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Six Lessons for leaders from the partygate affair

Even in its hollowed-out format, Sue Gray’s update on “Partygate” highlighted major issues with the leadership and culture at Number 10 under Boris Johnson. Some have questioned whether such a culture is unique to his tenure and team, or is standard for Downing Street. Regardless of what happened under previous leaders (and judging by her reaction this week, it’s hard to see Theresa “wheat field” May encouraging suitcases full of wine), by the time the pandemic hit, Team Johnson appear to have developed a fierce party habit. Fierce enough that even a national lockdown didn’t slow them down. This speaks volumes about the leadership of Boris Johnson. But while Gray is clear there are lessons in what she uncovered for all those working in government, there are some more widely applicable lessons:

  1. Focus on building a resilient, agile culture. Gray’s report into the misbehaviour at Number 10 admits the unique pressures felt by those dealing with leading the country through a pandemic. It is hard to imagine such pressures. But, as Gray also points out, it is questionable whether these pressures were greater than those felt by front-line staff elsewhere (especially the NHS and social care). The problem is that the people in Downing Street couldn’t imagine what the rest of the country was going through. Pressure is no excuse for parties, gatherings, meetings or cake ambushes that didn’t happen elsewhere. A better leader would have built a team with a robust, resilient culture that didn't require teams to relentless reach for the Prosecco. A greater degree of agility in thinking and acting, more situational awareness and an ability to adapt would have been a bonus. When has running a country not been stressful? A look at the before and after photos of most world leaders (with the exception of Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi) will tell you this. Lesson: Build a supportive team culture that is resilient and agile enough to allow the team to perform to a high-level in times of stress.

  2. Structure and systems matter. It isn't the sexiest part of her report, but Gray highlights early on the rapid expansion of staff numbers in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in recent years. This massive swelling in numbers hasn't been accompanied by any new structures or systems. Whether you agree with her suggestion for a new office of the Prime Minister, the message is clear. Without the right structures and reporting lines it is inevitable that important things fall through the cracks. Like the all-staff memo telling teams to respect the national Covid restrictions and put the partying on hold. Lesson: As a business grows, keep checking it still has the right structures and systems. Decision making bottlenecks can easily develop and cause lots of disruption.

  3. Lead by example. Perhaps the most obvious and therefore depressing lesson from this saga is what Sue Gray describes as the failure of leadership. Any culture is set partly from the top and partly from within. The balance depends on the leader and the context. But the values of an organisation are usually set from the top. We expect our leaders to make more than a token effort to set an example. Leaders are rightly held to a higher standard. And a higher standard is not doing whatever you like on the basis you think no-one will find out about it. Lesson: As a leader you set the tone by your actions. As such you should be held to a higher standard of behaviour than anyone else.

  4. Watch how people behave. A culture or set of values is not a piece of paper on the wall or even a slogan or mantra an entire team can repeat verbatim. A culture is the collective sum of how people think and how they behave. Crucially, to use what might be called “the Bod Diamond test”, how they behave when they think no one is watching or when they feel they may get away with it. A great test for a business is to ask the question “what would this look like (and what impact would it have on our business) if our customers could see this?”. If the answer makes you cringe or shudder, then you probably shouldn’t do it. Lesson: Monitor language and behaviours across the organisation and create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable calling out bad behaviours.

  5. Don’t build an exclusion culture. Gray was clearly pretty rattled by extremes of alcohol consumption she describes as “inappropriate in any professional setting”. The worst part about drink- or drugs-based cultures in any walk of life is how limiting they are. They inherently exclude those unable or unwilling to partake. It restricts the group and limits its thinking. Dominic Cummings used to make a fuss about recruiting mavericks and different thinkers. This is not the way to build a diverse, open and broad-minded team. Lesson: Think about what message you are sending when you focus any regular celebrations or team get togethers around drink.

  6. Build an open culture. There is little question that Sue Gray thinks much of the partying at No10 was allowed to continue because junior members of staff, who may have felt it was inappropriate, were too frightened to speak up. Such a culture will always be suboptimal. Old hierarchies where only senior people have a say will nearly always be out-performed by those allowing everyone a voice, even if the final say on decisions is left in the hands of a senior leader or leaders. Lesson: Think about who in your organisation is under valued in terms of the potential contribution of ideas and decisions. The loudest voices are not always the best informed.