The end of the dance: lessons on resignation

The most interesting resignations can be borne of the more mundane problems. Corruption and sexual scandal have a shock value, but the resignations themselves are pretty straightforward affairs: did you / didn’t you, or did you know / didn’t you know. By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation on Friday is being pored over in depth, both for his motives and the likely impact on the government.

From the perspective of organisational life, the key dynamic is the extent to which IDS’ role as Work and Pensions Secretary was becoming impossible. Leaders in any role can feel compromised by forces or actors outside their remit, whether it’s a question of personal ethics, the principles that uphold our profession, or the integrity of a project that we care about. Rather than simply put up or shut up, I’d suggest there are three broad options.

  1. Keep your head down. Try not to get involved in the wranglings and focus on what you see is of value. This appeals to the many of us who profess we ‘don’t do politics’. Unfortunately it’s often not a very realistic or authentic position, as organisational politics are a fact of life. To disassociate ourselves from them is to cast ourselves as what Simon Baddeley and Kim James termed the political ‘sheep’ (benevolent but unaware), as opposed to the ‘owl’ (benevolent and wise), ‘fox’ (game-playing and clever) and ‘donkey’ (game-playing but inept, though they tend to see themselves as foxes). You may be a mixture of these, and there may be other political types in between – for my money, good additions would be the fiercely loyal ‘dog’ and the loyalty instilling ‘alpha wolf’. The point is, it’s self-deceiving to try to opt out. You are a part of it.
  2. Hold on. Taking responsibility for being an actor, part of the mêlée, means using all your faculties to influence skilfully. Part of this should include aiming to be an ‘owl’ – maintaining your sense of integrity in how you interact with the system to further your cause. But to do it constructively, and in a way that causes you least stress, requires a certain mind-set. One needs to accept the push and pull as an inherent part of organisational life and try to engage with and use it, rather than resist it. This has been described as seeing not a daily struggle with your organisation, but a daily dance.
  3. Move on. At a certain point, the dance becomes impossible and you need to call time. Your integrity, or that of your project, is being compromised to an unacceptable level, or the personal toll on you is becoming too great. Clearly, the difficult question is how hard have you tried to hold on. Have you exhausted all you options? Have you been clear enough in your position? Have you pushed as hard as would be justifiable?

I make no judgement here on the rights or wrongs of Iain Duncan Smith's position. Nonetheless, hearing him on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show, I think he gave a good performance as someone who has done all he reasonably can for his cause. The critique that his resignation over welfare reform was a distraction and his real motive to strengthen the Brexit movement felt much weaker after his impassioned interview. Sticking to the subject, he talked about his deep concern that the government has lost sight of its principles and lost its direction on the fair distribution of welfare. He explained that he was unable to influence his agenda, felt unable to watch impassively and now wanted the government to think again. He stated his general support for his leadership, perhaps the least convincing part of what he said, but more convincingly, with clenched fists, emphasised his driver as the desire to help improve the quality of life for those who are worse off.

It will go down as a politically important resignation, being so close to a referendum. But my bet is that it will also be remembered as an honest resignation, that of a person of integrity who has taken the dance with their organisation as far as they can.


Reference: Simon Baddeley and Kim James (1987). Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers. Management Education and Development. Vol. 18 (1), pp. 3-19.

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