Friday, October 29, 2010

On Leadership

One of the books Ralph Nader constantly referred to in his satirical book Only the super rich can save us (which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is John W. Gardner's On Leadership (1990). It's a masterpiece.

How often have we all said that we don't have any true political leaders any more? In Britain, the last real leader we had was Maggie, and she was a mixed blessing at best (or an evil bitch, if you prefer). In America, there hasn't really been anyone since JFK. Barack Obama may yet turn out to be a great leader, but it's too early to tell. It depends whether he survives the next two years (politically and physically), and that's highly questionable.

Gardner's book asks two important questions. What is a leader, and how do we create them? He takes care to distinguish between leaders and managers, and between leadership and power. That actually sums up what's wrong with governments today. They're run by managers who wield power, and people hate that. So-called "UK plc"* is a vile idea, that reduces people to nothing more than shareholders and workers, and makes it clear that those at the top are there to boss people around and extract profit from them.

He also points out that leaders occur at all levels. It's not just about Presidents and Prime Ministers. It's about union leaders, youth club leaders, and others who can initiate widespread change. Arguably - though these examples post-date this book - the most inspirational and effective leaders we've seen in Britain in the last 20 years have been Bob Geldof, Bono, and Jamie Oliver. (And before you tell me not to be so stupid, think about it. They've done more to motivate people than any political or religious leader of recent years. Geldof and Bono have both been nominated for a Nobel peace prize, which is something none of our prime minsters are likely to achieve, and Oliver's been awarded a TED prize, putting him on a par with Bill Clinton and, err, Bono. And yes, it says a lot about Britain that two Irish pop stars and a TV chef show more leadership than anyone in the government.)

For most of the book, Gardner discusses the qualities required of a leader. He worked at many levels of the American government, and with many Presidents, and so he had the opportunity to see leaders of many types at first hand.
  • Vision: a leader looks beyond the immediate situation and gives people something to aim at. Not just a wishy-washy "things will be better," but a definite, achievable set of goals. Like putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, or achieving a society in which black and white people are treated equally.
  • Affirming values: a leader stands for something that people want to believe in. He is a living example of what people should be. What he's trying to do reflects what's important to that society.
  • Inspiring trust: people follow a leader because they believe in him. They are prepared to let him take the tough decisions, and they will back him, because they trust him to do the right thing.
  • Accountability: as part and parcel of being trusted, the leader accepts that he is accountable to his followers. The buck stops with him. If he screws up, he will admit it and let people judge him on his record.
  • Motivation: a leader makes people want to achieve. When he speaks, people act. They don't just go back to their normal lives, or grumble to their friends. They do something.
  • Managing: a good leader doesn't act alone. He has to get others to do what needs to be done. He has to deal with crises, manage budgets, and delegate work. A good manager isn't always a good leader, but a good leader has to be a good manager.
  • Achieving unity: leadership is often about building consensus and achieving compromise. You can't lead half a country. Well, you can, but then you get either civil war or the political stalemate we've had in Britain and America for the last few decades.
  • Knowing the system: you can't manage or achieve unless you know the ways of politics. (Just watch Yes, Prime Minister.)
  • Decisiveness: leaders don't um and aah. They don't have time. They cut through the crap and get on with the job.
  • Explaining: people need to understand what's happening, especially if their leader is going to take them through a difficult time. A leader needs to be able to explain what he's doing, and why. It's not the same if it comes from a subordinate.
  • Being a symbol: the leader is the person people look up to. Once he takes that office, he's not just himself. He's something more.
  • Representing the group: the leader is an ambassador, and other people's perception of the whole society is coloured by that. Look at how Europeans treated Americans under George W. Bush, and how they now treat Americans under Obama. Same people, different leader.
  • Supporting their followers: one of the key qualities of a leader is to make his followers believe that he is doing his best for them. He is working on their behalf. He is enabling them to do what they want. Even if it's a tough path, he has to convince people that he is acting for their benefit, not his own.
There's obviously much more to it than this, but it's a great checklist. Does David Cameron have these qualities? Does Ed Miliband? I don't think so. Brown and Blair sure as hell didn't make the grade. It looked like Blair was going to cut it for the first few few months after ousting John Major (another non-leader), but then he made it pretty clear he was just another corporate shill. Where's the vision? Where's the trust? Where's the accountability?

I have no idea where the next generation of leaders is going to come from, but I am sure of one thing. Until we have leaders we can respect, admire and trust - even if we disagree with them - we won't have governments worth a damn, and basically, we're all screwed.

*For the benefit of my non-UK readers, a plc is a Public Limited Company. UK plc is the idea that you can treat and run the country like a giant corporation.

1 comment:

Dave said...

You make some very good points and I like your character of a leader but I think I've lost faith in the whole concept of a good leader. Politics has evolved a class of politician who is very good at projecting an image, a set of values, all that you propose above, but fundamentally very good at being elected and far less capable at delivering the promise (assuming they even believed in it in the first place). Blair and Obama are very good examples of this.

The trouble with using the politician as a proxy for all these values is that the selection process is driven by election and there is no strong selection based on delivery. All that happens is that, every 5 years, we swap them out for the next set who persuade the electorate to vote them in.