As a student of leadership and a politic activist I am fascinated by what makes a competent political leader. Hugh White's definition jumps to mind here: "Weak politicians allow their policies to be dictated by public opinion. Political leadership changes public opinion to support good policy."
To me, political leadership comes down to a balance between opportunity and obligation. An opportunity to make a difference to people’s lives and an obligation to ensure that difference is of the people, for the people, and with the people. When I am evaluating a leader’s ability, the key ingredients I seek are personal integrity, vision, communication and engagement. And the key question in politics is “does your brand of leadership get voters gravitating towards your party?”
Despite the slightly surreal nature of Trump’s entrance into the 2016 Whitehouse race, it does focus the spotlight on what accomplished business leaders can bring to the political arena.
Politicians have long been drawn from fields such as the military and law, but how many have been successful industrialists and entrepreneurs prior to careers in the House of Commons, or in any other political arena?
Being a political leader in a democracy is an inherently tenuous role – elections are won or lost, mandates secured or whittled away.
In business, leadership has required an ongoing effort to maintain support; but in recent decades, CEOs have started to experience a similar level of volatility that their political counterparts have long faced. CEOs are becoming more and more public property as executive presence in our world is getting greater and greater attention.
Brands are now public property, with assertive consumers feeling entitled to deem what businesses can and cannot do. As debates over executive remuneration and corporate taxes show, it’s not enough for something to be simply legal or commercially correct: it must also be judged as moral and fair. We see more and more global needs for political leaders who can make a difference in an environment where there is tremendous transparency, greater accountability, independent stakeholders, less freedom to manoeuvre, and an inability to narrowcast messages.
The leaders I admire each had a brilliant mind, and a brilliant vision that they could articulate in words. This brought with them an unbridled inquisitiveness about the world with an absorptive capacity that translated that curiosity into a memorable vision that engaged people’s imagination. They then had the courage to execute on that vision. They understood that you lead not with guns but with words. A leader’s words must be precise and totally committed. Words are the connection between leaders and the public. They must be credible and clear and reflect a vision, not just a position. They understand implicitly that you cannot tell people to follow, they must want to follow you on the path that you have laid out to your vision. Leadership Lesson One: You must have total commitment to your cause.
Martin Luther King was a visionary. He was a man who had a dream bigger than the times in which he lived. His "I have a dream" speech brought awareness and humanity to the national consciousness about civil rights in America. Think of Abraham Lincoln. No one described democracy better. He said a democracy is made by three conditions: a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Everyone knows those words.
Mahatma Gandhi certainly understood the courage of true leadership, evident in perhaps his most famous quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Or Anita Roddick, who led the Body Shop to the success it is today, who said: “If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”
And Malala, who epitomises courage, who said “When the whole world is silent even one voice becomes powerful.”
All these leaders had a dream—a vision. All of them could express it simply. All of them were committed and passionate about it. All of them were driven to execute on it. Yes they were of a time, but in that time they knew how to connect. They had expressions that everyone remembers. And they were individualist in their style and that style was them as a person.
Today CEOs must guarantee that consumers and stakeholders understand their company’s vision and believe they have the ability, personal integrity, vision, communication and engagement to deliver on the promise.
This is not about a laundry list of meaningless words, but rather ensuring consumers and stakeholders recognize the CEO and company’s principles driving corporate activity. Successful political leaders must connect with voters’ values by proving that their policies have a clear definition that enables the electorate to easily understand their vision. And, they must show that they have ability, personal integrity, vision, communication and engagement to execute on these ideas. As expectations of “good” behaviour increases, the demand for transparency intensifies the need to champion a values-based agenda in becomes more paramount.