A real debate, please

I want to have a debate. No, not that debate UK audiences were treated to last night while the leaders of most of the UK’s political parties assembled to squabble and talk over each other like children in a playground. No, a real debate – prompted as it happens, by that debate – about whether the top leader role requires different skills and mindset to other big, but crucially not the top, roles in the organisation. You see, we are witnessing at the moment, two individuals in the form of May and Corbyn (other political parties are available) who were great in their previous roles. Putting aside party politics for a moment, May was a stalwart figure who headed up the Home Office and who made us feel that this important portfolio encompassing national security was in capable hands. For his part, Corbyn was a grass roots campaigner who seemed to burst onto the mainstream political scene with fresh messages and – absent in many career politicians – genuine passion. On paper, years of complacent sofa politics looked ready for rejuvenation.

But oh how things have changed. Again putting to one side any political affiliations, it seems as though we didn’t get what we thought we would. May’s leadership style as Prime Minister seems not to have flexed from the Home Office years. She holds a tight rein on decision making, seemingly eschewing consultation on the big issues. This causes her to double back on key manifesto announcements, a course of action she then denies. So much for stability or consistency.  Corbyn appears to have fared not much better as he has failed to build the structure or process around his passion which is a crucial requirement for running the machine of government. Or the even the opposition.

So, the debate continues: if someone has been successful in senior roles in the organisation, can they step easily into the top role. Or is something different required? This debate has continued loudly and helpfully for the time I’ve been involved with top talent development: was it possible to develop a talented person through the organisation and assume that they would be eligible at some point for the toppest of all top roles? My conclusion then, as it is now, is ‘it depends’. This is not a fudge, far from it. Let me explain.

In my view, the top leadership role IS different to the ones that sit right below it or slightly further away. CEO’s, Prime Ministers and heads of other large organisations occupy a lonely place and to survive and thrive, they require a particular mix of strategic acumen, business and communication skills, and emotional intelligence. It’s imperative to have passion and process because one without the other renders the other impotent.

But – and this is no small but – even if the leadership role is different, it IS possible for someone to be developed into it. It doesn’t always work and sometimes the signals that it won’t work are more than evident early in the individual’s career. Sometimes, it has to be said, their ability to transition isn’t evident until they have made the step into the top leadership role itself.

The UK general election is almost with us. I just hope that whoever wins will take a moment to reflect on the qualities that are required for the PM role and how they differ to other large roles in their party – and indeed ones that they have themselves held. And importantly, to be sufficiently humble to ask others about how they shape up. If not, we will be left with a surfeit of process or passion. And we need a bit of both.

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