How can progressive parties develop forms of leadership that enable them to bring about transformative change in twenty-first century Britain? While media discourse largely focuses on 'strength' and entertainment value, academic research suggests that inclusiveness, flexibility and vision are the essential attributes.
My heart sank as I listened to the World at One the other day, as members of the public were interviewed about the characteristics needed in a future leader of the Labour Party. One interviewee said: 'we need someone strong enough to get their message across'. Another said: 'Someone with a bit of sparkle'. But is that right? Is that what we need? Or have we created such a focus on media presence that we are in danger of yearning for 'celebrity leaders', instead of those who have the skills and capabilities we need?
As both Labour and the Liberal Democrats choose new leaders, the ability to select the right qualities will be crucial for the immediate future of the centre-left. This article is not trying to argue in favour of any specific candidate. It argues that we need to think differently about what constitutes leadership. It draws on the work Ruth Lister and I have done with Compass, creating a person specification for a leader for either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. People tell us that it's too idealistic, that no-one has all these skills. That may well be the case, but it doesn't change the fact that we need, more than ever, leaders who are able to build teams of people who between them have all the capabilities we need.
Confidence and competence
The Argentinian social psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic entitled a recent book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?. (1) His argument is not that men are less competent than women, but that men are more likely than women to be confident about their abilities - and we, the public, are very poor at distinguishing between confidence and competence. In all spheres of leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic, an Argentinian social psychologist suggests, 'being unaware of your limitations increases your probability of being a boss'. There is very little overlap between how good people think they are, and how good they actually are. And when we choose political leaders, we do so with little or no understanding of the real qualities needed in a leader, so we go for superficial ones: confidence; projection of a strong personality; certainty.
Because of the mass media, we look for...