Leaders are not as powerful as people imagine; because things happen. Or as the Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put it, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’
(This was probably not Johnson’s vision of his prime ministerial reign.)
You may be a competent skipper of a boat. But when the storm comes, there’s only so much you can do. And sometimes there’s nothing at all – but hope.
This is how leadership is sometimes.
And the healthy leader will acknowledge this lack of control – and what a relief it will be. They are not responsible for everything! Their blood pressure can relax.
They can smile more, speak less anxiously to people; listen even. And they can apologise, rather than bluster, distract or deny which is the way of control-freakery.
In a 1995 interview with Andrew Neil, Jimmy Saville – hugely concerned with control for reasons we now understand – famously produced a banana and started eating it when he found his private life in the spotlight.
To maintain his power in the exchange, to keep control, he needed a distraction – and chose a stunt with a banana.
It worked brilliantly. There was no way back to the truth from there.
Former US President Barack Obama, a healthier figure, was aware of this lack of control.
‘Nothing that comes to my desk is perfectly soluble,’ he said. ‘Otherwise someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make, you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 per cent chance that it isn’t going to work.’
Obama’s words invite us to be realistic in our leadership – whether at work, home or in the community.
They also invite us to be humble; but more than that, they invite us to be free.
‘I am not in control, hallelujah!’
A leader who is free is infinitely preferable, and a great deal more creative, to one still living the mirage of power over all they survey.