Can political leaders learn from business leaders?

The leaders debate has dominated the run up to the election.  But are political leaders different from other leaders?

Lucy Armstrong has a unique background of working with both business and political leaders.  When she was chair of Capital for Enterprise Limited, which managed more than £4 billion finance programmes for SMEs, she reported to the Business and Enterprise Minister, and and when she served as chair of the CBI’s national SME Council she regularly met Treasury and BIS politicians and civil servants. As chief executive of The Alchemists she works with the leaders of family and entrepreneurial businesses.

In business Lucy maintains the critical qualities of the leader are their abilities to set clear goals, inspire, motivate and develop people’s talents to create an effective team.  At the core of this is, importantly, their ability to listen.

This election has seen the move from choosing between the two or three main party leaders to having to consider the merits of the leaders of smaller parties, too.  As leaders have fought to have their message heard, there is an equal, perhaps greater, need for them to listen.

Much has been made of the “debate” on Twitter and whether it is where the election will be won.  However, a thoughtful analysis in a blog post by Alchemist client Adam Parker of RealWire points out that that this is potentially not because of its role as a conversation and engagement channel.  He contends that it could be due to the highly effective broadcasting techniques of small groups of dedicated supporters.  Not much listening there then.

The best leaders in businesses are able to separate leadership from management and from ownership.  They are clear to whom they are accountable, whether shareholders, the business or the family if it is a family business.  Politicians would do well to be clear where their duties lie, whether to the country, the party or their constituents.  Too often they appear to confuse answering to the press as a substitute for answering to the electorate. The print and broadcast media are undoubtedly one way of reaching the electorate, but they are not the only way.

The great strength a family business has is that ownership brings with it the sense of purpose, of stewardship and custodianship. When you inherit something that others have created and shaped, you automatically think about the long term.   You plan for the future and seek to preserve all that is best in the organization.  Do our politicians really believe their responsibilities lie beyond the next General Election?

One risk facing family businesses – and politicians – is that the family owners seek to set the business  in aspic.  They can be scared to reinvigorate that very sense of innovation, present in earlier generations, that helped create something of great value. The business becomes too big to risk. Yet staying still is so much more of a risk than learning through change and adaptation, investing for the future.  Perhaps this is one reason why smaller parties are challenging the traditional larger parties who have been slow to change and adapt.

Smaller businesses are less bureaucratic and structured but may rely too much on one person. The inspirational leader who makes all decisions, can be the bottleneck and brake on change and innovation. Roles and personalities merge in a small business, whilst their larger businesses can appear characterless and full of automatons.

In small businesses and political parties, lines of communication and decision making are often faster and more responsive to customers, the market and staff or voters.  At the same time, they may use less evidence for a decision, driven by the need, or desire, to act quickly rather than properly.

Neither model is right; both have a place and role to play.  Our political leaders could reflect on which model is dominant in their party: are they seen as inspirational or automatons?

They do need to recognise that the qualities needed to lead a smaller party successfully are unlikely to be the same qualities that are needed when the party grows. It is very rare for a football manager’s career to progress from the fourth division to the premiership yet all too often we expect this of business leaders.  Successful business leaders encourage development, training and broadening the experience and perspective of future leaders. Surely we should expect the same of our political leaders?

We all have our limitations and it is ridiculous to expect everyone to be capable of performing at a higher level. Similarly keeping underperforming directors or politicians out of loyalty is actually being disloyal to the business and all the other staff – or the electorate!

Review 2017

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Dicksons is a family butchers based in South Tyneside that was founded by the current MD’s father in 1953. The founder died suddenly, leaving his widow to run the business with the help of her two teenage children. Since then the business has grown steadily and now has 20 shops across the north east, employing over 200 people.

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