To be a leader you need followers; those who are captured by your vision and willing to help make it a reality; those who will spend money supporting you and time advocating for your cause. This is true in business, and it’s also true in politics. As the recent Labour Party election demonstrated so clearly, only those with a strong base of followers can hope to lead.
But to be a good leader you also need to listen. Followers who believe their leader no longer cares about them will soon leave. Short of using force, no one can keep leading if their followers start to believe their views do not count.
I recently returned from the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, where I saw examples of both good and bad leadership.
The first thing that struck me was how carefully stage managed the whole affair was. This is true of all political events, but this year in particular the Tories seemed hell-bent on ensuring everyone stayed on-message. This is understandable perhaps given our new Prime Minister is still working out her priorities and policy plans, but it led to a relatively dull few days at Birmingham’s ICC.
Fringe events were well attended, but there were frequent comments about the infrequent participation of political big hitters – whether focused on housing, poverty or finance. One notable exception was Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP, who was willing to participate in lively debates and listen to the views of those who disagree with him (made easier perhaps by the fact that he has remained in post and may have a clearer sense of his brief).
But it wasn’t just at the fringe that there seemed to be a lack of real leadership. On the main stage, most speakers looked uncomfortable and sounded wooden. Given the audience – followers who already believe in their vision (and have often paid quite a bit of money to attend!) – you’d expect rabble-rousing speeches delivered by leaders who know what the people want to hear.
Some succeeded, but many didn’t. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid MP barely managed to achieve more than polite applause, despite announcing billions of pounds for new homes.
Surprisingly, it was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark MP who stood apart. Not known for his public speaking skills, Clark connected with his audience by injecting feeling and humour into his language (the occasional slip simply implied that he was speaking from the heart).
But Clark did more than just speak well: he brought business representatives onto stage to join him in a good show of support and authenticity. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, I left feeling more convinced that he understood the realities of business and was willing to listen to leaders’ views when developing policy. Now, as a cynical comms professional I am aware that the whole thing was a show and that those individuals will have been carefully briefed to say the right thing! But it still worked.
True leadership is not about shouting the loudest or believing that you have all the best ideas. It’s about listening to those around you, developing a clear vision and then engaging your followers to advocate for you and make change happen. While the Conservative Party Conference was mostly a carefully managed PR stunt, there were moments where true leadership shone through.