Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party Conference led William Hague to write in The Telegraph that “Sub-contracting decisions… will never be any substitute for leadership itself”. He was commenting on Corbyn’s intention to ask party members what they wanted.
Whilst Hague may be making a party-political point, his comment does question how new leaders should behave. Corbyn finds himself in the same position as many CEOs, desiring to bring some degree of democracy to the boardroom. No new CEO wants to ride in and declare strategy. And yet, like the Labour MPs, that’s often what the assembled management team expects.
Success in this mammoth venture (for both Corbyn and the CEO) depends at this point on why it is that followers will follow. And for this we need to look at the heart of leadership, what it is and how it works. We then need to look at the necessary behaviours of new leaders.
At its simplest, leadership is the political act of persuading someone to do as the leader wants.
So from this, the leader has something they want the follower to do; they have some opinion, strategy or policy. There’s nothing visibly democratic in this definition about what’s to be done, nor is there anything that says when or how decisions about strategy and policy must be made.
For there to be a leader, there must, by definition, be followers; those who let their motivation and actions be moderated by the leader.
A follower follows because they view that in so doing they will profit. Their profiting may be economic or monetary, but more often it’s reward in heightened self-esteem or improved position in the group. Such reward comes from the leader’s group being successful.
The key thing in followership is that the follower must be able to attribute group success to the leader. That attribution intensifies the dyadic bond between leader and follower. Conversely, if the success would have occurred anyway, the leader’s position is weakened.
So a leader that works behind the scenes to develop policy with their top-team will need to make that work very visible in order to have the ensuing success attributed to them. And leaders who make major change in group strategy tend to be considered better leaders than those who stick with the old – at least while that strategy is successful.
It’s quite tough for Jeremy Corbyn. He has strong views that are at odds with the old strategy and no mechanism to convert his views immediately into new strategy. And he wants to invoke a process for new strategy development, but many prospective followers expect decisions right now. They expect decisiveness.
To avoid follower attrition, Corbyn must be sure to espouse future success and reward for all in order to earn his party’s followership.
How followers perceive the new leader is therefore critically important, since success may be a far off vision.
Leaders have power, often stemming from their appointment. In Corbyn’s case power comes from his election, though the legitimacy of that power is being challenged by his MPs. CEOs, on the other hand, will have been appointed by their Board.
Since followers can only judge leader intentions at this early stage, the leader must use that initial power to drive for a strategy that the group can adopt. Once adopted, they can get on with the job of aligning their followers, using more traditional leadership approaches.
So the early-day leader’s lot is much about how they are perceived. It helps if followers can perceive that the leader’s values and beliefs are in line with those of group members. And it helps if the leader is genuinely more concerned about the followers and the mission than about their own personal advancement.
Judging the Leader
The new party leader and the new CEO are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’. As Hague notes in his article, history is replete with stories of leaders who swept into post with a train of policies ready formulated. But like Corbyn, most inherit a mess and have to plan their way out. As a result, analysis and discussion comes first, then synthesis. To do otherwise would be foolish and presume a full understanding of the scenario.
So followers must wait.
But the new leader must still be decisive. They must do that analysis, discussion and synthesis.
For that they need high technical competence in analysis. They need the empathy to engage in discussions. And they need the clarity in setting out the strategy arrived at. If they don’t have those competencies personally, they’d best get help, but be sure that their control of that help is visible.
Followers will wait, but only for so long, and only if they see the necessary competence in action.
And William Hague?
William Hague is at least partly right. Leaders cannot sub-contract decisions. But they can put them off, at least for a while. And he’s right to claim that there is no substitute for leadership. Followers are judging from the moment the new party leader or CEO arrives. But it’s not fair to link the two statements in one sentence.
What matters is that there is a process for arriving at decisions, strategy or policy and that this process is swift and competently led.