DISCUSSION Leaders in name only

by Michael Wise _______21st October 2018
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The embarrassment suffered by Sir Craig Mackey, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, after it was revealed that he had locked himself in a car while in the vicinity of the perpetrator of last year’s Westminster Bridge terrorist attack, does inevitably lead one to reflect on the nature of leadership.

Initially, through the unforgiving filter of social media and newspapers, it appeared a particularly egregious example of how leadership has been, or is being, eroded. Of how those who do not possess what most people might describe as “the right stuff” rise to the top regardless. They doubtless have all the right skills and experience, have a strong record of success, and have probably said all the right things to all the right people. This is all impressive stuff, but it only goes so far. So far as genuine leadership goes, it’s akin to pitching your tent at Mount Everest’s base camp.

What happened on March 22nd 2017 was over in little more than a minute. A terrorist, Khalid Masood, had killed four members of the public and injured around 50 others using his vehicle as a weapon before arriving at the Palace of Westminster. There he fatally stabbed PC Keith Palmer before being shot dead by armed officers.

It was just before Masood encountered PC Palmer that Mackey, who was present for a meeting with then police minister Brandon Lewis, took action. Having seen the terrorist brandishing a knife from a parked car, his instinct had been to climb out. Yet as Mackey told the inquest into Masood’s death: “I had no personal protective equipment, no radio, two colleagues with me who were quite traumatised by what they had seen, so we moved out and I began co-ordinating the response you saw. My instinct was not the right response, I was in shirtsleeves, with no radio, I didn’t know if the attack was on going.”

According to Met chief Cressida Dick, he did the right thing. Moreover, she added, any criticism was “confused, unpleasant, personalised and ignorant” and was “simply not supported by the evidence”.

A quick perusal of the comments section of the Times Online showed how Dick’s stance left her in a minority of, according to my rough estimate, about 50 to 1. Below are some of the comments:

“I don’t hold him to a higher standard due to his rank. I hold him to the standard of any officer. He failed to live up to the expectations of any officer.”

“I know from experience that a time does come in your life when you need to grit your teeth, put on your war face and get amongst them…Had he done what he states his initial instincts told him, then he could say ‘this was his finest hour’ , now, he’s just Mackey the uniform carrier with his head hung low for the rest of his life.”

“Sets the very dangerous precedent for all other serving police officers to have the choice not to intervene when they are obligated by their ‘Oath and Duty’ to do so.”

“As a leader you shouldn’t order someone to do what you haven’t done or not willing to do yourself. Yet if a PC had done the same on that day they would have been disaplinned and probably sacked.”

“The excuse that he had no protetive clothing does not wash. The civilians who went to the aid of Keith Palmer presumably also had none!”

Pitched against this welter of opprobrium, one defender staunchly pointed out time and again ‘below the line’ that any criticism was in lieu of facts and evidence presented to the coroner presiding at the inquest. Yet the facts and evidence were presented in order to determine whether or not Masood had been killed lawfully; of Mackey’s actions ‘the mob’, as ‘RB211’ labelled his many detractors, were speaking clearly and succinctly.

The incident lasted about 80 seconds, which is no time at all. A snap decision, an instinctive reaction, is called for and Mackey’s has brought ignominy. Yet it was the wrong reaction, certainly according to the 34,000-odd people – a “significant percentage” of whom, according to The Times, were retired detectives and serving officers – have signed petitions calling for him to sacked from the Metropolitan police and stripped of his knighthood.

Such a reaction does rather a suggest a disconnect between rank-and-file police and their superiors. It also suggests that a value – bravery – cherished by one is merely valued by the other alongside, say, an ability to assess a situation, organise, prioritise and strategise, all the while following the correct procedures.

But is that leadership? Probably the most relevant comment beneath the story was that “doing the sensible thing is not the same as doing the right thing”. And if Mackey’s actions are not deemed by the vast majority of police officers and members of the public to be right, yet are so by his immediate peers, then that suggests the disconnect between them is a very big one. 

It suggests that both groups do not spend nearly enough time in each other’s orbit. And the fact that officers are speaking anonymously online rather than directly to their superiors suggests an erosion of trust – that they fear what the consequences might be for their careers. Having such fears, and then hearing that one of the country’s top policemen locked himself in a car in the circumstances he did, it’s easy to see why emotions run high. 

People react instinctively to leadership. We want to follow someone we sense is worth following. We admire them and, in the best cases, hope to be more like them. Most likely they will demonstrate bravery of some kind, since it is manifested in ways other than a physical act of courage. Sticking to a strongly-held, yet perhaps deeply unfashionable, belief is a good example. In the business world, having an innovative idea and working to realise it – even when it is badly received and there’s a very real chance the whole enterprise might end up on its knees – is another.

Yet it seems that the more procedures and protocols, systems and strategies hold sway then that sort of leadership wanes and a more managerial type emerges. In the eyes of most people, though, it isn’t the same since it doesn’t engender the sort of moral bravery they associate with the title. In defence of Sir Craig Mackey, perhaps it’s the case that he has spent too long in that sort of environment and it has dulled his instinct? Whatever the institution, there’s a case to be made for senior staff regularly spending a certain amount of time on the frontline – both for their own understanding and benefit and also to help foster better, more trusting, relationships.

Otherwise, the impression is of leaders in name only: that they assume the mantle and take the benefits and baubles but do not assume the responsibilities people expect. Leadership is about making the right decision and accepting the consequences if you get it wrong. It is about being held properly accountable. It’s an awesome responsibility and, frankly, most of us don’t want to go anywhere near it.

Awarded his knighthood at the start of the year, Mackey apparently “led on delivering savings of £600 million from the Met’s £3.6 billion budget”, which sounds impressive. The thing is, no-one outside of Dick et al will remember that now. Probably more so than the average police officer, it will be with a deep sense of relief that he retires at the end of the year.

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