Being seen to do the right thing…
British politics has been aflame for the last few days following the revelation that the Prime Minister’s ‘Special Advisor’ (read Chief of Staff) Dominic Cummings, broke the Covid-19 lockdown rules by evacuating his family from London to his father’s farm 260 miles away in Durham and, whilst there, taking them on a 60mile day trip to another town. On Monday, Mr Cummings appeared in front of the press to explain his actions, an action which seems to have fanned the flames of public anger, rather than douse them, sending the Government’s approval ratings plummeting
As a local elected politician myself, I am attuned to the fact that being seen not to practice what I preach and to stick to the rules could be ruinous. So, for example, during the strict lockdown I pedantically interpreted “exercise in the area where you live” as the East End of Newcastle and restrained my cycle rides to laps of those suburbs – while jealously observing on social media non-politico friends pedal out of the city limits for some harmless, if borderline illicit, fresh air. If I was spotted outside the City, I’d lose the authority to encourage people to comply with the rules.
And something you learn very quickly is that it is often the small things that trip politicians up. If you look at the 2009 election expenses scandal, MPs who made miserly little claims for items such as for Remembrance Day poppies were hauled over the coals, while a number of others played the system for £10,000s and got away with it. This discrepancy comes down to the fact that most people aren’t that interested in politics, so complex issues don’t ‘cut through’ the noise of everyday life to grab their attention. So a politician photographed pulling up briefly on a disabled parking space to allow an elderly relative to get out of the car near the doctor’s surgery could end up in deep water, while one who refuses to ever answer constituents’ correspondence may find there are no repercussions.
This principle applies to Sustainability as well. Rebuilding your organisations’ business model along circular economy lines may pass most people by, but they’ll pick up on single-use cutlery being offered in the canteen because everybody knows that is wrong. Likewise, if the CEO declares a green future for the company, but turns up the next day in a new gas-puzzling company car, people will smell a rat (this is not a theoretical example, I’ve heard a first hand account of this happening). These details really matter.
- Leaders have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk;
- Doing the right thing is not enough, you have to be seen to do the right thing;
- If you’re explaining, you’re losing (as Ronald Reagan put it), and…;
- If you have to rationalise something to yourself, you’ll really struggle to justify it to others;
- People generally don’t have time to research evidence on which to base their opinion; instead they use the ‘little everyday things’ to judge the whole (so get rid of all that single use plastic etc).