What can business learn from leadership in politics?

By: Declan Curry | Date: 21-05-2015

Tagged as: ArticleGameplanGeneral Election


What lessons should business leaders take from the election campaign, and the results? Business writer Declan Curry explores.

Declan Curry

Journalist, former BBC business broadcaster and Gameplan Live host.

Declan Curry


You are doing a great job. You are exceeding all your personal objectives. You are smashing your team's performance indicators. You are meeting thousands of clients, nurturing old relationships, winning new prospects. You are handling a hostile media with aplomb and grace.

Then, suddenly, you are sacked.

Without explanation. Without apology. And with immediate effect.

And not in a quiet meeting over coffee; your defenestration is declared on national television. You are handed your P45 by a total stranger, on a stage in some leisure centre or town hall, in front of a baying mob shouting, "Out! Out! Out!"

Welcome to General Election results night.

In politics, most careers are expected to end in failure. But the end is brutal, so much more so than in business. Sure, the typical FTSE 100 chief executive only lasts about as long as a single Parliamentary term. But corporate executives are allowed to leave with their dignity intact. Not for them the stark humiliation of standing - red-faced and glassy-eyed - in front of their rivals as their defeat is proclaimed.

Despite the differences between business and politics there are some important lessons that corporate chiefs can take from the election campaign. I'd suggest they are:

Purpose - Be clear about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what you hope to achieve.

Simplicity - Your messages must be crisp, concise and punch through indifference and hostility.

Credibility - Your promises must be believable and consistent with your track record.

Frankness - your inner circle must not be afraid to bring you bad news.

Openness - you must listen to feedback and create conditions where people will offer it honestly and fairly.

There was no more staggering demonstration of the importance of purpose, simplicity and credibility than the SNP's victory in Scotland. The Nationalists message was clear: we are from Scotland and we are for Scotland; it swept almost all before it. But the assumption behind that message was that Scottish MPs would be kingmakers. MPs from Scotland would control the balance of power in the new Parliament, so they needed to be the strongest Scottish voices to maximise that potential. How will the SNP leadership now deliver for Scotland, without that Parliamentary leverage? The SNP's credibility in the next Westminster election hangs on their answer to that question.

In business terms, the UK coalition Government was engaged in national process re-engineering; carrying out a radical rethink of the purpose and practice of government to improve efficiency, reduce public spending and shrink the size and scope of the state.

All process re-engineering generates alarm, suspicion and, frequently, hostility. When you're re-engineering institutions that exist to protect the vulnerable, care for the sick and underpin the practicalities of everyday life, you can expect the hostility to change to be vast, furious and unforgiving.

But the verdict – as delivered in the 2015 election results – was split; only one of the agents of change was punished, and savagely at that. The other half of the partnership was congratulated and its future plans – which I found often unspecified – to accelerate the process of change received an unexpected, though lukewarm, endorsement.

It all boils down to purpose, simplicity and credibility.

The Conservatives benefitted by framing the process of change – austerity – in the context of a long-term economic plan. It might have been painful, it certainly cost you money, but you knew why it was being done. It had a purpose.

Fixing the deficit was not among the most important issues for voters, but fixing the economy was. Most voters – 63% in the Ashcroft polls taken after the election – said they had either benefitted from economic recovery, or expected to do so.1

The Chancellor rarely stopped expressing that purpose in a single, simple term - using the phrase "long-term economic plan" at every available opportunity. And the Conservatives simplified the choice, presenting the election as a binary selection between their economic plan and Labour's alternative.

And throughout the Parliament, the polls showed that the public trusted the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to deliver that plan - even when they failed. The economy was growing when George Osborne became Chancellor; a year later, it had stalled. The Government missed its targets for reducing the deficit, the national debt remains uncurbed and the economy is still unbalanced. But Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron never lost their commanding position in the polls for economic leadership. They had credibility.

“In politics and business, hindsight is never in short supply, particularly if a project fails to meet its objectives.”

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats were unwilling partners in the process. They said the parliamentary arithmetic forced them into this partnership, that they tempered the worst excesses of the change, that they brought warm heart to cold, calculating Conservatism. None of that won them any mercy from the electorate. They suffered for their equivocation, for arguing against a process they were delivering, and for not preparing their voters well enough before the election for the possibility that they might become a party of austerity afterwards.

And in the aftermath of the election result, there is no shortage of Labour MPs (and former MPs) lining up to say it lacked purpose, simplicity and credibility on the economy. One MP said the party sounded like the moaning man in the pub; the man that everyone avoids. A former leader said it wasn't enough to just talk about hard working families; you had to show that you actually wanted them to achieve more in life and demonstrate how you would help them to do that. That purpose was missing.

Labour aimed for simplicity in its economic messages - putting its pledge to cut the deficit right on the front page of the manifesto. But I think that the message was muddled throughout the campaign with tax claims and spending promises that didn't tally. And its credibility suffered with some voters after the leader said he didn't think Labour had spent too much when it had run up deficit after deficit in the years of plenty before the crash.

Some leading Labour figures now say publicly they felt the party had been on the wrong track long before the campaign began, but their concerns were brushed aside when aired in private. These claims will surprise no-one. In politics and business, hindsight is never in short supply, particularly if a project fails to meet its objectives. The urge to pin the blame on someone else is always strong. But the remarks do highlight the other key lessons from the campaigns - the importance of frankness and openness.

Would it have made any difference to the result had Mr Miliband's team listened more attentively to contrasting advice? Would they have had more compelling policies, had they allowed their assumptions to be challenged more rigorously in private? We may have to wait for the avalanche of political autobiographies that will surely follow this autumn for some answers to that. But already a picture is emerging of an inner circle hiding bad private opinion polls, and putting the phone down on MPs who tried to offer constructive, alternative advice.

And - we don't actually know if the other parties were any better at it. They could have been worse. We're only hearing about Labour's campaign failures because it lost.

Businesses can learn from this. Companies spend vast amounts of time and money constructing mechanisms so employees can appraise their elders and betters. But they often fail to create the conditions where that feedback can be given frankly and freely. Workers and junior managers often withhold important failings and oversights for fear of retribution or exclusion. You need a culture where people are not hiding inconvenient truths. When asking for feedback, you need to ask the right questions, and remain sceptical about the answers. And you need an inner circle that is not afraid to whisper in your ear, "you are mortal after all".

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