The idea of leadership has hit the headlines since the referendum result. First we had Hilary Benn declaring that Jeremy Corbyn “is a good and decent man, but he is not a leader”. Then Michael Gove made his surprise bid to displace Boris Johnson as a candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party, and Prime Minister (at least until a General Election is called). Gove said that, while Boris “is an amazing and an impressive person”, he “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” These are remarkably similar statements to the effect that there is some unspecified quality that is needed for leadership which is distinct from being either “good and decent” or “amazing and impressive”. So what kind of leader are we looking for, and are different qualities needed in a time of crisis?
Perhaps political leadership requires different qualities from organisational leadership, but let’s come back to that later. For now, I want to explore the idea of leadership qualities in the 21st century. There has been much debate about whether leaders are born or made, but perhaps this is not the most important point – clearly background, upbringing and personality may make a person more or less inclined towards, or suited for, leadership in their chosen field. But clearly learning (both formal and informal) can help someone to make the most of their talents. There is also a question whether the attributes are different for leadership in a crisis, or in a particularly challenging environment. There are two characteristics of great leaders which may be especially critical in a crisis, but which are also essential at any time. In a crisis, their absence may become more evident, but a good leader will be one who has the adaptability and resilience to deal with events and changes that arise, however dramatic.
One further vital ingredient for a great leader is self-awareness. They should know their own strengths and weaknesses (we all have some of the latter!) and adapt their style to take these into account – perhaps even to the extent of recognising when you are not the best person to lead in a particular context. Coaching and mentoring practice is largely focused on helping leaders to understand themselves better and to develop the strategies they need to perform well. These may include surrounding oneself with the right trusted deputies and consciously developing your skills to ensure that weaknesses do not become liabilities.
In our 21st century era of instant and open communications and social media immediacy, it has been suggested that perhaps we no longer need leaders in the traditional sense, and more direct people power can start to become a reality. But for me this misunderstands the nature of leadership today. What new communications technologies do is to place very heavy demands on leaders – their every step and statement is instantly scrutinised – and criticised. The problem here is that this intense moment-by-moment accountability can lead to an excess of caution, and spin, to avoid or recover from the dreaded gaffe. This can make our leaders seem bland and evasive. In challenging times we need boldness, self-confidence and authenticity. Leaders with the courage to be bold in spite of the risks of close scrutiny may be appealing (Trump and Farage spring to mind!) but not always good or wise.
So what does a good leader look like? If we watch TV dramas or reality shows, we would get a seriously misleading impression of modern leadership. In our dramas we see high ranking police officers or political actors behaving in calculating, Machiavellian, often brutal ways, with a lot of swearing and inappropriate innuendo. In the business reality shows it all seems to be about finger-pointing, criticising and sacking people (“you’re fired”!) Any aspiring leader who models themselves on these will go seriously wrong. The best business leaders I have met care deeply about their employees and customers and seek to identify and pursue the social purpose of their business alongside the bottom line. They try to build teams that work together rather than dividing loyalties and encouraging internal politics. They know that the constant scrutiny of their business and their behaviour makes them more accountable than ever and they rise to that challenge with vision.
Lately we seem to have seen aspiring leaders acting more as though they are in a TV drama or reality show than in the real world of principled leadership. What we should be looking for , in organisations, businesses or politics, are the kind of leaders that can unite rather than divide, that can lead rather than follow (while listening and understanding people’s worries and aspirations), who can work to deliver for all the stakeholders in their organisation, or party or country, not only for their supporters?
I have led four successful organisations as a CEO for 32 years and have met many good leaders, so I hope I have some idea what to look for in a leader. For me the number one characteristic is the ability to inspire belief in a vision that embodies their genuinely held authentic principles and values. Just having the principles is not enough – they have to be able to translate those ideas into concrete strategies, communicate them effectively, with passion and fire but also with evidence and honesty, and gain people’s trust and support – not only those who are already believers, but even those who may start out with a different view. It is no good pretending, and we are very critical of anyone who seems to change their mind too often – they appear to be opportunistic rather than genuinely principled. The populist who follows public opinion to advance their own career is not a great leader – that is the one who can build support for the ideas they genuinely hold dear, sharing their passion and helping people to believe in a new and inspiring vision. A leader should be able to lead and not just follow.
I learnt, eventually, in my own leadership experience, that no-one can lead alone. Building the team is vital, but it isn’t mainly about sacking the people that don’t agree with you or appointing those that do. Rather, it is about building trust among a group of talented people who share a common vision and can be trusted to deliver their part of it without constant oversight. They should also be able to challenge the leader without fear and the leader should be open to constructive criticism and advice from those around them. A team of “yes” men and women is not going to get the best results. It seems that our political “leaders” today are too busy pulling their teams apart rather than pulling them together!
We know that in any organisation, and more so in a party or a country, there are people with different perspectives and interests. A good leader can bring those stakeholders together, helping them to see beyond their narrow advantage to the common good. A great leader is inclusive. In a charity, you can’t have the trustees and the staff and the supporters all going in different directions. The CEO is responsible for ensuring this alignment can happen. In a political party, I’m sure, the same applies – perhaps the cabinet, the parliamentary party and the constituency members and activists, and the party leader, being the equivalents.
Just as the leader must be able to keep his own troops fired up and united, so they must also be able to build strong and influential relationships with those outside their organisation, whose goodwill and support will be vital. Politically, we operate in a completely connected global world. Now more than ever, negotiations with international partners need to be successful and they will depend on our leaders’ ability to build strong and positive personal relationships. They need to convey integrity, to build trust, to listen and understand other perspectives, not to criticise, lecture, hector and demand.
If I were mentoring any of the present leadership aspirants, I would be asking them some hard questions, trying to help them build their self-awareness, explore their vision, look hard at their teams and their relationships, and build strategies to achieve their ambitions for the UK (not just for themselves). I would be asking them about their deep values and principles and how those can be harnessed in their leadership. I would try to help them confront the realities they face and decide how they can best make their contribution. Perhaps some would decide they can do better in some other role?
In organisations, in business and in politics we still need great leaders. People who are principled and authentic, honest and open, inclusive and values-driven, who can inspire us with a belief in the real possibility of a better future, who can build strong and unified teams of talented and committed people around them, who can give and inspire trust and build strong relationships, who can communicate with fire and passion but can also build the case on evidence, who are resilient, who are open to challenge and can adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
Returning to the remarks of current political challengers, goodness and decency should be possible, even essential, in a leader (it is not true that you have to be mean to lead, and it is generally not a helpful characteristic!) but they are not sufficient. Being amazing and impressive are also good but not on their own enough to make a good leader. Times are different now and a “new politics” should be possible. But a new kind of politics still needs a new kind of leader, the kind that is increasingly present in civil society and business (and so not really new at all) but seems to be notable by its absence in politics. We need leaders who can speak up for us, represent what is best in us and inspire us to work together for a better future. We need people who can work across the divisions that have just been widened, to give everyone in our society a stake, to overcome the alienation and despair that led falsely to blame being directed at the EU or migrants, to ensure that we can have a more fair and equitable future in which no-one is left behind, and to maintain our connections with the wider world as a positive part of our past and future.
The sadness of our present circumstance is that I don’t see these leadership characteristics in any of those currently vying for power in the post Brexit UK. Whoever emerges into leadership positions in each of the main UK political parties, this is a time when civil society and the electorate will have to make our voices heard if we are to emerge into a progressive future. It has often been said that leaders emerge when challenging times require them. I believe we know what such a leader would look like. Will they emerge I wonder?