Election Special: What leadership lessons can we learn from Politicians

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Well, that’s it, 6 weeks of intensive campaigning has led to the UK public unsuccessfully electing a majority party to form a government for the next 5 years.

Words have been spoken, speeches made, questions asked and opinions given.  While the frenzied talks between party leaders and their negotiating teams continue and we eventually get back to the “business as usual” of running the country, let’s take a moment to pause and see what we can learn from how politicians operate.

Now, given wall to wall media coverage over the last 40+ days, this might be the last thing you want to do, but it’s always useful to look back and learn lessons from what went well, and what didn’t go so well.  So, firstly a couple of things we can learn from how not to do things:

 

Stop confusing victory with success

Winning an election is about convincing around a third of the population to actively approve you.  It’s often about convincing the populace that the alternatives are far worse. Thus, a lot of effort and money is spent on negative campaigning to convince you not to vote for the opposition.  Unsurprisingly then, around a quarter of those eligible to vote are totally disengaged. Of the remainder over half will not vote for you.  These engagement numbers would be disastrous anywhere else. To be successful, leaders must appeal right across the broad constituency of their workforce. The best way to do this is to unite them behind a cause, placing the efforts of everyone in the context of the organisation’s purpose. You are judged on your legacy, not winning the argument in the moment.

 

Stop papering over the cracks

Politicians often try and present an image of being individually powerful, clear in their thinking, and prepared to defend the best interests of the nation. They see vulnerabilities as unnecessary stains on their character – Strong and Stable structures don’t seem so safe when they have cracks in them.   Unfortunately, by setting themselves apart they create a sense of dependency on the part of the wider population, making it easier for us to “blame the government” when things go wrong. For leaders, being honest in acknowledging faults usually triggers an empathic response allowing others to acknowledge their own imperfections. This will lead to building trust as people respond to the courage of offering a piece of information that could harm you.

 

Now before we totally dismiss politics, and become cynical about politics in our own organisation, let’s ask ourselves why politicians are the way they are and acknowledge that there are things we can learn.

 

Start recognising that decisions are not usually rationale

Most people’s voting decisions are probably not driven by a forensic comparative study of the manifestos. We might be rationally cynical about slogans such as “Take Back Control;” “Make America Great Again;” and “For the Many, Not the Few;” but they appeal to our core beliefs centred around belonging, safety and self-enhancement. Whilst we might debate what lies behind these slogans, they resonate with us.  For leaders, have a clear and consistent message that encapsulates your purpose can become compelling (just make sure you are prepared to back it up with your actions!)

 

Cross the floor

The image we might have of the houses of parliament is of people shouting at each other and making strange primitive noises as they “debate” issues.  However, the corridors of power are alive with politicians gaining support for their ideas (bills), supporting others and building alliances. We need to learn that we too need to get out and build relationships with people if we are to get things done.  This might involve supporting their ideas and helping them fulfil their needs first.  Simply sending out emails and CCing others in has little more impact than sitting at the back of the chamber and harrumphing or “here-here-ing” depending on whose tribe is speaking.  Leaders need to invest time in building and establishing relationships.  Often this means being prepared to debate and disagree with others, to compromise and find a common way ahead.