#GE2019: a low point for the art and science of #leadership

Prime Minister Johnson is being lionised for his “stonking majority”; Leader of the Opposition Mr Corbyn was savaged for his “comic ineptitude”; Liberal Democrat Leader Ms Swinson “wasn’t realistic” and First Minister Sturgeon’s “got a mandate for IndyRef2”. So go some of the post mortem judgments on the party leaders.

But none are being judged, or judging themselves, on the their leadership skills.

It’s true that Mr Corbyn’s credibility as a leader “came up on the doorstep” but the analysis of his performance – by him and others – during the election is focused on strategy and tactics, not leadership.

Only their “numbers” count. Sound familiar to those of you who sit on business boards?

Party leaders, like business leaders, will work to deliver what’s measured: seats and profit.

Even as the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump, he poured scorn on the vote at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan: “…have they not seen my numbers?!”.

The word leader has lost much of its value because leadership is valued less in politics and in business.

Yet people still need to be led.

Mr Johnson’s 365 MPs need leadership. He doesn’t “lead the country”. He leads the MPs elected to represent it. He ignores them at peril.

He has “a whip” and he’s not afraid to use it. Several expelled MPs felt its lash earlier this year.

But in politics and in business the whip is not a sustainable leadership tool. Followers don’t do their best work under the threat of its use.

It was noticeable during the election campaign that none of the leaders actively promoted their senior team members. It was all “very presidential”.

We don’t have a presidential system and so, when the dust settles, the leaders of all the parties will be left with their MPs and they will either lead them well, or not.

My guess is that they won’t because they don’t see the point of it.

It reminds me of one board director who boasted to me that “we hire great people and drive then hard”. Bloodstock came to mind. Chilling.

Mr Corbyn does not see the link between his failure to bring the diverse strands of his party together and his defeat.

Mr Johnson will wrongly assume that his victory vindicates his treatment of his own MPs as voting fodder. After all, they did sign up to the manifesto he will say.

But they must act in the best interests of their constituents who will, over time, change their minds on matters as they tend to do. At present one senses that MPs will have little input into what the PM and his advisors decide. And as for Cabinet decision-making I don’t think, somehow, this Cabinet will get CorpGov of Year Award.

Ms Swinson should have promoted those strong members of her own team, allowing them to share the lime light rather than carrying it all on her own back and then buckling under the weight of expectation.

Of course it’s easy to be wise with hindsight. While much of former PM Mr Blair’s criticism of Mr Corbyn is justified he forgets that the Chilcot Report highlighted several of his own leadership blindspots, especially his “sofa-style” decision-making processes. Those “without sin can throw the first stone”.

Is good leadership an old fashioned concept, no longer “fit for purpose”?

There is anecdotal support for this argument. “Fake news”, populism, and an increasing tolerance of lies in public and in business discourse makes “leadership” sound like an altruistic and faintly irrelevant pursuit.

But the proof of its importance is the evidence that failure, chaos and, in extremis, catastrophe are more likely in a leadership vacuum than when we have strong leaders who create an environment in which followers thrive.

The error all political leaders made in the general election was their MPs.

CEOs and boards repeat this error. They “treat like s**t” the very people who, if treated well and acknowledged, would happily go the “extra mile” for them – the “gold dust” of behaviour: “discretionary effort”.

I predict that Mr Johnson’s premiership will end in tears, not as quickly as Mrs May’s, but much more disastrously albeit after a longer honeymoon.

Why? Because Mr Johnson has not articulated a purpose which a broad church in the country can share.

He says “let the healing begin” as if somehow he can ordain peace because he is the victor.

Healing is achieved by leaders who painstakingly facilitate a process of truth and reconciliation.

Truth is at the heart of strong leadership and truth was a casualty on all sides in the election.

But in business and in politics truth “will out” sooner or later.

And the truth on key political issues will emerge over the next two years. The first to turn on the PM will be his own MPs especially if he neglects them. Mrs Thatcher was forced out for that reason.

Time will tell.

Mr Johnson will find it much easier to “get Brexit done” than he will leading his MPs in its aftermath.

My fantasy is that an as yet unknown natural leader will launch a new party and claim the now vacant centre ground.

I dream on.

Ciarán Fenton

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