I promised some practical lessons for leaders from the General Election. This is because whatever we think about the specific political qualities of different candidates and parties, there’s a lot we can learn about leadership both from what they do well and what they do badly.
- Are you a Hedgehog or a fox?
Jim Collins in “Good to Great” reminds us of the old proverbial tale about the hedgehog and the fox. On the surface, it looks like a fox should always win against a hedgehog. It is larger, it is the predator and it has cunning on its side. However, the parable tells us that for all the fox’s cunning, the hedgehog, wins because it knows one thing. It knows that it needs to defend itself by rolling into a ball so that the fox cannot attack without hurting itself.
The hedgehog principle encourages leaders to know what the one thing is that matters to them and their organisation and stick to it. At the start of the election, it looked like the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats got this. The election was all about Brexit. They took different sides and aimed for the 52% and the 48% respectively. Theresa May’s soundbites may have been clumsy and repetitive but she knew what she had to do and stuck to it. The message was clear.
However, things blew both parties off course. For Tim Farron, it was the interviews about same sex marriage. In his case, it wasn’t that he moved on to other things so much as that he was blown off course. The Tories, again, partly through events blowing them off course got distracted so that other messages competed with the Brexit message including:
-Social Care changes
-Personal attacks on the Labour leadership
– New proposals on security and terrorism
Labour meanwhile found their voice. For them, the election was about an end to the unfairness of austerity. Note, that this did not mean they only had one proposal but everything linked back to the same message, austerity is about doing things on the cheap in a way that disadvantages the vulnerable and destroys hope. When Jeremy Corbyn found his voice on police cuts he had a message that cut through and linked with promises to students and public-sector workers.
Meanwhile in Scotland (and in the interests of political balance), the Tories did discover their inner hedgehog. Ruth Davidson focused relentlessly on the dangers of a second independence referendum. The result was that in Scotland the Tories won seats whereas in ~England and Wales they lost them.
- Good communication will help or will kill your leadership
The big disaster for the Tories was their social care reforms. It really was a mess and may have been the biggest factor in their loss of a majority. Did you notice what went wrong. Here was a policy that no-one had been talking about. It came at us suddenly. No-one seemed to understand it. Theresa May did a U-Turn which only served to make things more complicated still.
Most commentators agree that this should never have become the central plank in the Tory party manifesto. It broke a cardinal rule of politics because it alienated the Conservatives most loyal friends and allies. But also, it was sprung on everyone so suddenly. Normally, new policies have been tried and tested. Proposals have been made, there has been consultation and feedback. Public reaction has been tested through opinion polls and focus groups.
Communication includes the art of persuasion and this takes time. Communication is a two way process and requires that we listen too. Far too often, people rush in to say what they think should happen and treat it as “take it or leave it! They then are bewildered and upset when people “leave it.”
By the way, good communication also means that we need to know the facts and be able to answer questions on them. This election saw its fair share of car-crash interviews on all sides because politicians were under-prepared.
- Events mean that you are never fully in control
Political leaders can often end up believing their own hubris. They start to see themselves as untouchable. They think that they are in control. Here are some things that the politicians had little control of. That’s why Harold Wilson once said that a week is a long time in politics.
- Major events that shaped the national narrative including the terror attacks but also the British Airways computer crash. I suspect that the bloke who pulled a power supply plug had a bit more of an impact than people will ever realise. It played into a narrative of things not working, of a country trying to do things on the cheap and getting into a mess because of it.
- What others were saying outside of our own political discourse -for example EU officials but also President Trump
- How those who didn’t support their party would align. Imagine if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn had known that they would get vote shares close to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in their heydays but neither would win an outright majority. I suspect both would have been surprised. That is, until you told then, that their main opponent would also be performing at close to Thatcher and Blair’s optimum. You see both Blair and Thatcher faced a divided opposition. That’s why they got landslides. It’s not so much that 2 party politics was replaced by multi-party politics. Rather, it was replaced by 1 and 2 parts party politics. What happened this time was that most people who did not want the Tories to get in chose to vote Labour whereas most people who were worried about Corbyn voted conservative so that the smaller parties saw their vote squeezed.
There’s a lot that leaders can control but also a lot they cannot. This has two vital implications.
- It means that you need to be flexible so that you can respond to a changing environment. When thinking about strategy and tactics I encourage leaders to think through the “What ifs” so they consider different possible outcomes and how to respond.
- It means that you must be humble. Never think that your position is unassailable.
These are general leadership lessons but vitally important for Christian leaders too.
- Keep focused on our mission – be a Gospel hedgehog. Our priority is to see people become disciples of Jesus. Watch out for distractions.
- Because the Gospel matters much more than political matters, it is important that we communicate it clearly. Also, because how our church functions matters, if we are going to be effective in Gospel witness, we need to work hard on how we communicate plans and ideas.
- True humility comes when we realise that God alone is sovereign. We may have our plans but he decides what happens (see Proverbs 16).
 Note that in other elections, the counter argument was relentlessly made that austerity was about giving hope to the vulnerable and to future generations because without it we were stacking up debt for them to pay off.