John Reid’s leadership faces the honeymoon test

January 21, 2007

The Home Office could be split into two departments under recommendations being put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. This will be the biggest challenge to his honeymoon period as Home Secretary. Is he getting the balance right beween ‘quick wins’ and sound transformational policies?

Plans announced this week suggest that John Reid will seek to split the Home Office. One new department will deal with security issues and the other with justice. The plans are to be put before the Cabinet for discussion.

Background

John Reid has displayed an energetic and pugnacious leadership stance in his brief time as Home Secretary. He took over in May 2006, after his predecessor Charles Clarke had departed following a story of foreign criminals being released from prison without being considered for deportation. Subsequently, serous errors on police computers have been revealed and inmates including terror suspects have ‘disappeared’ from custody, (precise numbers not known to the Prison Service).

Initially, he took the line that such weaknesses were inherited. In a memorable phrase, the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then, he has initiated extensive internal investigations. The ‘fitness for purpose’ of forty four most senior figures have been assessed, and two new chief executives have been brought in.

Quick wins?

In business mythology, leaders brought into a crisis go for quick visible results. Shortly after John Reid’s appointment, Nick Cohen blogged that

‘Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted “quick wins” – his version of Tony Blair’s “eye-catching initiatives”. Quick wins followed by the truckload .. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the “absolutely unrelenting pressure” for “top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives”.

The BBC noted that ‘In a recent commons statement he addressed the most recent Home Office embarrassment over failure to maintain accurate records of people in the United Kingdom who had commited criminal offences abroad. He found it increasingly difficult to maintain the line that he was not responsible for such continued procedural weaknesses falling within the responsibilities of The Home Office’.

The merits of a quick-win strategy for leaders

There is an intuitive feeling that a new leader should go a quick win. First impressions are important. Particularly if a leader arrives to ‘sort out’ a crisis, the psychology of the quick win is appealing. The leader addresses anxieties, and shows that he or she is decisive. Ritala Houston illustrates the quick win in the context of IT projects (quite relevant in some respects to the current issue).

But the mythology is worth challenging. On one hand, decisiveness may sit uneasily with the claim that there are complex issues to be understood, so that a newcomer may be reacting before being aware of important aspects of the situation.

The Leadership Dilemma

There is a leadership dilemma here. How can a leader take advantage of the leadership honeymoon without starting new schemes based on inadequate knowledge and preparation? Answers please to this blog, or Dr John Reid.


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