Leadership and the importance of changing one’s mind

Martin McGuinness, former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and also former IRA commander, died today. I was shocked to learn he was only 66. Shocked because I have known his name since I was a child growing up in India, and had always thought he was much older.

But he wasn’t. In that short life, McGuinness, as many obituaries are reminding us, went from being “the butcher of Bogside” to “brave statesman”. In other words, he changed his approach to finding an acceptable settlement and peace. And he did it in the glare of the public eye.

Changing one’s mind, one’s opinion, one’s approach is an important trait for good leaders. It shows their ability to take on board new information as well as their ability to admit mistakes and course-correct. Not only are these traits indicators of an open mind, they also enable people around the leader to speak truth to power, for the consequences of silence can be many and unwelcome.

Yet we — the press, the analysts writing about companies, the electorate — find it difficult to forgive anyone, especially a politician, who changes his or her mind on an issue.

Not changing one’s mind is seen as a virtue, immortalised by Mrs Thatcher’s punny soundbite “You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning”, before Mr Blair even tried his hand on the politics of soundbites.

Even the liberal press finds it hard to resist the chance to take a dig when it discusses a change in the direction of travel, a “u-turn“. See, for instance, the Guardian insist Philip Hammond digs in on his u-turn on national insurance for the self-employed.

This bald criticism creates pressure on leaders to be perfect, in-control, and always-right. It is unfair and wrong. And sad, because it demonstrates the rigidity of the electorate and the press pundits, who expect a leader to remain rigid, regardless of circumstances and possible outcomes of the original course.

An open mind is not cynical; an open mind is sceptical, inquiring and searching.

An open-minded voter or commentator does not distrust a change in stance as a knee-jerk reaction. What s/he does or must do is question the reason for the change, without sarcasm or without expecting an abject apology.

Is the change really just political expediency?

Is the change informed by new information?

Is the change driven by a new understanding of historicity, and how one might have been on the wrong side of history due to any number of reasons?

These questions hold good in both hierarchical societies as well as those who see themselves as more egalitarian.

Further, we need to remember that hindsight really is 20/20, and our understanding and memory of history both short and imperfect.

A friend and I were once discussing the leadership of Nelson Mandela. He is often cited in the same breath as Gandhi, who too had his flaws but steadfastly refused to support or choose violence. Mandela however categorically refused to denounce violence as a weapon in the pursuit of his cause. At the time the UK government under Mrs Thatcher was fighting another nationalist cause, which used terrorism and violence as its tools, namely the IRA. The policy of branding both the IRA and Mandela/ ANC terrorists was consistent with the thinking at the time.

As the President of South Africa, Mandela has been on record speaking in favour of luminaries, such as Colonel Gaddafi , the common cause being Africa and their shared identity as Africans. General Suharto was another one accorded high state honours by Mandela while he was a serving President.

Yet over time, the former “terrorist” Mandela came to be hailed as a hero. This shift took more than just one change of heart or mind.

In the United States, the Democrat Bill Clinton, the “first black president of the United States” did nothing to remove Mandela from the US Terrorism Watch list, while the Republican President George Bush signed a bill to change that in 2008. In the United Kingdom, where then-PM, David Cameron, who had once worked under the Thatcher government as a young whippersnapper, publicly noted in 2006 that the Thatcherite policy to brand the anti-apartheid movement terrorist was wrong. Predictably, the latter lead to many wondering aloud if Cameron was a Conservative at all — making one wonder if an extreme form of white supremacism is an essential quality to one being a Conservative in the UK!

But here is the rub. Post Robben Island, in his writings and speeches, Mandela was brutally honest in admitting his errors of judgment, mistakes, and shortcomings.

In other words, Mandela changed his mind too.

As leadership — and indeed, statesmanship — go, there are lessons in here for us all.

Especially in these times, when it is increasingly in vogue to dig in and refuse to consider the damage hard, inflexible stances can do.

Preferably before it is too late.

What do YOU think?