A lack of political leadership

A few days ago I noticed in the morning news that our Prime Minister is receiving criticism from his own side for a lack of leadership. In a different context, I have been (and remain) critical of Dorset Council for failing to show enough political leadership regarding our climate crisis. Yet despite my frequent use of the term leadership (and particularly political leadership) I am not totally sure what I mean by the it – it’s something that I’ve been intending to give some thought to for some time but never quite got round to. This then is my starting point. Any thoughts or views are welcome.

To get things moving, here are two descriptions of leadership that I warm to: “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common and ethical task”; and “An influential power relationship in which the power of one party promotes movement or change in others”. From this I would tentatively suggest that there are three main elements to leadership: Having a vision of what is to be achieved; being able to communicate this vision to others; and being able to motivate others to buy-in and work towards that vision.

Aristotle argued that whenever we do something we do it in order to achieve something we consider good, and we want to achieve that something in order to achieve something else good. At the end this line of reasoning we eventually arrive at the greatest good, and this provides our raison d’être. I think a similar line of reasoning applies to politicians, except, perhaps, that the good to be achieved often lies someway short of the greatest good. But where ever it lies, this good provides the reason for that politician being in politics. To be effective, therefore, that politician needs to have a clear vision and understanding of what for them is the good they want to achieve, and if they happen to gain a position of leadership that good must surely be their guiding principle.

A political leader stands no chance of leading others towards their vision of the good they want to achieve unless they can share that vision with others. This requires, therefore, the leader to effectively communicate their vision of the good to others in such a way that they see it and understand it in much the same way as the leader does. This, of course, is no easy task. Our leader needs to be a very effective communicator, a skill that not only involves speaking to other people but listening to them, understanding the others understanding of their message, and adapting their message accordingly.

But whilst the successful communication of their vision to others is necessary it is not sufficient. The political leader also needs to be able to motivate those others to buy-in to that vision, to adopt it as their own vision. I would suggest that in effect this is achieved through the use of narrative, that the leader can tell a story of where they think the country or their organisation is going in such a way that those being led are able, in fact want to, synchronise their own personal narratives to it.

What does this mean for our PM? Here the task should be easier in terms of his own party than it is for the country as a whole as there should already be a high degree of synchronicity between the narratives of party members, MPs, and their leader. The fact that there isn’t probably tells us a great deal about the vision Boris Johnson has – a vision that focuses on himself more than the party or the country. In fact in terms of the country all we hear from him regarding a vision is an endless series of clichés like ‘levelling up’ and ‘let’s get Brexit done’. The problem with clichés is that whilst they can be easily absorbed into an individual’s personal narrative (because they are vacuous of any real meaning and refer to no clear vision) for the same reason they achieve no synchronicity between the individual’s ‘vision’ of their future and that of the leadership of the Government.

What does this mean for Dorset Council in terms of our climate crisis? The short answer is that, outside of their own estate and organisation, there is simply no clear vision of what they hope to achieve, of what the geographical and political area of Dorset will look like and how it will operate in response to the crisis. This vision needs to integrate the key areas of planning and transport to create a reimagined Dorset, an image that they then attempt to communicate to the residents of Dorset and encourage them to adopt themselves.

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