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26 June 2000

John Major, your time has come

In business, command and control style leaders are out. Politicians must copy

By Stefan Stern

The second of May, 1997. Downing Street glints in unseasonably hot sunshine. In front of No 10, a grey-haired man in glasses speaks a few, gentle words. “When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage,” he says, “and that is what I propose to do.” And so we said farewell to . . . oh . . . er. . . what was his name again?

John Major was a different kind of prime minister, a politician from what already seems like another age. Mostly quietly spoken, at least in public, he eschewed the grand gesture or carefully polished utterance – the type of phrase, he might observe with a smile, that has got new Labour into such difficulties recently.

Major boasted few of the qualities traditionally associated with leaders. He was not a rousing speaker, he was regarded as a ditherer (while trying to manage an unmanageable party), his personality did not inspire or compel attention. Cruelly, it was suggested that, on a trip to India, “Major brought a splash of grey to people’s otherwise colourful lives”.

But many were surprised, on seeing him in the flesh, that Major did in fact possess a certain charm and charisma. Inside the House of Commons, his more straightforward and conversational style rang true when contrasted to Blair’s well-rehearsed soundbites. But on the evening news, the apparently limp and edgy PM looked weak next to the more robust-sounding, telegenic candidate.

The media age has encouraged a highly artificial leadership style. Formulaic, predictable, limited, the modern leader must rule out, according to the conventional wisdom, spontaneity, wit and irreverence. Risks must be eliminated. Debate is avoided. The line to take is agreed and adhered to: you stay “on message”.

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Bill Clinton and Tony Blair represent the apotheosis of the media-trained leader. With lip-biting sincerity, their spontaneity carefully mapped out in advance, they have each, in turn, opened their hearts to their respective nations to considerable effect. Clinton famously “feels his country’s pain”, while Blair moved many with his reflections on “the people’s princess”.

But the matriarchs of the WI, described by Jackie Ashley in these pages last week, have suddenly turned all the conventional wisdom upside down. It used to be enough to be able to fake sincerity. Now the script has changed; in fact, the whole script has been called into question.

Leadership – its style and content – is a great, timeless theme for chief executives and politicians alike, a permanent struggle to be convincing and to be seen to be in control. We are offered many variants: the leader as slick, business-like professional (Blair mark I); the leader as therapist to the nation (Clinton/Blair mark II); the anti-leader, apparently free of rhetoric or jargon (Richard Branson and Blair mark III). But leadership, charismatic or otherwise, becomes almost daily a harder and harder task.

Professor Jay Conger is currently working on his tenth book on the subject of leadership, so there isn’t much you can tell him about the subject. “I don’t envy any of these people at all,” Conger admits. “It’s getting harder to be a leader – the pace of change has accelerated, you need very different approaches from the past, skills of persuasion to convince people and so on.”

In the past, Conger says, organisations had an unspoken reciprocal deal between leaders and the led. “I’ll take this treatment from you,” the deal ran, “because one day I’ll get to do it to someone else.” But with the faltering of traditional hierarchies and career paths – in both business and politics – the old rules have changed. “Research shows that people want their leaders to be their peers, not too far above them,” Conger says. “That’s what Blair and Clinton have been trying to achieve – they’re kind of your pal [“call me Tony”]. For the first time, there’s a new generation of CEOs who are also referred to by their first name – these are more human leaders.”

Since the publication in 1996 of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, far more attention has been paid to the so-called “softer” management skills – empathising, listening, encouraging. Managers and leaders are not supposed to tell us what to do any more. Deference has gone and, in any case, we’re all far too pushy and demanding to take orders. “Command and control” leadership styles are allegedly finished (although they are still far more prevalent than people like to admit).

The language of the therapist’s consulting room has invaded the meeting rooms of business and the public platforms of politics. Globally, leaders struggle to find ways to convince and persuade the temperamentally unleadable: the bolshie, insecure staff and the sceptical, volatile electorate.

Conger has seen the crisis develop, on both sides of the Atlantic, at first hand. “In the Sixties, the Gallup poll in the US used to find that around 80 per cent of voters had confidence in the government – today that figure has fallen to around 20 per cent,” he says. “There has been a collapse of faith in political leaders.” In the age of Seattle protests, even business leaders haven’t fallen that low yet.

Is there any way back for political leaders? How will “our Tony” avoid further heckling? And who will get our votes in the future? “We’ll see more of the leader who says ‘I’m just one of you folk here’,” Conger says. “They will be team players. You know, we really want leaders with shorter legs. We want them to be a bit taller than us, but not too much.”

So that’s it, then. If you want to be a successful leader, it’s time to get off your high horse. Come down on to the ground with the rest of us. Be ye never so mighty. Our new leaders will be quieter, more conversational, more ordinary, more like us.

Come back John Major, we’re ready for you now.

The writer is features editor of Management Today magazine