Philip Dilley was unfit to lead. So why was he given a public post?

Sir Philip didn’t understand that at the Environment Agency he was doing something for the nation

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 13 January 2016 18:25 GMT
Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley, who faced criticism during the floods has resigned
Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley, who faced criticism during the floods has resigned

The outgoing chairman of the Environment Agency, Sir Philip Dilley, who resigned earlier this week after severe criticism, turns out to have had no idea of what is involved in leadership nor what pubic service requires. Rarely have I seen a public figure condemn himself out of his own mouth so comprehensively. He was like a tone-deaf person trying to sing. The sound was excruciating.

Sir Philip was resentful and petulant. He began his resignation letter by praising himself: “I am well qualified to carry out this role, and had much to contribute.” We know straight off from this that Sir Philip lacks one of the qualities of a good leader – humility. Funnily enough, humility doesn’t make you look weak, rather the opposite. A good example is the statement that General Eisenhower drafted before the D-Day landings for use should the attack fail: “The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

Here is the situation that Sir Philip faced. The country confronted unprecedented flooding in the north of England. The organisation he lead deals with such disasters. But unfortunately, dammit, crises can interrupt your holiday arrangements. This really rankled with Sir Philip. In his resignation letter, he wrote that his reason for standing down was that the “expectations of the role have expanded to require the chairman to be available at short notice throughout the year, irrespective of routine arrangements for deputy and executive cover. In my view this is inappropriate in a part-time non-executive position, and this is something I am unable to deliver”.

In other words, when Sir Philip was asked by the Government to chair the Environment Agency, he thought it was just another, well remunerated job (£100,000 for three days a week). He didn’t understand that he was being asked to do something for the nation as a whole after his long and successful career in the private sector. And that might mean making the occasional sacrifice.

This is certainly what people expected. Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale noted: “Many staff gave up their Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Their boss should have joined them. It seemed to many that this organisation was bereft of its formal leadership when it was most needed.”

Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley, remarked: “It was the worst flooding in the north of England in living memory and people thought it was bizarre that the chairman of the Environment Agency decided to stay on holiday.”

These comments put in their proper context Sir Philip’s whining about the media. Self-righteously he proclaimed that “the media scrutiny focused on me is diverting attention from the real issue of helping those whose homes and businesses have flooded, as well as the important matter of delivering a long-term flood defence strategy.”

In fact, the strangest section of Sir Philip’s letter explains the intensity of media scrutiny. In a self-contradictory sentence, he stated that he wanted “to be clear that I have not made any untrue or misleading statements, apart from approving the statement about my location over Christmas that in hindsight could have been clearer”. The first announcement from the Environment Agency to explain his absence from areas devastated by flooding was that he was “at home” with his family. This falsely gave the impression that he was in Britain but didn’t answer the question why he hadn’t visited the front line.

As this “lie indirect” didn’t work, it was necessary to resort to a “lie direct”. The Environment Agency was learning – or was it Sir Philip? – that a first lie often necessitates a second. It now stated that Sir Philip was at home with his family “who are from Barbados”. But again a false impression was deliberately created. For the media soon discovered that although Sir Philip was on holiday at his house in Barbados, his family actually comes from Jamaica, 1,200 miles away. It isn’t that his statements “could have been clearer” but that they should have told the truth.

As I have been studying Sir Philip’s leadership, or rather, non-leadership, an excellent account of what this skill really involves has been running through my mind. It is The Leader’s Code: Mission, Character, Service and Getting the Job Done published in 2013. The author is Donovan Campbell, a former US Marine officer, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Campbell describes the servant leadership model, the roots of which can be found in the world’s great religions. In his definition “a leader exists to serve a mission first, the welfare of their teams second and their own welfare a distant third. Servant leaders take care of others before they take care of themselves.”

One can see clearly where Sir Philip fell short. He put his own welfare first rather than a distant third. By promptly visiting the flooded communities in the north of England, he would not only have served the mission, but also the welfare of his staff on the ground, who would have been cheered to see their chairman supporting them.

The saddest aspect of this case is that by engaging in subterfuge, Sir Philip corrupted the organisation of which he was the head. Or was it the other way round? This is something that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Elizabeth Truss, should look at.

And she might also care to consider how she came to appoint Sir Philip in the first place. He had spent his entire career at Arup, the famous consulting engineers, where he had become chairman of the board. But in ethos, Arup is not at all like an organisation such as the Environment Agency that employs 11,200 staff and is at once an operating authority, a regulatory authority and a licence authority. Unfortunately, while Sir Philip knew a lot about engineering, he had little notion of leadership.

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