I’ve been contemplating the nature of leadership after the death of Tessa Jowell. In the first comments when it was announced, what came over was her ‘niceness’. ‘She got on with everybody’ was a common phrase, ‘a gem’, ‘a great person’, ‘her likeable personality’, she ‘exuded cheerfulness and gave even those she had only just met the sense of being one of her old friends’.
Further reading demonstrated that she was an exceptional leader: respected by all regardless of politics, class or ethnicity and she got things done. It seemed that no matter the complexity of the issue, or the political sensitivity it generated, she was the person who could deal with it.
She had the tricky task of dealing with the DoH, was minister of state with responsibility for women, minister for employment, welfare to work and equal opportunities. Following the drive to improve standards she introduced health targets, maternity and paternity leave and Sure Start which supported and empowered young mothers. She became Culture Secretary and brought the Olympics to London, was given responsibility for looking after the victims of 9/11 and the London bombings. She was in charge when the future of broadcasting was in the headlines and introduced Ofcom and adroitly handled the controversy of her husband’s involvement with Berlusconi. Then of course there was her campaign for improved services for those afflicted with cancer.
It was a record that any leader would be proud of and who can name any leader in the private sector who can say they were faced with the level of challenges she faced and dealt with them as competently?
So why did people default to her ‘niceness’ when describing her? Could it be that, because leadership terminology is structured around male qualities of strength, determination, drive, power, they did not have the language to describe her undoubted leadership qualities? That by her being female it revealed people’s unconscious biases about what constitutes leadership?
Further reading revealed that people also noted her ability to ask ‘penetrating questions’, her ‘passion, determination and a sense of mission’, a ‘visionary’ who saw how things could be, a woman with ‘internal steel’. She consummately combined those qualities with a high degree of emotional intelligence to achieve what is now being lauded throughout the country.
So yes, I would say that ‘niceness’ is a leadership quality but it’s the niceness that’s also accompanied by a sharp intellect, a commitment and belief that anything is possible and the ability to communicate that to everyone within their sphere. Alas, there are too few leaders like her, and too few who recognise and encourage that potential within others.