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Leadership – are we seeing any?

In just six weeks’ time, we go the polls for a rather unexpected general election. Some are saying it’s all about leadership – as in who will lead the country best through the turbulence ahead (i.e. Brexit) – and certainly the focus on the leaders of the various political parties is intense.

As to the leadership qualities of those heading up the two main parties – that’s Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, in case you’re living in a cave without internet access – opinion is unsurprisingly divided although it’s fair to say that neither are receiving compliments from anyone except their own diehard supporters.

So in the absence of a widely accepted role model, let’s go back to basics and ask … what is good leadership?

A quick history lesson

The list of models and theories that seek to define leadership once and for all is endless. Here are some of the more popular highlights in chronological order:

  • ‘Great Man’ theory (mid-1800s) – the still-pervasive premise that leaders are born not made.
  • Trait theory (1930s) – leaders exhibit certain characteristics (intelligence, responsibility, creativity) that can be innate or learned.
  • Behavioural theories (1940s-50s) – focused on what leaders actually do; two broad types: task-oriented leaders and people-oriented.
  • Contingency theories (1960s) – there’s no one way to lead, and the right leadership style or behaviour depends on the circumstances.
  • Transactional theories (1970s) – leadership is based on an exchange between the leader and those being led; leaders must offer rewards and/punishments to motivate the ‘right’ response.
  • Transformational theories (1970s onwards) – leadership depends on trust and building relationships; leadership by example and inspiration.

So far, so good and it’s possible to see that some leaders might well prefer one theory to another regardless of current thinking. But as we begin six weeks of electioneering (which will probably include much empty rhetoric and name-calling from all sides) what can we agree on? What does an effective modern leader look like?

Common features of great leadership

Whichever model or modern leadership research you ascribe to, the chances are the following nine attributes will feature in some way. There may be more but these are the core behaviours of successful leaders:

  • Having a clear vision of the future
  • Assembling the right team
  • Communicating clearly and openly
  • Confidence
  • Honesty
  • Commitment
  • Positive thinking
  • Resiliency
  • Being human

I’ll resist the temptation to score May, Corbyn and their fellow party political leaders against this list. The chances are you were doing so as you read it anyway. Luckily, this imminent election is about far more than just (admittedly influential) the behaviour of the party leaders, though from a human resources perspective, it will be fascinating to see how much of the above is in evidence as the 8th June approaches.

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