Talking points: Fit to lead the land?

Business leaders can benefit from making cross-sector comparisons with figures in other spheres such as history, the military, or even literature. With a general election now believed to be imminent, we ask what qualities political leaders need to succeed.

RICHARD OLIVIER, Founder director, Olivier Mythodrama

They need to have an incredibly thick skin just to be able to survive, and a willingness to compromise to build coalitions to get people on board. But those necessary strengths can also be their Achilles heel. They could have a negative effect on your ability to listen to other people and you can become impervious to criticism.

The work we do tries to promote people’s authenticity – it’s about not hiding who you really are. That is almost impossible for politicians. Those who do let their personality show can be typecast or ridiculed. In the world of politics, you get punished for being human.

Mary Chapman, Chief executive, Chartered Management Institute

Leaders need to share some common vital skills: seeing the possibilities for the future and how things can be better, and discussing it in a way that excites people and creating the environment in which it can happen.

Three things are different for political leaders. One is the tremendous need to inspire trust, because we’ve seen parties lose elections over this time and time again. That’s about transparency and authenticity in their communications and actions.

There is a huge need for continuity of purpose, and that is to do with the scale and timeframes they’re working on. The third thing is the ability to manage oneself. Again, this is needed by all leaders, but if you’re a political leader in the spotlight most if not all of the time, under pressure from other parties and sometimes from your own as well, you need resilience, and the ability to control the expression of your emotions.

PAUL WINTER, Chief executive, The Leadership Trust

As followers, we all want to be inspired and motivated by our leaders, whether it’s the people we work for or our political leaders. Really good leaders need good sensing skills, and politicians might need those more than others. Truly inspirational leaders have empathy and instinct. They also celebrate the differences in people, and are not afraid to show their weaknesses.

ROBERT KOVACH, Senior consultant, RHR International

They have to appeal to a wide range of people on a wide range of issues. I think that’s why you get so many politicians all around the world who will find one pillar, cause or reason for being that people can rally around. Credibility is very important. We notice it with CEOs, but with political leaders it can be harder to maintain. It comes down to things such as integrity. Vision and vulnerability are not incompatible concepts.

Gary Ince, Chief executive, Institute of Leadership and Management

One of the luxuries that managers in private business have is that they don’t have the public challenge and debate that politicians and CEOs of FTSE companies have. Political leaders have the resilience to develop their strategies in the public gaze and stand up to public scrutiny. A lot of business managers and directors simply do not understand just how energy-sapping it can be when you are having to justify your decisions to a wide audience who may not share your views and opinions.

Julia Middleton, Chief executive, Common Purpose

The best politicians have the quality of statesmanship. To me, that involves seeing the bigger picture, and somehow making it make sense to all the different groups who are seeing a decision from completely different angles. It’s an amazing quality to be able to see the bigger picture and express it in a way that makes everybody say: “Yes – that’s exactly what I think.”

Nathan Hobbs, Head of leadership development, OPP

To lead a country, you need vision and determination. You see how things could be made better and are single-minded about changing them. One skill has to be the ability to get a dominant coalition of intent alongside you. You wouldn’t necessarily call it team-building in that sphere, but it’s still about getting people to want to align with you.

Godfrey Owen, Deputy chief executive, Brathay

Understanding rather than trying to be understood: that is a classic Stephen Covey phrase from management development that politicians could definitely apply. The other area is inspiration. When political leaders lose that, they become an electoral liability – regardless of any other skills they’ve got.


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