Prime Minister Gordon Brown: Intelligence Diminisher?

Today Gordon Brown offered his resignation. It provides an opportunity to reflect on his tenure as Prime Minister which, to my reading of history, is that of a tragic leadership figure—someone whose own intelligence seemed to get in the way of his ability to access other people’s.

Even Brown’s toughest critics would accept that he is an intelligent man. Shai Agassi, of Better Place fame, wrote after watching him speak at the World Economic Forum, “the man is the most cerebral leader I have ever seen.” Praise indeed coming from someone as smart as Shai. It is a matter of record that Brown was studying History at Edinburgh University at age 16 and that he went on to get his PhD from the same university. Like the fate of talented, driven people before him, he was “promoted” for his brilliance and aptitude. He is an intelligent, ambitious man by all measures. But a better question for a Prime Minister might be “What effect does he have on the intelligence in the people around him?” There, Brown has struggled. Consider a few examples:

The Tyrant vs The Liberator. Tom Bower’s biography, Gordon Brown, Prime Minister offers detailed insight into someone described as “psychologically flawed”; a chaotic figure, prone to sudden and terrible rages. “Repeatedly he lost his temper, screaming obscenities at those he damned as dishonorable or incompetent,” writes Bower.

Decision-Maker vs. The Debate Maker. Brown has a gravity pull towards making decisions unilaterally or with a small group of inner advisors. Caroline Flint felt so underutilized that when she resigned she described being no more than “window dressing.” She wrote, “You have a two-tier government. Your inner circle and then the remainder of cabinet… In my current role, you advised that I would attend cabinet when Europe was on the agenda. I have only been invited once since October and not to a single political cabinet – not even the one held a few weeks before the European elections…I am not willing to attend cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer.”

Micromanager vs. The Investor. Bower describes Brown as a control freak as chancellor, determined to micro-manage not just the economy but the entire sweep of British domestic policy, even contractually binding government departments to do the Treasury’s bidding or else face a cut in their budgets.

Core Assumptions. Then came the moment just days ago, in the midst of the General Election where Brown was caught on a microphone calling Gillian Duffy “a bigoted sort of a woman” after just having told her to her face that she had a nice family. His disdain for her opinions revealed an amazing contempt for the views of ordinary people. There was no curiosity in his voice. Just accusation, judgment and blame of his handlers.

When I think of Brown over the last three years I am reminded of something Bono wrote in Time magazine: “It has been said that after meeting with the great British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, you left feeling he was the smartest person in the world, but after meeting with his rival Benjamin Disraeli, you left thinking you were the smartest person.” By all accounts Gordon Brown falls into the Gladstone category.

I have often thought that the job of Prime Minister is now so complicated that it is impossible for a person—however intelligent—to be successful at it. It is no longer just how intelligent they are themselves that matters, but how well they can access the intelligence of the people around them.

This week’s Multiplier practice: Ask yourself how your intelligence—your ideas, knowledge, ability to solve problems and figure things out—could be stifling the intelligence in the people around you.

This week’s inquiry: Which is most important: a leader’s intelligence or how well a leader draws out the intelligence in the people they lead?

One Comment

John Dooner

Gordon Brown’s history prior to his time at the treasury and as Prime Minister is more favourable. He was regarded by many as a person with strong socialist values, grounded and immune to the impacts of spin.
His decision not to go to the polls in the early days of his leadership proved catastrophic yet it’s easy to understand why this risk averse person would hold back from an exercise the jeopardised his position. I’m convinced that Gordon Brown believed himself to be right, a bearer of high moral and ethical principals. I also believe that he was in the least favourable place when the collapse of faith in the integrity of politics was lambasted during the “expenses scandal” of 2009.
It seems that those around him understood that the game was over before he was able to accept that this was likely to be the case. Brown was, I think, left almost isolated in the role of a public-orator, visualiser and energiser-one in which he proved to be uncomfortable to the point of self-destruction in terms of his authenticity.

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