Getting Squithy with it: what can we learn from Asquith?

This blog isn’t just about contemporary leaders, it also looks back at history, and what we can learn from leaders in the past.

I find this especially interesting – partly for the hell of it, my geekiness extends beyond politics into history (and other things, but let’s keep the focus tight) – and also because I believe that although we may be doomed to repeat history, we should at least try to only repeat the good stuff.

Herbert Henry Asquith is an interesting character.

A long-serving PM, largely overlooked because he was shoved out the way by the more glamorous and extrovert David Lloyd-George – but actually Asquith served longer, was far more respected and liked, was successful for most of his time in the top job, and – perhaps most importantly – is the only PM we’ve ever had from my hometown of Leeds.

He was a successful Home Secretary under the Earl of Rosebery and then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and was the inevitable choice for PM when Campbell-Bannerman fell ill and died in office.

In fact he was the inevitable choice when Campbell-Bannerman succeeded in 1906 – there was an effort to kick CB upstairs into the Lords and let Asquith take over immediately, but his respect for the party leader led him to patiently wait his turn.

How did he become the undisputed obvious choice, and then such a dominant and confident figure for almost two decades?

And then, how did he lose it all, getting out-outmaneuvered by Lloyd-George and abandoned by his Conservative coalition partners?

I’m going to look at five things he got right, and then three things he got wrong that contributed to his downfall.


Calm authority

He had a calm, self-confident authority. He didn’t panic, didn’t over-react, and didn’t rush into things. His approach was thoughtful, exuding confidence and control.

He was, to quote Viv Goskop “happy high status” meaning he was comfortable with being the high status individual in the room.

A useful line that we use when coaching leaders during crises is “walk slowly down the corridor“.


Reputation for sound decisions

His decision-making was consistently sound.

He took time to think and reflect, he sought advice, discussed issues and solutions, but then came to a clear decision.

A reputation for sound decision-making doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s solid ground to stand on once established. He was intelligent enough to quickly understand issues and this quickness added to his reputation – this requires focus and good listening and questioning skills.

His willingness to seek advice and listen to colleagues not only gave him a deeper understanding and a broader view, the inclusive approach helped to build support for his decisions because everyone was heard and respected.

This doesn’t mean he agreed with everyone, but it does mean he listened, understood, and reflected before deciding, and then clearly communicated why (or why not) their advice is (or is not) being included.


He was clear about what he wanted, and determined to get there. He showed remarkable resilience, politically when overcoming obstacles (mainly from the Conservative House of Lords), and personally when facing incessant press criticism.

We talked previously about Theresa May’s determination, which went too far and became an unhelpful stubbornness as she insisted belligerently on her way despite the reality of the terrain she faced.

Had she taken the inclusive approach above, she would have laid the groundwork for her determination to work. This is an essential point: if you want to deliver change, you need the guiding coalition (see Kotter) or you’re going to get eaten alive, no matter how much fancy-pants charisma or role-power you thing you have.

Even Asquith took it too far.

Toward the end, when hollowed out by the death of his son in the World War One, he remained resolute to win the war and hang on to his job – but didn’t succeed in either matter, and then still he went on (erroneously in my view) to become the Leader of the Opposition and attempt to rebuild the Liberals, again unsuccessfully, but by then the franchise had broadened so much that Labour were becoming the inevitable opposition to the Tories anyway.

Then, as now, the Liberals struggled to be relevant to a political system that favoured the simplicity of the two-party dichotomy.


Show respect

He was a persuader.

He respected his colleagues and sought to persuade them with sound argument, not bark orders at them. He chaired a genuine inclusive cabinet government.

This takes courage. It involved losing control, letting others run their departments but still being involved and interested, and setting the standards and making the key decisions when necessary – a lot of leaders will either be too controlling, or stand back too far which makes them seem disinterested and implies the work – and therefore the individual – is less valuable.

In either case, these are demotivating behaviours that stifle growth. For me to grow I need space to make decisions, but I need coaching, feedback and challenge too – my leader needs to provide these in the right balance.

Which is impossible.

You cannot get it right all the time, and so there needs to be an open conversation about how the leader can best provide the support the individual needs, and the involvement the leader needs, for each task or project.

This involves checking the ego.

It’s interesting to note that although Asquith had some serious ego, he wasn’t an egomaniac – he saw himself as a first among equals, the right person to lead, but also saw the talents and abilities of his colleagues. He didn’t let ego become a factor (compare and contrast to most of his colleagues at the time – and at any time – especially Lloyd-George).


He was kind. He treated his colleagues well and sought their trust, he tried to behave ethically despite being the senior politician in a politically hostile climate – but he wasn’t naïve, he understood the need to be clever and tactical.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the importance of kindness when working with others, and although an obvious concept, one that hasn’t always been a big part of leadership.

A nice way of putting it is from Goffee and Jones (in their book “Why Should Anyone be Led by You

They talk about “tough empathy” which means kind to the person, tough (but fair) on the performance.

Tough empathy means giving people what they need, not what they want. Leaders must empathize passionately and realistically with employees, care intensely about the work they do, and be straightforward with them


So what did he do less well?

SDI (Strengths Deployment Inventory) have a useful concept of Overdone Strengths, where – for example – we might be so self-confident we appear arrogant, or so helpful we become smothering to those we are trying to help.

We are trying to cast a light, and energize those around us, but overdo it and end up casting a shadow, sucking the life from the room.

As a friend of mine used to enjoy saying “Some people bring job wherever they go, some people bring joy whenever they go

Asquith could have used some SDI training.

All the above strengths were great, but given the changing circumstances of war and the demand for leaner, swifter government with a single laser-focus on victory, his style started to get in the way.



He was a chairman when a leader was needed.

Wartime demanded a quicker, more decisive, more energetic, approach and Asquith didn’t flex his style and become directive and high energy when that was needed.

Flexibility is key, and can challenge the idea of authenticity if your style doesn’t fit the circumstances … but the answer is to either find a way, or get out of the way.



He was risk-averse (hence the slow and careful decision-making process). This not only undermined his ability to lead during wartime, but made it hard for him to best Lloyd George – a reckless risk-taker – when under pressure from his manipulative War Secretary

Leading in a crisis means working with incomplete information, which makes decision-making harder, this can be difficult, but it’s essential.

Some thoughts on leading in a crisis:

  • be the calmest in the room, it projects confidence
  • don’t panic, leaders set the tone. Urgency can be expressed through words, not itchy body-language
  • take the right amount of time to make the best decision possible with the information available (accepting you will never have all the information)
  • address the risks that are inevitable with incomplete information, identify the gaps and try to fill them with whatever info you can get, and most importantly keep watch on key indicators that might provide early warning signs of changing circumstances
  • involve people, but be directive on the process so things move along and there is clarity about what is required


Careless with his image

He was careless with how others saw him.

The sight of him writing love letters to his mistress during cabinet – however boring the discussion – cannot have been motivational for the rest of the gang, and he let his drinking get out of hand, and being seen to be regularly half-pissed is not a great look for a leader.


Asquith was a remarkable man and a strong Prime Minister who was unable to flex into the style needed to win the war. Certainly his mojo understandably took a heavy blow when his son was tragically killed in the war, but his unwillingness to step aside meant that despite the respect and affection of those close to him, their confidence ebbed away and he was left at the mercy of Lloyd-George’s energetic shenanigans.

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