Published on September 5, 2015

Labour leadership (not the kind you think):  What childbirth can teach us about doing decision-making differently

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

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At Involve we think a lot about how to support leaders in government, policy making and the public sector to work differently as they make decisions.  Many leaders are accustomed to making decisions in the ‘decide, announce, defend’ model, where those with the highest authority take the lead and simply manage any backlash that gets stirred up.  A more open, collaborative mode of decision-making, where the dilemmas are shared with a wider group of citizens and stakeholders, is often something that makes these leaders feel at best uncomfortable, and at worst vulnerable and unsafe.

As the Westminster village has spent most of the summer fixated on the Labour leadership election, I’ve been reflecting on labour of a very different kind as I prepare to give birth to my second child this Autumn.  Convention wisdom has it that giving birth is a life experience that brings all kinds of wonderful things, but it’s rarely seen bringing much to the table in terms of professional development.  I’ve been wondering whether this is a missed opportunity, and whether there might be some read-across between the challenges of childbirth and the challenges of moving away from the ‘decide, announce, defend’ model of government.

To crudely ride roughshod over a huge body of literature and experience about childbirth, one of the big ideas is that as the mother, the more you relax, the better things are likely to go.  The psychological space you want to get into is the opposite of a kind of adrenaline filled, fight-or-flight, boxing ring type of mentality.  The oxytocin hormone that is triggers the physiological process of birth is encouraged by women feeling safe, focused and calm; so they are able to listen and respond to signals from their bodies.

It’s hard to think of many other major challenges in life where we are trained to get into a headspace that promotes oxytocin, rather than adrenalin.  Preparation for sporting competitions, school examinations, job interviews and tests tends to emphasise gritty determination (fighting against or overcoming something) above graceful resolve (working through something by going with the grain of it).  Culturally, we tend use metaphors of rigidity when we talk about rising to a challenge (“nerves of steel”; “iron will”; “tough enough”) rather than metaphors of relaxation.

From this perspective, it’s hardly surprising that leaders within government find the process of opening up decision-making uncomfortable.  Inviting more people to offer their views and perspectives on a decision invariably makes for a less predictable, less controllable process.  For those who have been trained to associate strength with rigidity, the idea of responding to the perspectives of others, adapting your approach and being open to unforeseen outcomes will run counter to what they assume capable leadership must look like.

For me, learning about childbirth has helped me imagine a different kind model of leadership, where the ability to listen to what’s going on, open up and deal with the unexpected is a fountain of strength for decision-makers.  After a lifetime of training in how to rise to challenges in more rigid ways, I’m fortunate to have such a rich opportunity to learn about a different mode for dealing with challenges – and one which I hope to be able to draw on in all kinds of situations in the future (no matter what happens in my own labour, by the way).

For both women and men, parents and non-parents alike, there’s an opportunity here to consider how the ‘decide, announce, defend’ style of government is rooted in some quite limited models of leadership, and explore how to make a more open, responsive approach part of every decision-maker’s repertoire.

Picture credit: Hawaiian Sea

One Response to “Labour leadership (not the kind you think):  What childbirth can teach us about doing decision-making differently”

  1. Christian Schnee
    September 18, 2015 at 2:07 am

    Since this blog entry has been posted we had the opportunity to witness a leader who embraces a more open and reflective style that seeks to negotiate a course in collaboration with a range of stakeholders. Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMs questions, characterised to draw on questions from ordinary citizens, was certainly reflective of this inclusive and open approach intent to learn from publics and discard of the pontificating air so regularly adopted by current and previous leaders.
    However, I doubt the plea for a culture change in politics is of any value unless those who pass judgement undergo a similar change that leads to the adoption of new criteria for the assessment of a leader’s performance. It does not seem British journalists will give the benefit of the doubt to a leader who is negotiating, balancing and managing the emergence of policies rather than lead from the front. I suppose, therefore, that in a consideration of political leadership in the UK, current practice and potential for cultural change are contingent on the media environment, more specifically journalists’ expectations and evaluative criteria which arguably are moulded by the audience’s fascination with strong and decisive leaders. A good number of cases to this effect can be found in recent British history. Against this backdrop, it seems likely that Corbyn’s stab at a new leadership style will draw considerable flak which we may not be able to resist in the long run.

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