The Word of Gold: the Prime Minister’s conduct of the general election can teach us much about what great leadership really means

You may have noticed that the UK has recently had a general election, in which the concept of omnishambles was taken in a number of exciting new directions. But it also highlighted a number of important lessons on how leaders should behave, and the bear traps to avoid. Here are “six of the best”.

1 If you make a mistake, admit it. The Prime Minister’s travails began when she launched proposals for social care reform which were received badly, then changed them, then denied there had been any change. Leaders will be forgiven most mistakes, if they admit them honestly and put them right. They will not be forgiven for treating people like fools, and/or appearing to be in denial.

2 Changing your mind is not a crime. “When the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do, sir?” asked John Maynard Keynes. Yet in politics, a change of mind is not seen as a sign of intelligence or flexibility, but as the dreaded U-turn. Business leaders need not be so inhibited. If change is necessary, propose it, communicate the reasons clearly, anticipate the arguments against, deal openly and honestly with the concerns of dissenters and then, once the decision has been made, insist everyone gets behind it.

3 Emotional intelligence matters more than intelligence. Brains are necessary for successful leadership, but not sufficient. Leaders who relate poorly to their troops may succeed for a time by the power of their intellect. However, if they lack empathy, warmth and the ability to see more than one point of view, while they may win grudging loyalty for as long as things are going well, they will never win the affection or commitment they need to succeed. When they encounter turbulence, in no time they may find themselves isolated and vulnerable.

4 Dictators are usually shot. A leader’s most precious assets are close colleagues unafraid to differ, if they think it is in the best interest of the business. In an influential study, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Harvard Business School asked: “What makes a great board?” He looked at various factors, including directors’ ages and previous experience, their gender balance, socio-economic background and the level of their personal stake in the business. He found that by far the most important factor was that successful boards embraced conflict, as long as the points of difference came from a common desire to do the best for the organisation. A culture of robustly examining competing views was a core value of the best businesses. Dictators and the sycophants they usually gather around themselves, are a liability. They rarely last.

5 Values are not optional. There was a time when a focus on values was considered a bit touchy-feely – all well and good, but subordinate to “harder” issues such as productivity, performance and profits. But today, a successful, modern business must stand for a lot more than making money. It must aspire to be valuable to society in general, not just its clients. It must insist on its people behaving with integrity and treating one another with mutual respect. One of the most revealing episodes post-election was the exposure of how the Prime Minister’s two closest aides imposed a culture of bullying and intimidation, which they now have plenty of time to reflect on from the outer darkness.

6 Optimism is infectious; negativity is a virus. The best leaders are not Panglossian, but they exude positivity and a can-do spirit. They have innate belief in their ability to get things done. They communicate in ways that bring out the best in people and inspire them to perform above their expectations. Their optimism is profoundly influential. There are good reasons to believe that if Churchill had been a pessimist, we would all be speaking German. General Colin Powell, who ultimately became US Secretary of State, had this drilled into him: “Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.” People must believe that no matter how bad things look, you will make them better.

It was that ray of sunshine Enoch Powell who said: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure”: an opinion he did his best to prove correct. But this need not be true for the rest of humanity. Few of us are lucky to pass through life without it smacking us hard in the face, and business leaders are certainly not immune. But while troubles are temporary, principles are eternal. Follow these, and the path to success may suddenly seem a whole lot shorter.

The Author
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. Tel: 07968 484232,, twitter @theworldofgold 
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