The oxymoron of political leadership

There was brouhaha last week when the broadcasters held firm on the TV election debates, leaving David Cameron facing an empty chair. Cameron issued an ultimatum, saying he would appear in only one 90-minute televised debate featuring at least seven party leaders, to take place ahead of the formal start of the campaign on 30 March.

Refusing to accede to the prime minister’s proposals, the BBC, Sky News and ITV announced that the party leader debates will proceed as planned, regardless of whether or not Cameron attends. In a statement to broadcasters, Downing Street said the decision was the Prime Minister’s ‘final offer’. Craig Oliver, Cameron’s spin-doctor, responded by telling broadcasters it is ‘disappointing’ they will not take up his offer.

BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have all said they will continue with the debates as originally planned on the 2nd, 16th and 30th April, even if this means effectively ‘empty-chairing’ Cameron. They’ve rejected the Prime Minister’s alternative proposal which I see as a tactic to avoid the debates altogether. Labour’s tails are up, they feel that the current row is win-win.

The debates were well received by 22 million viewers in 2010 and research has shown that there is a public desire and a public expectation for debates in 2015. I believe that the formal election period is the right time to hold election debates. It is the point at which the parties have published their election manifestos and at which the electorate as a whole is most engaged with discussion of election issues and public debate about the future of the country.

Cameron’s aides made the calculation months ago that appearing to run away from the debates was damaging, but not as bad as appearing on TV alongside Miliband. The only question was how credible Cameron could look when he pulled out, and whether the public really minds whether the debates take place or not.

At present Cameron does not look that credible. His sudden desire for the nation to listen to the views of the Green party on social housing, or hear Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader, set out his views on the future of Ukrainian conflict, is inherently absurd. The real reason is that despite the stickiness of the polls, Cameron calculates he is on course to win without the TV debates. The economy will see him home and any cynicism about his refusal to debate will add little to pre-existing cynicism about politicians.

In that context, such debates merely become a gamble where none is necessary. A central feature of the Tory campaign is that Miliband is just short of a laughing stock. It would be deeply disturbing if, unmediated, Miliband appeared less dopey and more worldly than Mr Bean.

Moreover, incumbents normally struggle in election debates and however Cameron has donned the authority of a prime minister, he would have been on the defensive. Such debates would have been as much about his record, as the risk of Miliband. However, If Labour’s single biggest weakness is Miliband, it hardly makes sense to give him a 90-minute opportunity for voters to take a second look at him.

However, there is a broader point about the accountability of our political leaders. Blair, ever the showman, held monthly press conferences in an attempt to explain himself. Sometimes these events were a very difficult hour for the prime minister, but he made himself accountable, and you knew clearly what he stood for. Gordon Brown broadly continued the tradition. Cameron abolished them.

Cameron remains available for the occasional newspaper interview with a friendly proprietor and finds time for a 20-minute breakfast inquisition. But his favourite forum is Good Morning Britain, a revealing discussion with a woman’s magazine about his cooking prowess or three questions on regional radio interspersed with an Abba song. Some of that is understandable. Westminster can be a distorting prism for politicians.

By comparison, I recall previous elections filled with press conferences, newspapers and broadcasters got to pose questions for a party spokesman. Thereafter the party leader would undergo lengthy interviews with expert interrogators, as well as phone-ins, regional radio and newspaper interviews.

British political leaders are now protected, sanitised and risk-averse, which is why figures like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have followings that stand apart from their parties’ ideologies. Despite the broadcasters being at loggerheads with Cameron, and the PM cowering, the irony is that we have more media than ever before, but less insight into their, vision, purpose and underlying values as leaders.

‘Political leadership’ is an oxymoron by any measure – enduring and woeful unethical individual behaviours, the enormous national debt and deficit, absence of a credible ideology to a long-term sustainable structure to education and health care systems, and foundering unemployment masked by convenient metrics just to name a few issues where there is no long-term vision that I’ve seen.

Yet there are things we can do to deal with our epidemic of leadership incompetence, beyond voting people in and out of office every few years, while complaining between elections about the mess we have on our hands. Yes, this ‘mess’ drama is grimly entertaining and feeds the economic needs of news media and their advertisers, but surely we need our political leaders to start with their vision – what do they stand for?

Leadership success always starts with vision. John Kennedy famously dreamed of putting a man on the moon. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities. Compelling visions can truly inspire people. But there is actually nothing mystical about vision, simply, a vision is a picture of what an organisation could and should be.

A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel that what they do matters – Kennedy’s vision for the space programme was ‘We choose to go to the moon . . . not because it is easy, but because it is hard’.

Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their thoughts. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people to an organisation, motivates them to take action toward progress, unites them to a common purpose and drives breakthrough business results.

But back to political leadership, and parallels to leadership in business. For this blog, I’ve boiled my thinking down to ten essential traits and behaviours of great leadership, which I sincerely hope will be helpful reminders to our political leaders seeking election as to what working leadership looks like when practiced skilfully.

Key Trait 1: Be a visionary You must stand for something, and communicate your vision to the people you want to follow you.

  • Learn to paint a picture with words, speak it, write it, touch it
  • Your company’s vision should be in your mind every day, and you should re-evaluate it occasionally so that it stays fresh
  • Be involved in living and breathing the vision every day

Key Trait 2: Have passion Your people want passion, in fact, they’ll go to the ends of earth because of it – think of the sailors who travelled with Columbus to explore uncharted territory. Their leaders’ passion inspired them to take on new and dangerous challenges.

Engage and represent your people to light the fire in their bellies, to get them to feel passion about the company and connect to your leader’s vision. Passion is infectious.

Key Trait 3: Be a great decision maker How are major decisions made in your company, what is your process for making them? For instance, do you create a list of options to help you make the best decision?

Some leaders have a set process, and others fly by the seat of their pants. But you don’t want to be one of those leaders who consults no one before making a decision, announces the change the next day and then gets frustrated when no one follows it.

Leadership means having the courage to take timely corrective action on someone or something that’s not working. Timely decision-making is intrinsic to good leadership. Here’s a system I use to become a better decision maker. It’s called the Q-CAT:

  • Q = Quick. Be quick but not hasty.
  • C = Committed. Be committed to your decision but not rigid.
  • A = Analytical. Be analytical, but don’t over-think.
  • T = Thoughtful. Be a thinker, but don’t be obsessive.

Key Trait 4: Be a team builder To become a great leader, you must develop a great team. Don’t breathe down their necks and don’t micromanage, enable your team to find their voice, give them the freedom to work through their own decisions.

However, when projects aren’t on track or your team is falling behind on deadline, it serves no one if you start pointing fingers. This is when you need to support and inspire confidence. When a crisis hits, your team will look to you to be a tower of strength and leadership.

Key Trait 5: You must have character Without character, all the other traits are for naught, because your innate character strengths play a critical role in your leadership style. The real question is, are you aware of just what role they play? Take time to learn about your individual personality and what part it plays in your leadership style.

Key Trait 6: Collaborate Leadership means working together, with give and take toward a common goal. When egos get in the way, people rather than ideas, take centre stage in distorted ways. Leaders collaborate through rigorous debate of ideas, not by demonising people.

Key Trait 7: Be accountable Leadership means owning the ups and the downs – the errors and failures shape you more, even though first thoughts tempt you to distance yourself from them. Aside from being good moral leadership, an error-owning leader tends to result in great achievements in the long run due to their determination to bounce back. Alas our political leaders are epically far better at blaming or stepping back from mistakes than they are at owning a failure or misstep.

Key Trait 8: Innovate Leadership means innovation. True innovation isn’t in a method, process or workshop, it’s in the heart of our curiosity and thinking. Intrinsic to the survival instinct of politicians is avoiding what takes courage to change. The key to change our political leaders for the better is to remind them that innovation is about creating a better and shared future. President Obama’s proposed brain mapping project is a clear statement on the innovation front.

Key Trait 9: Be honest Leadership means candour with yourself and others, both emotionally and intellectually, being willing to ask for and hear honesty from others. Honesty brings the humility needed for leaders when things are going well, and the necessary fuel for critical change when things are in trouble. With the prevalence of distrust among political leaders, candour is greatly lacking, and therefore little or no great leadership can happen. It’s in our shared national interest that this trust gap and lack of openness be changed.

Key Trait 10: Listen Leadership means asking and listening, rather than doing the talking all the time. It’s trusting the people who know best. Your job is to quieten the noise of your own point of view in order to hear those with genuine wisdom and judgement.

The 2010 debates attracted a mass audience and constituted the only popular new idea that British democracy has had in decades. The genie has left the bottle, and no matter how awkward and exposing our political leaders find the debates, the voters (a third of whom are undecided) want a taste-test before they commit to five years.

Moreover, since the last election, social media has shifted our senses and reshaped our perspectives. In 2010 Twitter had 3 million users in the UK, today it has 15 million, and 80% are not tweeting selfies, rather 80% of accounts are created to receive information not transmit. We are using Twitter to suck up video links and news footage, with on-demand broadcasting as we demand to see things for ourselves.

When electoral turnout is in decline and a third of young voters aged 18 to 24 aren’t even registered, when a snarling alienation taints public life, why not use every tool to engage the electorate in heated debate and showcase your leadership vision, virtues and values? Live debate creates the opportunity for an immediate, undiluted broadcast of your own leadership credentials, but also a real benchmark to your competition.

A leader’s core vision provides the glue that holds an organisation together through time, consisting of core values and core purpose, ideology shaping the vision, the raison d’être, it’s not about goals and business strategy. You discover core ideology by looking inside, and connecting with sincerity, humility and authenticity. You can’t fake it. What’s needed in our political leaders is this big commitment to emotional and intellectual transparency, and robust validation, such that when people see what their vision is, there is almost an audible gasp, creating an emotional connection to sharing the vision.