Mavericks, nutters, but no true leaders

Are there no great leaders now?

“Cameron is no Gandhi,” wrote Keith Hann yesterday. He’s right! But who is a great leader in our time? So many disappoint. Meanwhile, those who seem to have real charisma, crowd appeal and impact are mavericks – or (to put it bluntly) out-and-out nutters.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so.

With my education hat on, I felt obliged earlier this week to respond to a speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw, as her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools the boss of Ofsted, a body I often describe as government’s Rottweiler.

Wilshaw was bewailing the fact that there aren’t enough mavericks running schools. “We need the awkward squad,” he complained. We rather like mavericks: for example, people of my generation often fondly remember from childhood the odd eccentric teacher who may have been barmy, but somehow inspired and enthused us.

Yet, as I felt obliged to point out (you can read it here), the very system that Wilshaw runs is inimical to mavericks. Given the absurdly heavy and rigid burden of accountability on schools and their leaders nowadays, it’s a brave (or foolhardy) head who dares not to conform. The entire system, not just the state sector, is risk-averse. Outcomes must be predictable and safe, and you rock the boat at your peril: mavericks can by no means count on the steadfast support of governors, government or the public at large.

A measure of suspicion is understandable. In broadcasting, the maverick DJ or entertainer too often turned out, years later, to be a dangerous abuser: Jimmy Savile never paid the price of his crimes; Rolf Harris and several others are doing so.

We’re wary of oddballs now.

Cameron: is that passion real?
Cameron: is that passion real?

Yet we find ourselves cursing the blandness of so many leaders and bosses. Keith Hann mentioned David Cameron as speaking “with as much passion as I have ever heard him apply to anything”: if that was him being passionate, then he’s a grey man indeed. But then, parliament is full of grey men, and equally anodyne women.

Boris lorry 2
Boris: just a buffoon after all?

So where are the real characters? Take Boris. The former Mayor of London used to play the highly entertaining buffoon. He went to Eton and can quote Latin, so he’s presumed clever, his comic capers a mask for his taken-for-granted razor-sharp intellect.

Really? Since he became the leading voice for Brexit, it seems to me he’s become not an amusing maverick but an opinionated bore. As many exaggerations and falsehoods trip off his lips as emanate from the Remainers with their Project Fear. Boris’s Hitler jibe was not only a faux pas, but downright stupid: his latest banana quote was absurd (see my recent VotN piece); and his tone, like that of so many Brexiteers, is hectoring, angry and negative.

Top Trump? Or total chump?
Top Trump? Or total chump?

Perhaps we want to be entertained again. Is that what’s giving Donald Trump such an amazing run in the Republican polls in the States, so much so that he’s now the unrivalled candidate for the presidency? This must surely worry vast numbers of sensible Americans, let alone those of us on this side of the Pond.

A man whose speech is belligerent, xenophobic, racist, sexist and intolerant seems to communicate such passion and authority – definitely one of the awkward squad – that he’s in danger of being taken seriously. What a threat to world order, if he were to be become the most powerful man in the world!

Returning to Keith’s theme, perhaps we really need a Gandhi. A thorn in the flesh of the British Empire, he truly belonged to the awkward squad. Winston Churchill didn’t know what to make of the man in a loincloth who was evidently spiritual, didn’t drink (in marked contrast to Churchill’s prodigious intake), persuaded his people to peace through personal hunger strikes and ultimately paid the price, through assassination, for his insistence on a right and peaceful way to govern and to live.

In contrast to Ghandi’s, or even Churchill’s, scale of leadership, it seems we have only faceless, bland people in power. Amid a dearth of real leadership, a few high-profile, colourful nutters may claim to fill the gap. On the contrary, they risk leading us into great peril.

The trouble is, to many people the nutters and mavericks are beginning to appear the more appealing option. And that’s worrying.


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