Corbyn vs May: Leadership styles in the spotlight

Follow the leader: Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May's leadership styles couldn't be more different
Andrew McCaren/LNP/Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Tomorrow sees the most momentous election in Britain in decades. While we have focused on policies that might affect the employment landscape, how do the Conservative and Labour leaders compare? Gloria Moss examines their leadership styles.

The snap 2017 general election is significant not only because the two main party leaders, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives’ Theresa May, offer wildly opposing views on many issues, but also because they present hugely contrasting styles of leadership.

May presents a more old-style, top-down leadership, typical of many political and military leaders, while Corbyn presents a style less often seen, whether in politics or organisations, that of the “servant leader”. What can we can learn about leadership that is useful to organisations and HR?

Leadership matters

According to Ken Blanchard, author of the bestselling “The One Minute Manager”, a good leader can turn a good organisation into a great one, while the wrong one can send a great organisation downhill.

What is true for organisations must be equally, if not more, true for countries as a whole. At stake are not just policies but the impact on people’s lives, their motivation, zest for life, their work and wellbeing.

People pick up leadership style quite instinctively. Allegedly, May is not someone who engages in small talk, while Corbyn is someone with whom people will share their problems.

The best leadership style?

It is not for us to judge the better style. The formal leadership style served a stable world well for centuries and not surprising that May, a self-professed “strong and stable” Oxbridge leader, should feel at ease with this style, speaking for example of ways in which strategy needs to change after the latest terrorist attack on the UK, this time at London Bridge.

Corbyn, by contrast, the product of a less elite institution, is at ease dancing on the stage of a rally in Sunderland and referring, after events at Manchester, to the need to put our arms around those affected.

May has a tendency to refer to the governed as “ordinary” people and as categories – she referred to having talked with steelworkers, fishermen and oil and gas people for example, all in the third person – while Corbyn will often use the first person plural pronoun “our people, our country”.

Research findings

Academic studies of leadership provide a vocabulary and understanding of the benefits of these styles. The top-down, command-and-control, style of leadership that emphasises hierarchy, people’s mistakes and information command and control, is “transactional” leadership – there is little here of the relational.

Its opposing style is “inclusive” leadership, one that a research study I led defined as a mélange of “transformational” and “servant” leadership. In this study for the Employers Network on Equality and Inclusion (enei), Dr Ceri Sims, Alan David, Dr Ian Dodds and I found a strong tendency for employees of 10 large organisations to link perceptions of leaders as inclusive with self-perceptions of enhanced productivity, motivation and wellbeing. The sample used consisted of just under 1,000 employees so the results are pretty robust.

These positive results cannot necessarily be said to be true of the more formal, “transactional” style. A study by Deloitte University in conjunction with the Billie Jean King Leadership Foundation showed that young people are particularly drawn to inclusive styles of leadership, being impatient with the command and control. It is no coincidence that a sizeable proportion of Corbyn’s following is from young people.


Leadership style and competencies Quotes and behaviours from May and Corbyn
Emphasises hierarchy and distance with followers References to “ordinary working people” (TM)
Ignores positives, focusing instead on negatives Emphasises the threats (TM) facing the UK rather than hope (JC)
Tightly controls information Not yet released information on the social care policies (TM) or on immigration (JC)
Rewards according to results (“contingent reward”) “My plan for Britain backs those who want to work hard” (TM)
“Inspirational motivation” – communication of the organisation’s vision is shared with followers Both JC and TM assert that they have a vision
“Individualised consideration” – individuals’ talents and views are embraced JC is described as entering into discussions with individuals about their individual circumstances
“Idealised influence” – a sense of community is produced and ethical behaviour is the norm Both JC and TM speak of coming together: “As a country, we must come together, we must pull together and united we will defeat our enemy” (TM)
“Our values of solidarity, humanity and justice will prevail”; “We need to stand together … in our communities” (JC)
“Intellectual stimulation” – creativity and challenging ideas are encouraged “You have to be open to discussion. You can disagree without being disagreeable” (JC)
Listening (actively listening to followers) Has warned about “party leaders putting themselves ahead of serving the people” with the risk that they “stop listening” (JC)
Empathy (putting oneself mentally and emotionally into followers’ experiences) Said of the families affected by events in Manchester: “I’m terribly sorry and terribly sad for you” (JC)
Growth (encouraging followers to reach their full potential) “Economic opportunity for everyone” (JC)
“I believe in Britain and the British people” (TM)
Stewardship (belief that the organisation’s legacy is to contribute in a purposeful way to society) “I want to lead a government that will transform this country, give real hope to everybody and above all bring about a principle of justice for everybody and economic opportunity for everybody”; Create a “society that cares for all” (JC)

Leadership style in the balance

So, the 2017 general election is not just about policies but also leadership style. The lessons for people management are clear. An inclusive style of leadership will deliver a more motivated and productive workforce than command and control.

What is more, the fact that we work in the knowledge economy where competitiveness turns on people’s creativity, and the fact that experts such as Professor Michael Porter have predicted a move to an economy based on “shared values” makes inclusive leadership the next big thing in management and leadership.

The two main candidates for the leadership election have shown us transactional and inclusive leadership in action. Organisations can pick up the baton and have a debate on leadership styles and, like the country, decide which way they would like to go.

Gloria Moss

About Gloria Moss

Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD is a former training manager for Eurotunnel and is Professor of Management and Marketing at the Bucks Business School at Buckinghamshire New University. She is author of ‘Why some men like straight lines and women like polka dots’ and most recently ‘Personality, Design and Marketing'.

3 Responses to Corbyn vs May: Leadership styles in the spotlight

  1. Avatar
    Jon Ingham 8 Jun 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    It’s not just about young people preferring inclusive leadership, it’s that the world of working is changing in a way which demands inclusivity. This absolutely isn’t a political point, but those who judged Corbyn unelectable really need to take a good, long, hard look at the changes which have been taking place in the world.

  2. Avatar
    Sharza Dethick 13 Jun 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    Well nothing strong and stable about Teresa, she is make a right mess of it. Jeremy would have made a better strong and stable leader.

    • Avatar
      Sharza Dethick 13 Jun 2017 at 3:07 pm #

      Nothing strong and stable about Teresa May she is making a right mess of it and I don’t hold out much hope if she its the one negotiating Brexit.

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