Many admire the strong, even confrontational mode of leadership employed by “enterprise tsar” Alan Sugar, or celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, both of whom have been known to reduce people to tears. But when another Gordon – the Prime Minister – is accused of bullying, an inquiry is called for by his political opponents.
All leaders leave plenty of disgruntled people in their wake, whether they’re ex-employees who feel hard done by or rivals who believe they have been trodden on or shoved aside. The higher a leader rises, the greater the number of detractors. So the existence of people prepared to accuse Gordon Brown of all sorts of character flaws doesn’t come as too much of a surprise: nor the readiness of the opposition to harp on the theme.
But is the Prime Minister guilty of bullying, or just bad temper? While we expect our leaders to be honest, fair-minded and have good judgement, it seems a bit much to demand that they should be brimming with the milk of human kindness as well. A tendency to snap is no virtue, but it’s hardly in the same league as bullying: the systematic, repeated abuse or belittling of another human being who for whatever reason is unable to fight back.
Contrast that with the fiery temperament of a leader like Gordon Ramsay, which goes hand in hand with a clear commitment to get the best out of people. While some will wilt under the pressure, others will flourish in the hothouse atmosphere he creates and rise to match his expectations.
It’s dangerous not to make a clear distinction between an autocratic style of leadership, which may be unfashionable, and bullying, which is rightly decried. A recent survey suggested that many UK managers were afraid to take a firm hand or even criticise staff in case they ended up in a tribunal. These people may be “too nice” to be effective leaders, but the results of their apathy are not nice at all. Those who work hard and are determined to do a good job see their lazy, inefficient peers receiving the same treatment, fatally undermining motivation. In the end, everyone suffers.