Leader or Manager

In the four month since Gordon Brown resigned as leader of the Labour party, several candidates fought impassioned campaigns to become the next leader and now, with the votes counted, the campaign is over with Ed Milliband emerging as the winner.

I had no strong opinions as to which candidate would be best for the job (although I did like Dianne Abbot – at least she was entertaining!), but I did find the comments of other Labour MPs interesting. When asked who they would prefer as leader, most avoided giving a direct answer and instead made statements such as; “we need someone who is strong and who will make the right decisions”.

These comments struck me as curious as MPs are invariably bright, articulate and strong personalities in their own right.  Yet their definition of a good leader seemed to be someone who will tell them what to do. Actually this is probably a little unfair, as all the MPs had their preferences as to which candidate they would prefer to win, so in reality they were wanting the winner to be the candidate who most closely mirrored their own views as to what the ‘right’ things were.  But that doesn’t alter the fact that they see a leader as being someone who makes decisions and tells people what to do.

Now it is not my place to criticise the Labour party, or any other political part for that matter, for defining the defining the job description for the head of their organisation in these terms, what I am questioning however is the use of the term ‘leader’.

One of the best and most comprehensive definitions of leadership I have ever seen is that which was compiled during the 1980s by two American researchers; James Kouzes and Barry Posner.  What I specifically like about their research was that they didn’t restrict themselves to analysing the traits of senior people, but instead looked for leadership qualities in a much broader cross-section of people, regardless of their rank, position or seniority.  What they found was that leadership could be defined by the following 5 practices:

  • Modelling the Way – Demonstrating the desired behaviours through your actions as well as your words.
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision – Creating a unified sense of purpose with everyone sharing the same vision of the future.
  • Challenging the Process – Questioning and being willing to be questioned.  Accepting that no one (including yourself) has a monopoly on truth and that the best answers and solutions are derived from seeking input from many people.
  • Enabling Others to Act – Avoiding a command and control approach and to instead empowering people to do things themselves.
  • Encouraging the Heart – Constantly praising and rewarding people for their successes and commitment.

These may sound like fairly simple and straightforward principles, but it is surprising how challenging they are.  Let’s test them against a generic, if somewhat cynical, view of MPs:

Modelling the way – Unfortunately this first practice is probably one of the worst for MPs.  There are far too many examples of people saying one thing while doing the complete opposite.  For example, preaching prudence while spending profligately, portraying an image of a happily married person for the cameras while having an affair, or telling the public that we all need to ‘tighten our belts’ while claiming thousands of pounds in expenses to build a duck house or refurbish a moat!

Inspiring a shared vision – Most MPs perform well on this criteria, after all, this is how they got elected in the first place.  Sadly, reality rarely lives up to the visionary expectations; for example ‘cool Britannia’, ‘an end to boom and bust’ – will ‘the big society’ be any different?

Challenging the process – MPs are very good at challenging, at pointing out the flaws in the ideas of every other party, but most are very poor at being challenged.  Unfortunately, to be a good leader, you can’t do one and ignore the other.  The whole point about challenging the process is that the best solutions emerge as a result of questioning every assumption and being open to everyone’s thoughts and ideas, regardless of which party they belong to.  The role of the leader therefore is not to have a monopoly on truth, but to encourage the debate and to then act as the catalyst to help people coalesce on a solution.

Enabling others to act – I’m afraid MPs don’t tend to do very well here either.  Unfortunately, enabling others means that they get the praise when things go well, but you take the blame when they don’t.  For most MPs this is unacceptable as they hold themselves up to be the individuals who will save the country from a fate worse than death.  Take the last government as an example.  Although the UK government inevitably contributed to the causes of the Credit Crunch, it was always described as a ‘global crisis’ that had its origins in the global economy.  Yet at the same time, the Prime Minister was claiming the credit for designing policies that would solve the crisis! 

Encouraging the heart – This again is an area where most MPs do well, as winning the hearts as well as the minds of voters is important.

Overall therefore it appears that MPs are more managers than leaders, controllers of the process rather than facilitators of it.  In common with all the other leading political parties, the Labour party have therefore not elected someone to represent the views on their members, but someone to direct them – a ‘managing director’ rather than a leader. 

The shame of it is that in the UK our political system has traditionally been based on the principle of voters electing the MPs who they believe will best represent them and their views.  Unfortunately, we seem to have now moved to a system where MPs see their primary responsibility as being to represent the party to the electorate; ‘top-down’ as opposed to the way it was supposed to be – ‘bottom-up’.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.