What We Need From Our Political Leaders Today: The UK Experience

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The media and the public – not just here in the UK but in a variety of countries – feel we are going through a period of poor political leadership, with leaders who are more concerned about obtaining or securing their power than interested in the public good. So, what characteristics or traits do we need in our political leaders, and how do these match up to the leaders of the various political parties in the UK, on the eve of a very important election?

Having a sense of purpose

First, political leaders need to have a ‘sense of purpose’, a goal that drives their ambition, and is the focal point to achieve their political goals. In the context of the UK, all of the candidates in the upcoming election demonstrate this trait but they differ in the goals they want to achieve. In the case of Conservative leader Boris Johnson, it is to leave the EU and create a stronger alliance with the US. For the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, it is creating a truly socialist state, and for the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, it is to remain in the EU and create a value-based society. Finally, for Scottish Nationalist Nicola Sturgeon, her goal is a Scotland-first approach, and ultimately Scottish independence. They all score highly, then, when it comes to asserting a sense of purpose.

Adaptability and creating an inclusive culture

Second, leaders need to be flexible and adaptable in an effort to minimise divisiveness between people and within a country. Brexit has caused enormous political, social and psychological conflict within families, in workplaces and in society more generally. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have both, for different reasons, failed this leadership test. Boris Johnson has been unwavering in his Brexit position, whereas Jeremy Corbyn has not brought his MPs and party together on Brexit and other issues, such as antisemitism in the Labour party. They both seem less interested in compromise or galvanising a ‘we’ culture. The other two party leaders have been more adaptable, bringing together their core base whilst taking innovative and sometimes risky decisions. For example, Jo Swinson’s stance on immediately revoking Article 50 without a second referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon’s position on possibly considering a coalition government with the Labour party in a hung Parliament.

Integrity is everything

Third, leaders need to have integrity, being open and truthful. Most politicians have trouble living up to this standard, as they spin the truth to get elected or retain their jobs. But this trait is the one that has alienated the electorate more than any other. Not only in the UK but also in many other countries as well. The Conservative party leader seems to lead the field on this account, his veracity has been questioned by ‘fact-checkers’ and others on a variety of issues. On the other hand, the Labour Party leader’s spending plans have been criticised for being undeliverable, unsustainable and simply a ‘vote-getter’. The other two candidates have minor issues about being open but not to the same extent as the two main party leaders. Given Trump in the US, Putin in Russia and other political leaders of our time, this is the one important trait political leaders, and the people who vote for them, need to take into account if we are to have a thriving political system and democratic institutions.

Communication is key

Fourth, leaders need to be able to communicate, energise and enthuse people. It is only in recent years that the importance of this trait has come to the fore, given the power of multi-media and social media. On this account, both the Conservative leader and the Scottish Nationalist leader are front of the pack. They are both good communicators, whether in the media or face-to-face interactions. Corbyn, on the other hand, appears less comfortable with the media, although fairly successful on the hustings. Jo Swinson is very enthusiastic and dynamic but is sometimes perceived less positively in the media. Allied to this is the ‘likeability’ factor, do you like them and can you identify with them?

And finally, leaders need to have some perceived ‘credibility and gravitas’ outside of their own country, given that a Prime Minister represents the country and its image abroad. This is a very subtle trait that the electorate unconsciously considers, and only astute politicians understand this in planning their next career moves, in the context of the UK for example being Foreign Secretary! 

The really important traits of any political leader, in a time when the public are turning off politics, is integrity, a sense of purpose that meets the needs of the people, adaptability, being a good communicator and a likeable and open human being. The real question is whether it’s possible to find someone with these traits in our multi-media age.

Sir Cary Cooper is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

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