Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted on May 16, 2012

The Unflappable Leader

As all experienced leaders know, issues arise unexpectedly, problems show up unannounced, and challenges present themselves uninvited.

How do your respond so you can remain focused and effective? Embrace the value of unflappability.

Harold Macmillan was the first leader to whom this value was attributed. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1957 to 1963, he earned the reputation for being unflappable.

As a differentiating value, Unflappability means remaining composed and levelheaded at all times. It also means being impossible to fluster.

This was a useful value for Macmillan during a time of significant upheaval and uncertainty for Great Britain. Indeed, this value served him well for most of his life – before, during, and after his tenure as Prime Minister. It helped him challenge the thinking of the day to ensure the best decisions were made, both domestically and internationally.

Macmillan was also known as “Supermac” in reference to a cartoon created about him with the caption “How to Try to Continue to be Top Without Actually Having Been There”. While the creators of the cartoon meant it as slander, it actually helped him. Why? Because it portrayed Macmillan exactly as he was – unflappable.

Roots of Unflappability

Where did Macmillan learn this value? It’s not as if he lived with no emotion. On the contrary, he was clearly emotionally engaged and involved.  Even on big parliamentary occasions he was known to be visibly nervous.

Some might argue that the roots of Macmillan’s unflappability stem from his recurrent illnesses when he was in college (he almost died from pneumonia) or his three different occasions being wounded as a soldier during in the First World War.

I believe some of his best learning came from his time as Foreign Secretary (1955) when he observed about his own role:

“Nothing he can say can do very much good and almost anything he may say may do a great deal of harm. Anything he says that is not obvious is dangerous; whatever is not trite is risky. He is forever poised between the cliché and the indiscretion.”

There is a powerful lesson here. When you are trapped between a rock and a hard place, remaining unflappable is a strong value to embrace.

Examples of Unflappability

In spite of some serious political challenges prior to taking office, such as promoting war with Egypt that led to the Suez Crisis, Macmillan remained focused on what he considered top priorities. This included:

–       Redrawing the world map by decolonizing sub-Saharan Africa.

–       Rebuilding relationships with America (strained through the Suez Crisis).

–       Reconfiguring Britain’s defenses to meet the realities of the nuclear age.

–       Pioneering the Nuclear Test Ban with both the United States and the Soviet Union.

A big test came when France vetoed the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community. The reason? Macmillan refused to disclose U.S. nuclear secrets to France.

He remained true to his values.

The value of unflappability enabled Macmillan to walk a fine line during the Cold War era to help preserve peace (and prevent nuclear war) while presiding over a period of low unemployment and high growth in Britain, and trying to keep control on inflation.

Even after three of his top ministers resigned in opposition to his economic policies, he brushed them off as “a little local difficulty.”  He remained levelheaded and refused to be flustered.

Macmillan maintained tremendous self-control. It’s what permitted him to deal with challenging situations more effectively, and be remembered as an unflappable leader.

So…. when you feel that you are trapped in a bad situation, think about Harold Macmillan. The value of unflappability not only helped him survive many physical, mental, and emotional challenges – it enabled him to govern his country during some tumultuous times.


How can unflappability help improve your leadership?

How can being unflappable help you develop your differentiation?


Today’s value was selected from the “Confidence-Courage” category,  based on the e-book Developing Your Differentiating Value.