The current UK General Election campaign is marked by the way in which the main party leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, are offering radically different visions of what it takes to do that job. In doing so, they are also exposing an important gap between the best academic research and public understanding.
There is now quite a substantial body of evidence on leadership. This convincingly establishes that shouting, bullying, and autocratic behaviour really do not produce effective organizations. The best leaders consult, listen, form a consensus and then persuade others to follow. They are concerned to manage and resolve conflict rather than to provoke it. This does not mean they lack a clear vision or sense of direction, but that they recognize this only works if others can be induced to share it and follow willingly.
Although there were, and may still be, concerns over the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn enacts this model, part of his unexpected success in the campaign clearly reflects his ability to project this kind of leadership style. UK media rules for election coverage have helped by allowing voters to see much more of him without the intervention of journalists bound by prior hostile agendas. When he has been interviewed, he has been candid and relaxed, unafraid to admit that he has changed his mind on some issues or been unable to win arguments on others. He may personally want to scrap nuclear weapons – but he cannot carry his party on this and is ready to accept their consensus, for example. He has shown flashes of humour and a concern for life beyond politics – as in a desire to retain his allotment (community garden) if he were to become prime minister. In effect, he is acting pretty much as the leadership textbooks would prescribe. He projects a sense of humanity and treats the voters as grown-ups.
Theresa May, on the other hand, seems to be struggling because she has adopted The Apprentice model from television. While this may have worked for Donald Trump, she does not have the charisma to pull it off. Her decision-making is very personalized and confined to a narrow circle. Her speeches are robotic and her responses to questions simply repeat platitudes and clichés – even right-wing media have begun to complain about this. Having launched a presidential-style campaign that has failed to gain the expected traction, a partial retreat to a more collective approach lacks credibility. When other leading figures are sent along to TV or radio events, this appears less a matter of collective leadership than of hiding from stressful experiences.
The Apprentice model has been fairly disastrous for those organizations that have adopted it. In the short-term it may work for start-up companies but, as Max Weber pointed out nearly a century ago, it is not a sustainable basis for continuing growth and development. Collegiality and engagement are much more important. When we hear vox pop interviews, however, we still find many voters for whom this is the preferred model of leadership. It is what they imagine successful leadership to look like. Their expressed preference for Theresa May is framed in terms of her appearance of strength and her demand for unconditional trust – without any account of what she might do with that faith. She does not need to spell out the details of her approach to Brexit or the costs of her policies precisely because ‘strong leaders’ do not do that: they simply command and others bend to their will.
The outcome of the election is unknown as I write this. However, it is clearly not going to be the shoo-in that Theresa May expected when she called it. There are important lessons for both politicians and social scientists here.
For the politicians, in the UK at least, there is a pointed reminder that we do not have a presidential system of government. The Conservative campaign tried to work on this basis: indeed early election literature barely mentioned the party but only referred to Theresa May. It is only since this approach faltered that we now see the words ‘Theresa May and the Conservatives’ appearing on party communications. While the media has balanced this with a comparable focus on Jeremy Corbyn, he has consistently represented himself as the leader, or even occasionally as the servant, of his party. Where Theresa May repeatedly uses first person pronouns – I, me, mine – Jeremy Corbyn favours we and us. He is the representative of a collective that embraces the audience rather than someone demanding adherence.
For social scientists, there must be a concern that a generation’s worth of accumulated empirical evidence on effective leadership has made so little impact compared with a popular reality TV show. The consequences are apparent in the USA, where the behaviour Donald Trump modelled as a TV host has proved seriously ineffective when transferred to the real world. It remains to be seen whether the UK will be spared the same experience but we do need to find a way of convincing voters that the images of leadership in popular media may make good entertainment but are likely to fail in most practice conditions. We also need to recognize that the implications of this style are likely to deter many people who would actually make good leaders from seeking that position. If those who choose not to bully other people stand back, the field is left clear for those who are ready to do so.
Whatever the outcome of the UK election, the experience of the campaigns and their unexpected twists should prompt some thoughts about what party leadership really requires – and how voters can be encouraged to choose those candidates who are more likely to be effective.