17 February 2020
Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed in a recent interview that she has little time for sleep or recreation. Photo: Bloomberg
Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed in a recent interview that she has little time for sleep or recreation. Photo: Bloomberg

She hardly sleeps, she doesn’t relax … Carrie is a worry

I have long worried about the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a person seemingly devoid of a sense of humor and rather robotic in her social interactions. Now these misgivings have been confirmed by her disturbing declaration that she has little time for sleep or recreation.

She volunteered this information in an interview with Commercial Radio, presumably designed to show how hard-working she is. However, there is something distinctly wrong about a person who thinks that it is necessary to tell the world that she can get by on sleeping for just three hours per night and rarely sleeps more than five hours. She compounded this by going into a whole rigmarole about why she could no longer play badminton because a combination of playing the game, showering and changing clothes just took up too much time.

If any of this is true, it either means that she is one of those dreaded micro-managers who does not trust her colleagues enough to do their jobs and therefore have to be second-guessed by the boss. Alternatively, she might need these very long working hours because she is disorganized and incompetent and therefore requires way more time than competent people. Most scary is the thought that her problem is a combination of both of these attributes.

Carrie Lam stands as a living contradiction to the well-known notion that if you want to get a job done, find a busy woman to do it. The idea here is that busy women tend to be both better organized and more effective than others in executing tasks. People who are not genuinely busy or are downright disorganized and people who complain about there not being enough hours in the day to get a job done are the kind of people who speak loudest about how hard they work and achieve least.

Having been a journalist for longer than is decent to discuss I have become a connoisseur of leadership skills because reporters have, or at least they used to have, a strange combination of access and interaction with various leaders providing a unique opportunity to study at close range how they get their jobs done.

Leadership, of course, is not merely a matter of ploughing through piles of paperwork; it is much more about dealing with people, alternatively inspiring or reassuring them.

The best politicians do not learn how to do this, they simply have it embedded in their DNA. Having been in a room with former President Clinton, I’ve seen a true master at work. Here is a man who knows when to take time out and how to make people feel at ease while simultaneously retaining an air of authority. You won’t hear him whining about having no time to relax.

Another leader who sticks in my mind is the late Giovanni Agnelli, the patriarch who used to run the Fiat motor conglomerate. Besides being the epitome of style and charm, he had a way of dealing with people that never appeared to be rushed or peremptory. Given the choice between a long lunch or a long seminar on internal combustion engines, it’s a fair bet that he would have opted for the lunch yet would also have been well enough briefed about how the seminar went without spending hours ploughing through the details.

The idea of a long lunch with Carrie is pretty much unthinkable and as for putting people at their ease, well, just talk to people who have worked with her and respect her but when asked about her personality they can only come up with words such as “diligent” or “competent” – certainly not “inspiring” or “warm”.

This makes Ms. Lam something of a flawed leader forever looking at the trees but never seeing the woods. She grimly goes about her job, no doubt working diligently but also without an ounce of joy and as she does so she becomes increasingly convinced that she, and she alone, is right simply because she has worked hard. She takes criticism very badly indeed; having observed her in this situation I can categorically state that it is not a pretty sight.

This trait of not tolerating critics is a characteristic shared by other politicians who like to boast about how little they sleep. The Bragger in Chief at the White House, Donald Trump, seems to think that sleep is for losers. A similar view was taken by the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was eventually felled by her own hubris.

Ms. Lam may or may not be as intolerant as these two and it would be unfair to describe her as a bad person but it does make her a deeply flawed leader and it’s a fair bet that these flaws will be accentuated as she ploughs on with the job, impatient of questioning and resolute in her determination not to be deviated because she has a distinctive form of self-confidence that does not allow for self-doubt.

The problem is that this conviction also rules out the possibility of being influenced by those who have valid views that are different from hers. We should therefore have some pity for Carrie Lam and plenty of pity for Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author