Neil McLennan: What sort of political leadership do we want?

Pre-election media attention always focusses on that much used word leadership. A number of post-election discussions are now open: May's ­leadership scrutinised, ­'˜Corbyn bounce' entering popular memory for some and a focus on Sturgeon's leadership of any IndyRef2.

Theresa May made leadership central to her election campaign. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Theresa May made leadership central to her election campaign. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

However, politics aside, what leadership lessons can be drawn from it all?

‘Strong and stable’ was much ­bandied about before the election. This offers something ­telling about the British system. The system, and it seems our needs, demand outright ­winners.

There is something closely aligned in our psyche about politics and command and control styles and approaches. We have an obsession with the largest party in our ­electoral system and the strong and steep hierarchy where the leader is central.

Meanwhile, ­European ­parliaments have shown that ­coalitions can form and work. The ­Scottish ­parliament has been based on such a model, albeit majority rule currently sits within ­Holyrood. One might do a further ­analysis of the ­Westminster system, ­whereby even the hall in which parliamentary business takes place lends itself to a conflict style of jousting and red lines remain on carpets to keep swords from meeting.

The history books might suggest that, out of that ­system, ‘strong and stable’ came best when one ­party’s period of government was followed by another from the opposition. However, one might point out that, even during those ­periods, a right-leaning ratchet effect has ­taken place, ­especially in recent times, the ‘age of extremes’ perhaps seeing an overall winner in the longitudinal tug of war.

Another aspect is that of perverse incentives. Some recoiled in horror as the potential of a hung ­parliament become ­clearer. The potential shift in ­power at the top and the thought of a hard Brexiteer replacing the incumbent PM would be a final twist in the political pantomime.

However, this opens one’s eyes to the need for careful strategising, options appraisals and risk management, often discussed but possibly less robustly enacted. Those areas require deep thinking, time and ­consideration, also often missing. Too often leadership approaches are quick, thinking on one’s feet with steely determination.This and ­perseverance are admirable leadership attributes. The ­‘Corbyn bounce’ is ­perhaps a recent example.

Furthermore, whilst there has been wailing and gnashing of teeth about President Trump, he has ­survived the first 100 days and beyond. Survival and navigating ­troubled waters are key ­leadership traits.

Above all, current affairs exposes some shifts needed in leadership thinking and reflection to support improving practice. A volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world requires adaptive leadership. How leaders respond will be interesting. Eric ­Hoffer suggests; “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Neil McLennan is senior lecturer and director of leadership programmes, University of Aberdeen, School of Education.