Theresa May and Situation Leadership

On May 24, 2019, Theresa May resigned from her position as the prime minister of the United Kingdom (although she will continue on until a successor is chosen).  At Lead Read Today, I am always interested in examining leadership through a diversity and inclusion lens.  As only the second female prime minister of the United Kingdom, I can’t help but think about May’s time as a leader through this lens.

I am not the only one thinking about this; a quick internet search shows there is no shortage of opinion pieces examining her leadership style and the mistakes she has made.  The verdict seems to be negative; May is now polling as one of the least popular prime ministers of all time.

Indeed, my own previous work on Lead Read Today could also be used to examine her time as a leader.  I wrote about women often being raised to leadership positions during times of crisis (as May was in response to Brexit) which can be a perilous glass cliff for them.  Additionally, I wrote about the higher price minority leaders pay when they make mistakes compared to non-minorities.  Would men have been judged as harshly for handling Brexit negotiations as she has?

However, rather than contributing more to the vast number of leadership analyses that are out there about May, today I want to think about the role of the situation.  Situational leadership theory suggests that when examining leadership, we can’t just look at the attributes and qualities of the leader[1].  In addition to this, we have to also consider the situation.  “Situation” can be broadly defined.  For instance, the situation includes the followers; do the needs and working styles of the followers match what the leader provides?

The situation also includes the environment in which the leader is operating.  For example, some have argued that environments that are complex and/or dynamic can impact a leader’s style as well as his or her effectiveness[2].  In other words, leadership traits and behaviors that are effective in normal situations may be less so when the environment is complex and changes frequently.  This suggests that there may not be objectively “good” or “bad” leadership skills — it depends on the followers and the situation.

So how does this apply to Theresa May?  As I stated, many have analyzed her as a leader and have argued she lacks good leadership skills.  But maybe people are forgetting about the situation.  When studying leadership, it is easy to ignore this because it is hard to measure and define.  But perhaps May’s leadership skills would have led to success in different situations?  Perhaps she wasn’t a bad leader — but just a bad leader for this particular situation?  It’s hard to say, but it is worth at least considering.

Thinking about the effect of the situation on leadership can help us have compassion for leaders.  As outsiders, it is easy at times to think to ourselves “that leader really did a poor job — I could have done better!”  But thinking about the situation adds a layer of complexity in determining someone’s performance as a leader.  There is no formula for perfect leadership, and when we think about how leaders have performed (including Theresa May) we can keep this in mind.


References

[1] Thompson, G., & Glasø, L. (2015). Situational leadership theory: A test from three perspectives. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 36, 527–544.

[2] DeCelles, K. A., & Pfarrer, M. D. (2004).  Heroes or villains?  Corruption and the charismatic leader.  Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 11, 67 – 77.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.