Bill English’s resignation has seen the usual scramble of possible replacements jockeying to position themselves as the next big hope for National.
It’s a fascinating process to watch – seeing how they go about pushing their barrows using whatever tactics and tools they can to demonstrate their credentials.
Which got me to thinking: what are the attributes that make a great political leader and how aligned are they to leadership in other environments – like business?
Great leaders have a vision
Common thinking is that great leaders have a vision, get buy-in to that vision, develop clear strategies to achieve the vision, communicate powerfully, inspire and empower others, create accountability, execute – get things (the right things!) done and achieve results!
Great leaders are popular
These all sound totally relevant to both business and the business of politics, right? But there’s an aspect in politics that probably trumps all of those attributes – popularity. Politicians must be masters of selling themselves – firstly to their caucus and party faithful to get chosen as their party leader, then to the electorate to become our highest leader – Prime Minister (let’s not get into the vagaries of our MMP system where the leader of the party with the most votes might not be PM!).
So how to become popular? Is it about being everyone’s ‘friend’? Is it about making promises about what you could do for others once you hold that powerful position (what’s in it for them)? Or is it more about being a decent person who garners respect, trust and demonstrates their ability to get the job done?
Some famous leaders seem to take the approach of sound-bites over substance (I’m sure we can all think of someone who fits that bill!). Powerful oratory is certainly seen as a strong leadership skill – it didn’t hurt Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. (I’m not suggesting they didn’t have substance too!) – and can have a strong influence on perceived capability and likeability. Others are quieter, often possessing a deep intellect and strong values, but with less outward charisma (maybe think Bill English?). Leaders of that ilk might be no less effective in their own way, but do so without the same fanfare. In fact, since English’s announcement, there have been some very complimentary comments about his contributions, particularly around his financial management of the economy through the GFC. English seems to have been regarded as a capable, if somewhat boring, politician, lacking in real mana – funny how people often receive kudos for their deeds and the legacy they’ve left only after they end their careers.
So, popularity is vital in politics, whereas in business, it’s more about respect (most business leaders would say they’d rather be respected than liked). Sure, the days when business leaders used fear to get their people to work (“I’m the boss so do as I say or else!”) don’t cut it – now it’s about creating a positive culture where staff are empowered, and leaders are respected for their ability to get results. But we don’t need them to like us!
Or do we?
Great leaders get buy-in to their vision
An important part of empowerment is buy-in – often to a vision / mission and values. Whilst these can be co-created with the team, this can be a laborious process and your team probably need to feel the boss has real clarity around that stuff for their own business. If we look at values, organisational ones are often a reflection of those of the owners / founders (eg: The Warehouse, Mainfreight). Therefore, today’s workforce (particularly, dare I say, millennials) are for more interested in the big boss’ personal values than ever before – and will sometimes make employment decisions based on their own alignment to those. And the pervasiveness of social media and other online ‘sleuthing’ means staff know much more about their boss’ personal life than they used to (or than the boss might feel comfortable with!).
Given that strong buy-in is increasingly vital for improved staff engagement and achieving discretionary effort from your people, some of that will be influenced by how much they like the boss personally (as well as respecting them professionally) and are therefore willing to go the extra mile for them.
So, coming back to the original question: what makes a great leader? Clearly, it’s all the attributes discussed above, and everyone will have their own opinion of the relative merits of each. But one thing that seems increasingly clear is that business and politics are more similar than we might like to admit! And being likeable (and maybe even popular) might just be the key factor to achieve success!