What can we learn about leadership from the recent PM race?

What makes a good PM in leadership and how can this apply to business leaders? 

We speak to Nick Gold, MD, Speakers Corner to find out his opinion on the overarching traits of great leaders, and establish how this impacted the recent UK leadership contest that took place in September.

The characteristics of a good leader

Traditionally, good leaders have been characterised as strong, powerful, and assertive. And while these qualities have value, it takes far more than a loud voice and a commanding presence to be a great leader in 2022.

As the UK’s leading speaker bureau, we’ve encountered dozens of incredible leaders and leadership speakers. Here are the traits they have in common:

  • Empathy — the power to understand others’ problems and perspectives
  • Accomplishment — the ability to deliver success (and a track record to prove it)
  • Confidence — the self-belief and charisma to instil confidence in others
  • Vulnerability — the strength of character to admit they don’t have all the answers.

So how do these characteristics apply to our new PM — and what can business leaders learn from them?

Empathy — the hallmark of a modern leader

Understanding the problems faced by your constituents is an inherent part of being a politician. But Truss has faced accusations of lack of empathy by journalists, celebrities, and even members of her own party. So is empathy as important as it seems?

Research suggests empathy isn’t just useful — it’s the most important leadership skill. Empathy breeds inclusivity, which is linked with positive outcomes like better engagement, high retention rates, and improved problem-solving. It shows you understand and care about the problems people face everyday, which gives them confidence in you as a leader and ally.

But empathy is about more than just lending a listening ear. You must also take action to tackle those problems.

Accomplishment — aligning action with objectives

Taking effective action to drive success isn’t always easy. But great leaders back up their words with action and do everything they can to achieve their goals.

This is perhaps why Partygate was one of the final nails in Boris Johnson’s ministerial coffin. Boris set out criteria for success and how the country could achieve it: reducing the spread of Covid-19 by reducing contact. Then he did the exact opposite by holding regular in-person gatherings at Downing Street.

Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme was widely lauded for keeping people in jobs throughout the pandemic. But his popularity then dipped, thanks to the still-growing cost of living crisis. As then-Chancellor, the looming recession took its toll on his leadership chances.

As foreign secretary, Liz Truss’s accomplishments had been arguably lower profile than her rival’s. But certain achievements — like helping Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe return to the UK after 5 previous foreign secretaries failed to — may have been overlooked.

Good leaders get results. Leadership speaker Chris Roebuck says, “Too often, leadership speakers just focus on individuals being a better leader. But that doesn’t necessarily deliver success for the organisation.” Proven track records of success speak for themselves — they show others that you’re trustworthy, skilled, and experienced, giving them confidence in you as a leader.

Confidence — charisma and self-belief create empowered teams

When Boris Johnson was in the race to become prime minister back in 2019, one journalist described charm as his “secret weapon.” And while Johnson certainly has his critics, few can deny that his irreverent humour and sheer force of personality have been key to his leadership success.

Research tells us that voters view politicians who don’t appear confident less favourably. Perhaps this is why Conservative party members are nostalgic for the outgoing PM versus Truss. But both Truss and Sunak possessed the self-belief to see them to the final stages of the leadership contest.

Confidence is essential for leaders. It gives you the strength to face challenges, influence others, and inspire teams. Studies have shown that confident leaders are perceived as calmer, more open, and willing to engage in feedback — creating a better working environment for everyone.

Vulnerability — an underrated skill in the age of accountability

At a time when one public gaffe can wreck reputations and send share values tumbling, vulnerability is often difficult to display — especially for politicians.

In a now-infamous interview, Liz Truss’s numerous U-turns are exposed in toe-curling fashion. Some people view this as flightiness. But despite her repeated backtracking, her strong lead in the polls remained. So perhaps her willingness to own her mistakes and change her mind was popular with party members.

Ambiguity and change are increasingly present in our fast-paced world. So it’s impossible to be steadfast at all times. It’s not easy admitting you don’t have all the answers, or that you were wrong — especially when you’re a public figure. Being open to feedback and displaying openness are powerful tools for any leader looking to inspire and motivate others.

Leadership speakers to inspire staff

Polling data suggested Truss was on course to win the 2022 leadership contest before the final decision had been announced — but it remains to be seen if she has the genuine leadership skills of other powerful politicians. You only have to hear the speeches of Winston Churchill and Barack Obama to understand how great politicians are built on these leadership traits.

It’s much easier to become a good leader if you have a role model to share their experience and expertise with you. That’s why leadership speakers are so popular.

Leadership speakers engage with staff and event attendees on a whole other level. They demonstrate the impact of strong leadership both logically and emotionally, through storytelling and sheer presence. Watch and learn Business Matters readers – the more leadership speakers you can see, the better you will lead your own business.

Cherry Martin

Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.

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