At what point in a crisis does a leader have to make the decision to resign?

I can still remember with some vividly the Falklands War of 1982. I was in my very early twenties when it happened. I recall the shock, the chaos, the emerging pride in the armed forces as a task force was assembled with incredible speed, and then the tension of the next few months until the war was over and then a feeling that the United Kingdom had become great again. What I also remember very clearly is the resignation of the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, which happened within days of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. I have been reflecting on this swift, very high profile, resignation over the past few days, particularly in light of recent, best described as, chaotic issues in the inability of large sections of the country to deliver basic services.

Whether it be the airports, the Passport Office, DVLC, the airlines, the NHS, this has highlighted an interesting leadership situation. In a way this has led to the growing sense of public frustration and is ammunition for the mainstream media and social media commentators to create and maintain a feverish state of angst (the over use today of the word ‘crisis’) and calling for those responsible to be held to account. When is it therefore appropriate for a leader to resign in a ‘crisis’?

The true test of a leader is how they handle problems and take action. Unfortunately, despite training and practice, no one in a leadership position really knows how they will perform in a crisis, and it is often a case of ‘baptism by fire’. Inevitably some leaders do not perform when the pressure is on, and it is, in my view, appropriate that they should step aside and accept their own limitations. It can be a very sobering moment of self-reflection.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Harvard Business Review June 2, 2014, ‘When to Resign, and When to Clean Up the Mess’) concluded ‘Cleaning up a mess requires strong will, fast action, new approaches, and a lot of credibility. One resignation doesn’t restore trust, but it opens the door for someone who can’.  

A problem/crisis will normally see a leader move through 3 stages of performance and decision:  

1) Did they cause, or know in advance about, the problem? One-off problems will always arise, but is this a widespread systemic problem?  Do they therefore believe they are best placed to manage it?  

2) Are they able to rely on the confidence and trust of those around them?  

3) Once managing it begins are they able to cope? Does their performance (or lack of) become the story?  

I would advocate in (1) a leader should resign – it will lead to (2), and you cannot lead without followers. In the case of (3) once your performance (poor) becomes the story you must resign. 

In the cases I mentioned earlier no leader has offered to resign yet. The risk here is the delay in anyone reaching the decision to resign makes them the story, and with ultimately no choice but to go.  The opposite of course to all of this are those leaders who rise to the challenge and are superb are managing problems and crisis. They understand it is how the problem/crisis is managed – communications, timing, accountability and above all their displays of compassion and integrity. 

Unfortunately today we too often find a sense of self-first where leaders appear more interested in keeping their jobs than solving the problem. It does take courage to self-reflect and make a judgment on behalf the greater needs of the mission – it should in fact be second nature in a not-for-profit world where values-based leadership qualities are so important.  

Returning to Lord Carrington in 1982, he took immediate full responsibility for the complacency and failures in the Foreign And Commonwealth Office that led to the invasion of the Falklands Island, and in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister said “…the right course, and one which deserves the undivided support of Parliament and of the country. But I have concluded with regret that this support will more easily be maintained if the Foreign Office is entrusted to someone else.” 

Lord Carrington felt that ”it was a matter of honour that he should go.”  And his story is one worth keeping in mind as a leader. His resignation was not the end of his career. He stepped aside for the greater need of the nation and the mission – yet, two years later, he was appointed Secretary General of NATO, and went on to hold a number of distinguished positions. He went onto serve as the longest serving member of the House of Lords. 

The word honour sadly is often looked as anachronistic in today’s society, but the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right is one of the great foundations of life, as those of us fortunate enough to have been instructed as such at School and as military officers know too well. Lord Carrington displayed such honour and courage, and his reputation remained intact. I’m not so sure the leaders of the current various ‘crises’ will emerge in the same manner. 

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