According to Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, there are four universals that apply in both politics and business.
First, leadership differs according to where you are in the leadership journey. Second, identity and character are mixed in with more primitive reactions to imagery. Third, the nature of the challenge is not a given. And fourth, the group identity of “followers” can hinder effectiveness.
Here’s a closer look at the four:
1. The sell and the delivery
Elections are a story of two chapters – the sell and the delivery. In the sell phase it is all about shaping reality through vision and willpower; in the delivery it is about agility in dancing to the tune that reality plays. So voters have a choice: to be consumers and pick the manifesto package that suits their needs and values; or be investors and pick the team they think will deal with the unpredictability of the future best.
2. Looking right for the part
The election is not about followers picking a leader, though sometimes the leaders would like it to be that way, especially if they are winning the popularity battle. In earlier times personality was glimpsed less nakedly than we now see it, in the modern media glare. TV election debates influence voter preferences not because of cogency of argument, or even because of character, but because of imagery. This is the swirl of impressions that coalesces in people’s minds from non-verbal behaviours that convey perceived dominance, likeability, and trustworthiness. We have more women would-be leaders in the frame than ever before and women are perceived to be more trustworthy.
3. You can’t control the fight
Like the great generals of history, politicians like to choose the terrain on which they will fight the battle – Brexit, NHS, immigration, the economy – but once the battle starts, as Tolstoy depicted in War and Peace, we are taken on a journey of often violent uncertainty. As the smoke clears what we mainly see are commentators arguing about what caused the victories and defeats. The idea that one group or other can determine the issues on which an election is fought is a huge popular delusion, though factions do get lucky if attention, like a flock of starlings, happens to settle on their tree, where they have an advantage.
4. People identify with a tribe
Elections take place in a many-layered social space, with networks of “interests” representing how voters see themselves in relation to the parties. But these “interests” are often quite vague attributions about identity. Some voters inherit their political loyalty from their parents, but these rarely last beyond one generation. The boundaries demarcating tribes are a mix of regional, social class, wealth, values and ideology. Many voters are unswayed by character or issues, but simply affirm, “This is my group and I will remain loyal to it.” Demography, economic development and the changing complexion of parties shifts these boundaries.