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The UK Government is failing to balance political and technical leadership: Grant Shapps Case Study

When it comes to the world economy and political influence, the UK Government is one of the most powerful and oldest institutions in the world, yet they historically fall short when it comes to technical leadership.

Grant Shapps | The Business Anecdote

The UK government recently appointed Grant Shapps as UK's Defence Secretary. Prior to this Shapps previously held the position of Secretary of State for Transport from 2019 - 2022, Home Secretary for six days in October 2022, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy from October 2022 to February 2023 and Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zerofrom February to August 2023.


Shapps' career prior to politics included publishing, marketing and software sales. Some media sources claim Shapps was involved in a pyramid scheme to sell a Toolkit which cost $497 and promised customers earnings of $20,000 in 20 days. Upon purchase, customers claimed the "toolkit" was revealed to be an ebook, which advised users to create their own toolkit and recruit 100 "Joint Venture Partners" to resell it for a share of the profits.


Qualification wise, we could only find information that he completed a business and finance course at Manchester Polytechnic and received a

Higher National Diploma.


So how does a politician with a HND in Business and Finance, career in sales and marketing, and possibly a past architect of a pyramid scheme, end up holding several powerful political positions including his current role as UK Defence Secretary? Does he have any knowledge in defence strategies, defence development, border security, nuclear threats, chemical weapons etc? The answer is probably no.


It is acceptable that a Prime Minister or President won't have all the technical knowledge needed to run a country, which is why they should surround themselves with technical political leaders that are experts in their field.

What a President or Prime Minister shouldn't do is surround themselves with leaders that aren't experts in their field. It can be likened to someone walking in the dark and stumbling, then instead of using a torch they wear sunglasses.


Political leadership vs Technical leadership


Political leadership and technical leadership are two different but complementary approaches to leadership.


Political leadership is focused on building relationships, navigating power dynamics, and achieving consensus. Political leaders are often skilled at persuasion, negotiation, and compromise. They are also good at understanding and managing the expectations of different stakeholders.


Technical leadership is focused on solving problems, developing and implementing solutions, and building and leading high-performing teams. Technical leaders are often skilled in engineering, design, and problem-solving. They are also good at communicating complex technical concepts to non-technical audiences.


There is the school of thought that you can't truly lead what you don't technically understand based on experience or practice.

Should Political Leaders have the technical competence for their job?

There is the argument for and against this. There are political roles where it is physically impossible to be a technical expert at all things. The President of United States doesn't need to be an expert in food and agriculture to ensure the right policies and investments are in place. All they have to do is appoint technical leaders in these fields that can also navigate the political landscape. Instead, leaders like the UK Prime Minister does it the other way round. They appoint political leaders with zero relevant technical expertise, and expect those people to hire the technical experts needed to fulfill their roles.


Here's the problem with this approach. Who provides strategic and technical leadership? If a political leader is required to provide technical and strategic leadership in their role, how will they do this if they are not knowledgable on the subject matter they are supposed to lead on. You cannot truly lead in a field you don't understand.


The biggest risk of appointing leaders such as Grant Shapps to roles that require more technical leadership is that decisions might be made based on political agendas rather than technical facts.

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