Sunday, June 01, 2014

Political leadership - you know it when you see it - but I just don't see it now.

"Leadership" is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. In my experience in the world of business it is a rare quality, and possibly getting rarer. And the great leaders are mostly born not made. I remember, in Shell, various "Leadership Development" courses were popular for a time. But I don't actually recall anyone performing better for having been on one. We all swiftly reverted to type once we came back from the Training Centre to the real world. The born leaders carried on leading, and those who found it difficult to inspire carried on not being inspirational.

Leadership is often linked to charisma to the extent that "Charismatic Leader" is seen to be tortologous. In business the examples of a Richard Branson or a John Harvey-Jones are often quoted here. Well I've known leaders who were far from "stand up and sock it to them" and I don't think that charisma is a prerequisite to for effective leadership. The question, a military metaphor, "Would you go over the top with this man?" gets nearer to the truth. Does he inspire? Does he give you confidence? Do you trust him? Does he lead from the front? And, above all, does he know what he is doing?

And so to politics. In Britain at the moment there is a scary leadership defecit. And so, in desperation, we have chosen to substitute charisma for true leadership - at least in the case of Nigel Farage. That Farage has charisma is true. He is funny, and irreverent and a bit of a card. He speaks well (he speaks nonsense, but he speaks it well). He has energy and a certain style. He passes, for some, the "over the top" test. He is a snake oil salesmen, but for many that doesn't matter. And he is fallible and at times a fool. But that doesn't matter either! 

On modern times really only Tony Blair has the same impact and not one Conservative Party leader since Margaret Thatcher. Remember, for example, Iain Duncan Smith being branded as the "Quiet Man" - code for saying "We know this bloke can't hack it as a charismatic leader but he has hidden depths". Well he didn't and the Tories jettisoned him without even allowing him to lose an election! Gordon Brown was similarly inept. You'd hide in the trench latrine to avoid going over the top with Gordon. Blair was clever and inspirational - a fine speaker in public and the right man for his time -twenty years ago. But, as it turned out, there was a lot of snake oil being sold by Blair as well. He failed the "trust" test and that was his downfall. If you no longer believe that a leader is telling the truth you'll move away.

David Cameron seems to think that leadership is about being visible and having a soundbite for everything. For a while we did actually think that Tony Blair believed in things - wrongly as it turned out. With Cameron I have no idea even what he wants us to think he believes in  - let alone what he actually does. If anything. He reminds me of the old joke about the phoney who said "I have very firm principles - here they are. And if you don't like them no problem. Try these". Ed Miliband probably does believe in things but he so lacks credible confidence that he loses it too quickly. He fails the "over the top" test not because he's mendacious or foolish but simply because he doesn't inspire confidence. An able back room boy who was accidentally propelled  into a leadership position he is demonstrably unsuited to. The "Peter Principle" in action.

The leadership defecit cannot be filled by Nigel Farage, and probably not by the similarly charismatic Boris Johnson either. Boris is no buffoon and people like him. But he doesn't quite have the gravitas along with the style that a truly respected leader needs - at least some of the time. Thatcher had it - and early Blair. Even Nick Clegg had his moment in the sun during the 2010 General Election - but the clouds soon descended never to lift. Alex Salmond has it though if he loses the Scottish referendum the game will be up. Leadership skills or not. 

In America there have been two exceptional leaders in modern times - Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. For a time Barack Obama looked to be in the same league and it is a bit of a mystery why with so much going for him he has failed - at least when judged by the highest standards. Roosevelt, Churchill, Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher, Blair (briefly)... As I say you know it when you see it. And I just don't see it now.


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