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‘Only a crisis brings out the best in leaders’

November 2012

Alistair McIntosh
Chief Executive
Housing Quality Network

Thatcher got it wrong on Jimmy Savile and Hillsborough. She also thought holding down a job makes you feel better.

Judging by what I saw at Waterloo station the other morning she blundered on that too. Packed trains spewed out a tsunami of crushed commuters. Each person had the sort of dead eyes you see on a fishmonger’s slab. Men bore the tell tale scars of alcohol abuse on their faces and bellies. Lots of the women tried their best to look like reality TV star Amy Childs. I ran into her at the Labour Party Conference so I know what I am talking about. Whatever you might think of her, Amy is a force of nature. Luckily we have some of that brio in our sector.

I helped judge the 24housing competition to find high-flying chief executives. What a contrast with the miserable sods from the suburban trains. All of the entries were fizzing with energy and new ideas.

How do you go about short listing? For me the key was to look at impartial evidence. But there are no official ratings anymore. So I relied pretty heavily on the Sunday Times best companies’ listings. I do like how they go about this. My fear is that it will lack credibility in the future. Thatcher called it wrong yet again about the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch. The hacking scandal shows his family in a poor light.

24housing also wants to spot young leaders. It won’t be easy to be objective. This Government doesn’t want there to be any facts in housing. But I will make a prediction. The next generation of leaders will be better than us.

Shapps accused us all of being part of a “lazy consensus”. Most of the people I work with are far from lazy. He was right about the consensus bit though. Everyone did think the same. Public spending was booming. It felt like we were going at it with all guns blazing. But were we really pushed to be the best we could be? Was it all that little bit too easy?

In my opinion only a crisis brings out the best in leaders. Why do I say that? There was a move to put the private sector in charge of housing in the 1990s. Some of our best leaders today emerged in that battle. The cream rose to the top. The challenges we faced then are as nothing to those of today. So I think the new leaders will be better.

Let’s take a quick look at the challenges they will face. Councils will start building homes for the first time in decades. Associations must find new sources of funding. The private sector might get its act together and compete. Tenants will struggle to pay their rents after welfare reform. In the face of all this some will come a cropper. I doubt the regulator will be able to rescue all of them. History teaches us that some bright sparks will be able to solve all these problems and prosper.

One thing worries me. Are us old guys getting in the way of the young Turks? When I started out people retired at 50 and there were lots more councils and associations. It was easier to rise up through the ranks. Should we stick around? The test I apply is whether I still have the attitude shown in the Scottish poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’.

“I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur

Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken

To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt

That damns the vast majority o’ men.”

Or in other words kowtowing to the consensus gets you nowhere.