fast-moving society who looks for decisive and informed leadership, that just doesn’t cut it.

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