There has been a lot in the British news recently about Nadim Zahawi, a cabinet minister who was sacked by prime minister Rishi Sunak at the weekend. Zahawi had been penalised by the UK tax authorities for errors which he had not revealed when asked at various stages. The final straw came when Sir Laurie Magnus, recently appointed ethics advisor to the prime minister, found that Sunak had clearly breached the ministerial code (a code of conduct which ministers are supposed to follow) no less than seven times.
From the perspective of a host leader, this issue is wound up in the Gatekeeper role and the negotiation of boundaries. In the Host book we talk about the negotiation and observance of boundaries as a key part of leading as a host. Host leaders are clear about where boundaries are, and what happens when people cross them.
One kind of boundary is around a space or container where things happen. ‘In this team/project/community we work like this and not like that’. When people join the team or step into the space, it’s the role of the host leader to introduce these boundaries and help folk get accustomed to them. This kind of ‘enforcement’ is more like a routine than a rule; something to be learned and habitually used than enforced with punishments. (Remember, host leaders prefer to work with the soft power of invitation than the hard power of coercion.)
Another related kind of boundary is choosing what is acceptable and encouraged within the space, and what is not. The ministerial code is just such one of these, and is quite clearly written. What’s the problem then? One problem is that in recent times, prime ministers have chosen to ignore it. When home secretary Priti Patel was found to have breached the code by bullying her staff, then-prime minster Boris Johnson announced that he had full confidence in her (prompting the understandable resignation of his ethics advisor Sir Alex Allan). (Some pedants will point out that as the code is the pm’s to write and enforce, they can’t break it – as if such a flexible interpretation would build confidence rather than point out the essentially feudal authority of a British prime minister!)
However, there is another more subtle difficulty here. In all these cases the prime minister has relied on their ethics advisor to make inquiries and deliver a verdict. It seems to me that this means that the prime minister washes their own hands of making what might be a politically difficult decision by passing it on. And I am not alone; constitutional law commentator David Allen Green writes in his excellent Law And Lore blog that:
…it really should not be the job of an adviser, however independent or distinguished, to work out whether a Prime Minister should sack a minister.
A good host leader would surely take their own code and boundaries more seriously? Outsourcing such decisions is a sign that the code is not something that the leader takes seriously but rather will overlook until the evidence is damning from all sources. Rishi Sunak would be a lot stronger by taking his own boundaries seriously and using them decisively. Unless the Conservative government is a party of rogues who are all routinely stepping over the line… perish the thought.
One great example of a boundary making hard decisions easier (and one which is not in the Host book) is from mineral water company Perrier. In 1990 some bottles of the water were found to contain benzene, a toxic chemical. Although the contaminated bottles were found in Denmark and the Netherlands, Perrier withdrew every single bottle on sale everywhere in the world. Perrier’s chairman Gustave Leven said:
”I have built up this company over the past 40 years around an image of perfection, I don’t want the least doubt, however small, to tarnish our product’s image of quality and purity.”
Perrier took a huge financial hit and the damage to their reputation was serious. But the decision to withdraw all the stock from sale was easy.
Dates and mates
Join me at the Host Leadership Gathering 2023 in Vienna, Austria on 12-13 June 2023. We’re looking for interesting participants and (even better) people who’d like to bring along a workshop, a topic for conversation or some thoughts about leading as a host. Full details at https://sinnvoll-fuehren.com/hostleadershipgathering2023/.