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Leadership Development – five lessons from politics

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It felt a privilege to be on a call last night with a political leadership specialist. I thought it was going to be one of those dry, academic, conversations. It turned out to be truly inspiring.

Prof. Archie Brown, has written a book on political leadership (review here). It’s peppered with anecdotes and the great names of 20th century politics – like De Gaulle, Brandt, Thatcher and Gorbachev.  He was interviewed by Bob Hughes, PCC, as our Leadership Book Club author of the month.  Now, I know that even using the word ‘politics’ can be a turn-off. Stick with me –this will support your own leadership development work – I promise. Our conversation drew useful parallels between political leadership and organizational leadership.

This anecdote summed up the issues

Prof. Brown had been researching and writing about Eastern European politics since the 1960s. So in 1983 when Prime Minister Thatcher asked him who the UK could do business with in Russia, Prof. Brown mentioned the name of Gorbachev as someone who was intelligent and open. Mrs. Thatcher, in turn, helped persuade Regan that Gorbachev was “Someone that we can do business with”. A significant and lasting moment in east/west politics.

Here’s what we can apply in the organizational leadership development context:

  1. Successful leaders listen to, and value, technical leadership

Of course, we all know the famous names: Regan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev. But how many of us have heard of Professor Archie Brown? Yet it was his leadership that first influenced this major policy shift.  Every leader is reliant on a team of experts. Leaders who consult and listen to those voices are going to be successful.

And you could hear the pleasure in Prof. Brown’s voice when the discussion group acknowledged his role.

  1. Successful leaders develop the ability to absorb information

Second only to leaders who listen, Prof. Brown talked about the strength of absorbing the information they pick up through their listening skills.  Leaders who are able quickly to make sense of what they’re hearing.

Prof. Brown talked about the importance of leaders having intelligence and questioning minds. About their willingness to engage – with the new, the radical, and the unpopular.

  1. Successful leaders’ create and share the vision

Prof. Brown talked about the challenge of developing leaders who successfully share their ideas about the future. And carry others with them. And deal with what he called the ‘hard-liners’.

He talked about how crucial vision is to transformation. Naturally, in our world of leadership development, this is meat and drink to us. Supporting leaders to develop vision through our Ignite workshops is what we do every day. [Geraldine – put in link to Ignite flyer here]

4. Develop leaders’ EQ to deal with the ‘hard-liners’

Dealing with hard-liners is one area where the emotional-intelligence side of our work comes in. Leaders need to develop an awareness of how others feel about change, and support them to see a different future.

Prof. Brown said that,   “If you want to transform the system you have to tranquilize the hard-liners”   Now, in our world, not everyone is a ‘hard-liner’. It would be wrong to put that label on people gratuitously.  And not everyone needs tranquilizing…

But change does require bringing the optimum number of people on board. Getting past the tipping point, so that change sticks.  Gorbachev talked about “Pursuing revolutionary change by evolutionary means. …Evolutionary change is to be preferred.”   This takes patience and resilience – both develop-able EQ skills.

  1. Deciding how decision-making happens

Prof. Brown’s book is called “The Myth of the Strong Leader” and much of our discussion centred round the expectation that leaders have to look strong.  We’re still in the paradigm of leaders who look heroic, decisive and powerful. Yet we know that this power-lust is the most frequent source of organizational decay.  We know that this weak/strong polarization turns people off politics. It also turns people off from stepping up into leadership roles and positions.

Perhaps it’s time to challenge leaders’ expectation of power. We discussed decision-making and seeing strength in behaviours like these –

  • leaders who consult others
  • Leaders who take their time in coming to a decision
  • Leaders who hold off from decisions in the heat of the moment

Organisations need to have this kind of discussion. So that expectations around decision-making are clear. Leadership doesn’t have to be one way or style only. And there are certainly arguments for contextual decision-making approaches. It’s the kind of conversation we facilitate when we run our ‘Board-Level Behaviours’ events.

We can apply these lessons in –

  • Supporting better leadership
  • Enabling change and transformation
  • Developing future leaders

So when you spot intelligent people who are good at listening to others, have a talent absorbing information and communicating a clear vision – you may just have identified the leaders of the future right there in your organisation.

Developing their skills is straightforward. Build their emotional intelligence to deal with the challenges of getting people on board, deal with the ‘hardliners’ and make tough decisions in the right way. These are all develop-able when you’ve got the right people in the leadership pipeline.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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