Effective Leaders Never Complain About The “Mess We Inherited”

As the UK economy lumbers into a third consecutive quarter of negative growth, I’ve picked up on a subtle change in the government ministers’ rhetoric this week. Not a single one has uttered the mantra ‘the mess we inherited from the last government’. Instead we hear phrases like ‘the deep rooted problems we are faced with’. The fact that this is the only time I have ever noticed a phrase not being used is telling.

Whomever’s decision it was to ditch the ‘the mess’ mantra was no doubt growing increasingly alarmed by how resoundingly this communications tactic had backfired. In recent broadcasts of Question Time and Any Questions, several audience members reacted with fury to members of the panel who began their responses with ‘the mess’ mantra.

I once accepted a very tough assignment to be the European head of a PR firm in financial difficulty. Like so many companies, it had prospered during the good times and forgotten to mend the roof when the sun was shining.

Lacking a triple-A credit rating, I had to do some painful things like close offices, make redundancies and ask right-brained team members to be more fiscally responsible. I also gave myself a substantial pay cut. All these things were necessary to return the business to growth, which we did. However at no stage did I ever think to complain to my team about ‘the mess I inherited’. I am sure my boss would have quickly shown me the door if I had!

There are many problems with the mantra. First, it’s disingenuous.How many leaders out there decide to launch a programme of operational efficiency when the money is rolling in? Of course we should. Any student of counter-cyclical economic theory knows this is the right thing to do.

However I very much doubt, for example, that if the current government were at the helm during the booming 90s it would have decided to impose tighter regulations on banks or clamp down on legal tax avoidance schemes. Nobody wants to rain on parades and parades don’t want to be rained on, which partially explains why economies are cyclical.

The second problem is that whining about the hand you’ve been dealt is very unstatesmanlike. The obvious follow-on to it is ‘then why pray did you voluntarily put yourself forward for this position?’ Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to take on that job. Marissa Meyer doesn’t have to turn around Yahoo.

David Cameron elbowed his way into the top job, not by gaining a majority vote but by forming a coalition government. These hard fought leadership opportunities are not easy, but hopefully, rewarding. And politicians in particular are more than well aware of what they are letting themselves in for.

Most importantly though, blaming people who are no longer in charge essentially translates into ‘I feel impotent to solve our current problems’. This sentiment, when coming from our national leaders demoralizes the citizenry along with the business community, chipping away at confidence and hope.

This lack of confidence is materially undermining economic growth and causing many companies to delay hiring people and make capital investments. I’m no economist but I am convinced that those oft repeated statements of impotence by senior and junior ministers alike have inflicted more damage to the British economy than many other factors combined. I am glad to see that someone has decided to put a stop to it.

Your thoughts?

Sarah Lafferty is co-founder and director of Round Earth Consulting and a communications expert with 20 years experience. Sarah’s employment and consulting engagements in the US and Europe have spanned every business scenario imaginable from promoting technology start-ups to meet IPO and acquisition goals to heading internal change management programmes in large corporates. View Sarah’s full LinkedIn profile here. Sarah’s fascination with leadership arose from having observed the material effects that executive behaviour and communication have had on company performance.