For David Cameron amid the London riots, it’s no time to keep calm and carry on


British Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticized for too slowly responding to the London riots, which have now spread to other U.K. cities. (STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

First, there was his apparently cozy relationship with the Murdochs and his hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who has now been arrested over phone hacking allegations. Then, the Euro zone crisis worsened, with markets across the world plummeting in part due to the fears about debt concerns in Greece, Italy and Spain. And then, after a man was killed in north London by police, there are now senseless riots that have broken out in London neighborhoods and other cities, which many have tied to the economic conditions and austerity measures that have been part of Cameron’s term.

As Time’s Nick Assinder captures well in this article, Cameron let the opposition party get out ahead of him on the phone hacking scandal, lobbing criticisms that stuck before he could play catch up. Then, the British press howled over Cameron remaining on vacation while the debt crisis took a turn for the worse with screaming headlines like “Is anyone in charge?” After the riots broke out in London over the weekend, Cameron first said he would stay in Tuscany on holiday, only returning on an early morning flight on Tuesday.

Maybe Cameron has seen a few too many of those “Keep Calm and Carry On” WWII-era propaganda posters that have become fodder for cheeky parodies during our current hard times. But like so many leaders—President Obama among them—his immediate reaction to a crisis seems often to be wait and see. While he is now completely engaged in quelling the riots, putting 10,000 more police troops on the streets of London, calling Parliament back in session, and authorizing the use of baton rounds such as rubber bullets, it didn’t quite look that way on Monday morning, even if he was involved from afar. And yes, what Cameron needs to do now—tone down his praise for the police, speak for the people whose property has been destroyed—has little to do with whether he reacted too slowly or not.

It’s true that keeping calm and carrying on is not a bad instinct. Rash decisions are never a good staple of leadership. Overreacting can make things look more serious than they really are, and in the case of the riots, Cameron no doubt worried that his hasty retreat home to London could make things appear worse, creating panic.

But immediate action doesn’t have to mean making irreversible decisions, authorizing dangerous weapons, or firing someone before the facts are known. Simply getting on a plane back from Tuscany early Sunday morning to be in the city amid the fear and chaos would have probably gone a long way toward stanching any criticism (a YouGov poll says 57 percent of those surveyed think he’s handling the situation poorly). And getting ahead of the war of words during the early days of the phone hacking scandal would have made it clear Cameron was really plugged in.

After all, that’s what people want in a crisis. They want to hear some confident, reassuring words. They want to know their leaders are present, not off on holiday while their cities are burning. And they want to know their leaders “get it”—if they’re not plugged in enough to realize that a phone hacking scandal is about to erupt, will they miss something much worse? If leaders do these things right, people will likely give them a longer grace period to actually solve the problem.

More from On Leadership:

Paul O’Neill: Only the president can restart America’s engine

Bill George:Enough talk about jobs—where’s the action?

Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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