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Modern leaders: The three tests of leadership


In the second of this series dissecting modern leadership, Mark Loftus looks at how the main candidates fair in the three tests of leadership.

I have yet to find anyone, friend, colleague, client or child who can muster any interest in the general election. Which for me prompts the question: irrespective of their politics, do any of the candidates stand out as leaders?

Take the survey here and compare your results to mine!

Test one: Do they create followership?

In the first of these articles I argued that at the most fundamental level leadership is about the person. People follow people. This might sound self-evident, but the first test of leadership has to be whether any of the candidates creates in us a sense that we would be prepared to follow them.

Which strengths of character are they exemplars of? Resilience and perseverance for Gordon Brown, perhaps. Nick Clegg talks about his enduring concern for fairness, for tolerance. Ownership and responsibility for David Cameron? In truth, we find it hard to discern the person behind the spin.

It may be easier to spot the character and judgement flaws. Brown's fascination with courage contrasts with his reputation for caution and aversion to risk. Cameron's elitism cuts across his desire for an inclusive society. And if nothing else, Clegg's lack of prudence and self-regulation leads us to wonder about the wisdom of giving the keys of Number 10 to him.

My personal ratings:

Brown           2

Cameron       3

Clegg            3

Could do better.

Test two: Leaders connect people to purpose

Leaders crystallise and communicate purpose. They capture it, state it and then re-state it, and in doing so create a shared sense of meaningful endeavour that unites and energises. They do not have to be the author of the inspirational words, but they do have to make the message their own.

In business, too many leaders fail this test, as the multiplicity of weary mission statements and 'commitments to shareholder returns' bears witness. As Henry Ford himself put it: "Business must be run at a profit, else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for profit... then the business must die as well, for it no longer has a reason for existence."

How do our candidates fare on this test? Which of them has been able to crystallise a statement of intent that has made us stop and think, to re-evaluate, to assent or even to disagree? Or provide a connection for an electorate jaundiced in its views of the political class?

My ratings:

Brown:          3

Cameron:      2       

Clegg:           2       

A worrying set of scores.

Test three: Leaders create leadership

The third and most challenging test is whether leaders create leadership, a test which goes to the core of what it is to be a leader.

Leadership is not a fair-weather concept and nor is it a technocratic exercise in targets and accountabilities. It is about picking up the difficult challenges involved in changing patterns of behaviour, belief, belonging and identity, as Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz have argued in their book 'Leadership on the Line'. For sure, we want our leaders to be competent managers, to be good at bringing about technical change, but we need them to be prepared to go beyond this, to put themselves on the line.

Here is the nub of it. Are any of the candidates for 6 May willing to pick up the tough issues that lie beyond party political manoeuvring? We suspect that Brown may be a competent manager, but we don’t see him as a leader. We see Cameron as throwing the shapes of a leader but we don’t know whether the shapes are substance or shadows. And we are plain confused by Clegg.

We see all three of them time and time again failing to face the adaptive challenges that are core to their mission. Most MPs were, technically, in the right when they claimed their expenses. Yet all failed in the face of the core adaptive challenge provoked by the question: 'your behaviour is permitted by the rules, but is it right?' None of Brown, Cameron or Clegg saw it as their responsibility to lead the hard work of changing long-established patterns of behaviour. In truth, it was no-one's and everyone's responsibility, such is the nature of adaptive change. Yet if they fail the test of keeping their own house in order why should we accept them as leaders of our nation?

My ratings:

Brown           2

Cameron       2

Clegg            2

Not good enough.

None would get my vote. Yet to abstain from voting is to duck our own leadership challenge. If it is true that we get the leaders we deserve, what does it say about us and about our willingness to show personal leadership in making our society a better place?

My teenage children laugh at politicians, at their venal attempts to get and to stay elected, at the way they resort to 'tis, tisn't' arguments. Perhaps they should shift the focus of their laughter to their parents who have created the society that generates the politicians they laugh at.

Take the survey here and compare your results to mine!

Mark Loftus, is the director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years of experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry and a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University.

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