King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594 - 1632) at the Battle of Lutzen, Germany during the Thirty Years' War (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What happened to leadership?

A priceless quality has been forgotten in politics

Many may have wished for it, but few could have predicted another election for the top job so soon. Yes, a third prime minister in seven weeks. The prize is double-hatted. Rishi Sunak not only becomes leader of the Conservative Party but succeeds Liz Truss as Prime Minister. There must be something gilt-edged about his constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire. Its previous incumbent was another party leader, William Hague. Before him, it was held by the cabinet minister, Leon Brittain.

Why wasn’t an examination of leadership part of the election?

The leadership election process involves a bizarre dichotomy. Contestants were assessed on their policies. This time round, for example, management of the economy, possibly defence and Ukraine, and the elephants in the room of immigration and Brexit, acted as siren calls to different factions of the Tory Party. 

Yet when these individuals step down, whether voluntarily or with a degree of compulsion, they are judged less by the correctness of their policies and their delivery, but by something else entirely: leadership. Many of the more recent prime ministers and party leaders seem to have failed the high bar of national leadership in the eyes of the media, the wider public, their own party members and MPs. Having contributed a chapter to Iain Dale’s The Prime Ministers, 1721-2020: Three Hundred Years of Political Leadership, I was struck that the legacy of each of the 55 covered in the book (it was written in the Johnson era), was usually summarised in terms of leadership, not policy. The clock is now ticking in judgement on Premier Sunak.

Some, like Eden after Churchill, Major after Thatcher, Brown after Blair, May after Cameron, were unfortunate to follow a very ebullient personality with their own more introverted one. Perhaps the exuberant Sunak already has the advantage of being able to trump the lacklustre Truss, but we might have said the same of Johnson after May. Wise after the event, Gordon Brown, with an MA and PhD in history, understood it was all about leadership and penned three volumes on it. Corbyn, a decent man obsessed with the rightness of his unpopular policies, gave up on any pretence to lead at all. 

Yet the question remains: why wasn’t an examination of leadership part of the election mechanism we have just witnessed? I suspect most of us had reached political saturation at that point and just wanted the process over and done with. But hang on a minute — not so fast. As one approaches senior positions in most walks of life outside politics, leadership is one of the main selection criteria for future advancement. To paraphrase a recent editorial in The Economist, if you cannot outlast the shelf-life of a lettuce, your leadership qualities are seriously in doubt. 

The young men and women of the uniformed services, the armed forces and blue light responders, will recognise this from the first days of their training. So, too, will those in the Civil Service, banking, retail, sports and hospitality, advertising and PR professions, never mind public services like health, teaching, higher education, even the Church of England. Hence the modern multi-billion dollar industry of institutions, books, qualifications and courses. Some go further and borrow time-proven military techniques of identifying and teasing out the leadership abilities we each possess, but most courses are truly inspirational, encouraging students to up their game and give of their best.

There is little evidence of this at Westminster. Indeed, there is no requirement to have studied anything of the sort in order to head a government department. Secretaries of State and their junior ministers increasingly  have held office on account of their loyalty to the Grand Fromage, rather than any previous knowledge or competence in their departments’ affairs. Johnson and Truss were notorious for promoting only their ardent supporters, excluding much real talent. Whilst recognising that loyalty needs to be rewarded, one hopes that Sunak will start to arrest this invidious practice. In a different sphere, the ablest MPs are often found chairing the Commons Select Committees. There is one for each government department, examining their spending, policies and administration. Comprising around a dozen backbenchers, they should act as a necessary thorn in the government’s side, but recent administrations have ignored or belittled them. 

Additionally, both Parties have been guilty of overriding the professional advice of civil servants — or worse, sacking them when that advice was unwelcome, and elevating dangerously ill-prepared figures to high office, in the manner of promoting a Captain Edmund Blackadder to replace a Field Marshal Haig. Not every MP is capable of mastering the necessary skills to act decisively at the top. In the real world, whether an incumbent has been promoted beyond their level of competence remains one of the most hotly debated workplace topics. In Westminster, appearing on a celebrity TV game show was apparently enough preparation to run the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. 

In business and politics, the cost to the loser is extinction

 In decades past, it was assumed that MPs would first have received leadership experience in some other sphere, such as in business, law, diplomatic or military service, before entering the House. Yet, as politics has become professionalised, with a greater emphasis on youth, personal presentation, and service in think tanks, many Honourable Members have never been required to lead; they have little concept of what it involves. Nor have the SpAds, the increasingly influential class of Special Advisors who operate away from the public eye whilst often hoping to enter Parliament one day themselves. I have witnessed both these creatures of Westminster confuse notions of leadership with management and command. Whilst the former involves the processes of administration, the latter is the business of formulating policy and issuing orders. Leadership is quite different.

Such omissions of on-the-job leadership education separate a typical MP from the rest of the nation. The average age of a newly elected member has hovered at around forty since 1979, although there has been a steady increase in the 18-29 age bracket. The House of Commons as a whole has averaged a consistent 50-59 in the same period. Outside politics, professionals in these age brackets are leading, or learning to lead, in their various callings. Yet, due to the precarious nature of politics, many MPs have come from self-employment, where there is no call for leadership studies, and whence they can return if given the order of the boot.

Does it matter? Well, the parallels between military, business and political leadership are close, indeed intertwined. All are essentially a series of battles, fought against fierce competition, where the personal qualities of the man or woman at the top can make all the difference. In war, the fight is to the death, the price measured in war graves; in business and politics, the cost to the loser is extinction. 

As the Harvard Business Review never ceases to remind us, the similarities are numerous and obvious. There is the same need to include a broad range of opinion within your staff, for example. General George Patton memorably observed “If we’re all thinking the same, then someone’s not thinking”. Dwight D. Eisenhower, successful both as a general and a president, subscribed to the view that “You have to have a single vision. One that you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.” Brexit apart, the last three UK administrations failed to do either. 

Whether they like it or not, MPs are the leaders of their constituencies. Those in Government (about 100, including peers) are leading the nation. One would hope any prime minister is at least infused with the leadership characteristics most of us have been taught, and to which the rest of us, in our various walks of life, aspire. Such are the metrics that should have been part of any political election mechanism, but which were conspicuously absent in the events just passed. We must hope that Rishi Sunak understands the sins of his predecessors and aspires to a radical overhaul in his own methodology.

We study what is considered best practice. Yet, I see nothing but anger in those serious-minded, high-achievers around me, that the political classes appear to play fast-and-loose with the lessons of leadership. Consider the Johnsonian approach to respect, fairness, integrity, and collaboration. How can we, I am asked, be expected to live up to the generations-old notions of good leadership, when the warriors of Westminster breach them on a regular basis, with little punishment or contrition? 

My friends and colleagues go further. For them to replicate the behaviour of some MPs, whether in submitting expenses, being economical with the truth, making inappropriate approaches to colleagues, or taking time off to pursue non-professional activities, would result in instant dismissal, if not legal proceedings. Westminster and the country have grown apart as never before.

Not everyone is cut out to be a leader; some of us need to recognise we are followers or owe our followers a duty of care and respect. Some leadership characteristics are innate. Not everyone has charisma, but many of us can learn how to inspire. George Washington, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela all managed leadership roles that have gone down in history, without the aid of textbooks and courses. Yet there is much they left behind that we can study as part of our own professional development.

Based on several decades of regular and reserve military service and my experience of running a small factory, I have taught leadership at several UK military academies and in scores of countries around the world. Culturally, it is fascinating how close the global consensus is on what makes a good leader. Conversely, my students universally agree that it is always easier to recognise poor leadership than good. We have all experienced it and can easily detect the flaws and omissions of those over us, or elsewhere in public life.

Much of the globe agrees on what constitutes good leadership

There are incalculable numbers of published titles on leadership — lists 34,918 books alone — but here I will give you my own take. On my courses, I sit my listeners down in subgroups and offer them a list of 30 qualities that might contribute to good leadership. 

Some qualities appear contradictory whilst others offer similar meanings, but most participants agree they cover a broad spectrum of positive elements. In no particular order, they include the individual at times being Ambitious, Courageous, Determined, Intelligent, Forward-Looking, Inspiring, Conservative, Extravert, Creative, Fair, Collaborative, Reflective, Broad-Minded, Imaginative, Honest, Independent, Competent, Caring, Single-Minded, Loyal, Thoughtful, Reliable, Supportive, Communicative, Curious, Charismatic, Respectful, Energetic, possessing a Sense of Humour, with the ability to express Humility.

Charisma can be blinding, but behind every shining leader is usually a workaday chief of staff, avoiding the limelight. Montgomery and Rommel, both busy fighting the battle of El Alamein exactly 80 years ago as I write, relied heavily on others who translated their whims into orders. Before I receive a deluge of what-aboutery (there is nothing here about decency, delegation, team building, mentoring, discipline or luck, for example, nor is there a requirement to be liked), this is not the point of the exercise. 

I then invite each subgroup, separately, to arrive at a consensus of what constitutes the seven most important qualities and prioritise them. In 30 years, across 58 countries, the results are remarkable. Almost without fail, Western audiences agree that their ideal leaders should be Inspiring, Intelligent, Determined, Forward-Looking, Honest, Broad-Minded, and Courageous. In my experience, North American and Asia-Pacific groups generally choose the same seven, although with Honest heading the list and the remainder in the same order. 

The surprise is two-fold. It is not just that much of the globe agrees on what constitutes good leadership, but that this understanding was entirely absent from the political machinations we have just witnessed in the United Kingdom. 

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