What leadership is not

October 19, 2016

At times, leadership can be a curious thing to pin down – and often it is the absence of leadership, or what it is not which is easier to identify. We have recently been subject to three highly visible discourses on leadership in the last 4 months, one of which is ongoing. The Brexit debate, the Labour Party leadership campaign and the American presidential campaign have all been characterised by a great deal of commentary on how unsatisfactory the leadership capabilities on show have been.

 

Leaving ideology aside, what have been the behaviours we have seen which have allowed many to feel that there is a lack of positive leadership? There are a range on show: here are three that we feel are particularly toxic to creating successful outcomes:

  • Lack of direction: in both the Labour leadership election and the Brexit debate a paucity of actual vision hampered the quality of debate and understanding. In the Labour debate that lack of direction was admittedly mainly on one side with the Parliamentary Labour Party who tried to unseat Jeremy Corbyn lacking any core direction of travel, which unravelled rapidly in the face of Corbyn’s perceived principles; in the Brexit debate neither side offered a coherent vision, instead relying on soundbite trigger words and inference politics.

  • The myth of the ‘strong’ leader: one of the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn has been that he just “doesn’t look like a leader”. This has been tied to his refusal to engage in the roundhouse politics of the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions – instead he took the path of giving voice to those he felt he represented and were his constituents. On the other side of the Atlantic the ‘strong’ leader has been brought to life in no uncertain terms by Donald Trump. At times of crisis a unifying and powerful figure can provide direction and a rallying point, the thrust of Trump 2016 seems to be the perpetual need to create a sense of crisis so that he can be created as this figure that no-one even knew was needed.

  • Paucity of wisdom: assuming that wisdom=knowledge+experience there has been an absolute lack of this in evidence. Knowledge has been reduced to ‘what I feel to be true’ (cf Michael Gove’s dismissal of experts, and Trump’s continual insistence that facts are completely relative) and experience has become a validation of an individual’s narrow story rather than a considered take on life through a lens of broad perspective (my experience is more important than yours because it happened to me).

There are a range of sins that can be called out in our recent political times, but these three are potentially highly damaging, not least because they are all possible to avoid. With an appropriate and open understanding of leadership behaviours these can be easily overcome, and effort should be made for them to be absolutely avoided as their presence continually undermines any attempt for the leader to move forward.

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