Leadership of the Lib Dems was Jo Swinson’s for the taking, but she wants to bide her time as deputy instead. Is she right to put her ambition on hold, asks Daisy Buchanan?
After Tim Farron announced his resignation as the leader of the Lib Dems, Jo Swinson was an early favourite to win the leadership contest. Yet, in a statement, she said, ‘Feminist that I am, I have of course wondered what a bloke in my position would do. It’s obvious. Most blokes in my shoes would run for leader like a shot. It’s true that my many years of encouraging women to have the confidence to go for that exciting new role have taught me that women often don’t go for things when they should. Just because a man would do it, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.’ And with that, she decided to stand only as deputy.
Her decision was met with dismay that such a promising political star wouldn’t be wading into the unsure political waters, as well as surprise that a 37-year- old wouldn’t want to seize a top job with both hands. But as someone who’s been burned by accepting my dream job, I’d say I think she’s doing the right thing.
My dream role wasn’t leading a political party, but it was exciting and prestigious to be assistant editor on a major national magazine. However, after a month, it was clear it was the wrong job for me. I blamed myself and my con dence faltered. But I was desperate to keep it. The title sounded so impressive and, in my head, admitting that it wasn’t working out was tantamount to walking in one morning with my coffee and shouting, ‘Everyone! I’m a big failure!’
Yes, Jo’s career has already been extremely impressive. She was elected to the House of Commons in 2005, aged just 25. As Business Minister, she’s supported women in the workplace and directly challenged aspects of work culture that prevent women from succeeding. She’s inspiring and she wants to use her success to boost the chances of women everywhere. But at this moment in time, mopping up Tim’s public image issues while the hung parliament stumbles through Brexit understandably might seem like a poisoned chalice.
As women, we often hear that the only thing standing between us and our lack of success is con dence and ambition. We’re told to lean in, take the lead and behave more like men if we want to achieve our dreams. ‘Stop underestimating yourself!’ shout the initiatives to try to redress gender imbalances on boards and in places of power. However, I think Swinson knows exactly what she’s capable of. At this point, she knows she’d rather be a brilliant, effective deputy than rushing to the top of the ladder and taking on a role that feels too big, simply for the sake of the promotion. It’s also believed that she has made a pact with Vince Cable – for him to assume the leadership then step aside so she can take it on in three years, when she’s ready.
Because, of course, leaving the dream job once you’re in it is so much harder. Stepping down from mine was one of the biggest (but also best) decisions I have ever made and it took months to recover from it. My con dence was crushed, and I needed to spend time building it back up.
Blogging for The Spectator last week, Swinson wrote ‘creating lasting political change is a marathon, not a sprint’ and no doubt building the Lib Dems into a force to be reckoned with in the newly declared ‘two-party politics’ landscape will be something she’ll be working at for years to come. But we’re more effective when we work to our own pace. If we sprint to the front, simply for the sake of being in the lead, we’re much more likely to burn out. Choosing to stay in second place isn’t cowardly, it’s wise – and it means that you’ll do a better job for longer when you’re ready.
It’s important to be ambitious, get out of our comfort zones and push ourselves for the sake of progress. However, it’s also important that we trust our instincts and realise our limitations. Work needs to be challenging and rewarding. We get more job satisfaction from doing a few things well than taking on too much and failing to finish anything. Ultimately, Jo’s decision shows that she’s extremely ambitious – she wants to be as successful as possible, and she’s smart enough to know that won’t happen unless the timing is right. We have to do our best before we can be the best.