Friday, 26 February 2010

26 February 2010

I’ve been thinking a bit this week about different styles of political leadership. (No, there are no prizes for guessing why.)

Let’s take three examples: leadership by bullying; leadership by persuasion; and leadership by populism.

The bully believes that pushing people hard, shouting at them from time to time, making them fear his anger, is the only way to get things done. If challenged, he’ll tell you that he’s not pushing his colleagues or his staff any harder than he pushes himself. Inertia is the enemy of progress, he’ll tell you. And as any political leader knows, bureaucracies do inertia better than they do anything else.

If his most senior civil servant feels obliged to discuss his behaviour with him, he’ll deliver his warning in the form of a gentle lesson in the art of “how to get the best out of your staff”. And if, for example, his name is Gordon Brown, he’ll insist that he and his colleagues and staff always get along just fine, with barely an angry word ever crossing their lips.

The persuader will say that he’s a firm believer in the need to listen and to find common areas of agreement. He’ll tell you there’s always a way to bridge differences, and that a nation will always be better off when its political leaders look for consensus whenever possible.

If there’s a policy he’s committed to, he’ll perhaps summon his political opponents to an all-day televised debate, during which he will be seen listening politely, disagreeing gently, and cajoling whenever he can. But when his opponents refuse to budge, the persuader will find that he has no alternative but to face them down.

Maybe, as he lies in bed at night, he’ll wonder how you reach a consensus with people who don’t want to reach a consensus. And he may reflect on the uncomfortable political reality that most politicians tend to look for political advantage at every opportunity, especially in an election year.

If, for example, his name is Barack Obama, he may ask himself how he can persuade his Republican opponents that it’s in their interests to make him look good. And maybe he’ll conclude that it’s too big a challenge, even for him.

So what about the populist? He pleases the crowds by showing them that he’s one of them. He makes crude jokes, just like they do. He ogles pretty young women, even at the cost of his marriage. He knows that his supporters think there are too many immigrants, so he tells his much poorer neighbours that they’re not welcome (except for pretty young women, of course, because – remember? – his wife has walked out on him, and he may be 73 years old, but he’s single, and available).

He’s very rich, and very tanned, and is alleged by his opponents to keep dubious company and not always stay on the right side of the law. He attacks the judges as politically motivated, and openly uses his allies in parliament to try to ensure that he’s not charged with any criminal offence while he’s busy running the country.

If his name is Silvio Berlusconi (you’d guessed, hadn’t you?), his opinion poll ratings will remain pretty high (in fact, they are down a bit, but a 48 per cent approval rating is not exactly crashing through the floor), and he’ll give the impression that he has an unbreakable compact with his country’s voters.

So, there we are: three men, three very different styles of leadership. Each has been elected in a stable, developed democracy, yet the political cultures in which they operate are vastly different. (Yes, I know Gordon Brown wasn’t elected as Prime Minister, but nor were any of his predecessors. He, like they, was elected as an MP, and is Prime Minister only by virtue of being leader of the largest party in the House of Commons.)

My question for you is this: which leadership style do you prefer, and which do you think works best?

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