Is Principled Leadership Really Possible?

Jeremy Corbyn Image Courtesy: Ian Forsyth

Jeremy Corbyn
Image Courtesy: Ian Forsyth

When there’s a leadership contest of any kind, whether it’s selection or election, it’s often instructive to look at what distinguished the winner. Currently, we have the phenomena of Jeremy Corbyn, the 100-1 outsider, winning the Labour Party leadership election with three times the votes of his nearest rival.

What makes this more remarkable is that there was a widespread anti campaign from his competitors and in the press, plus his own party dignitaries urging voters against what they saw as the destruction of the party’s chances of being re-elected. This is the equivalent of ex board members advising against a CEO candidate. But still, people voted for him in droves.

Inevitably, just as in organisational politics, conspiracy theories abounded – most proving fanciful and unfounded. In the end, Jeremy Corbyn came through. As people interested in leadership, we must wonder why.

While there were a large number of factors at play, in terms of leadership, three are common to most commentators:

  1. The dogma of ‘austerity’ is loosing its appeal
  2. His competitors were bland and seemed to be offering more of the same
  3. Corbyn stood out as an authentic ‘man of principle’.

Authenticity and clarity of position have long been noted as attractive leadership qualities. They provide something to rally round; someone to believe in, and somebody to trust. However, principles do seem to be difficult to adhere to while at the same time, surviving.

Anthony Jenkins, for instance, was appointed CEO of Barclays to ‘clean up the bank’. Applying strong and consistent principles, this required a culture change towards service and gutting the investment arm of its toxic elements. Sadly, this,  plus the subsequent emergence of more past misdemeanours, meant that profits suffered – and Anthony was sacked.

Something similar could well be happening to Jeremy Corbyn as the media hounds him for the compromises he appears to be making in appointing a shadow cabinet that will sustain a semblance of party unity.

So herein lies the challenge:

How can you remain well principled in the face of other pressures such as profit, the need to fend off attackers, or other dimensions of performance?

There is no simple answer here; even Margaret Thatcher fell prey to party assassins on the back of her unwillingness to compromise; which hints that the solution may be in choosing carefully the principles to stand or fall by.

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One comment

  1. As someone trying to lead an ethical business, this blog has much resonance – where does pragmatism end and compromise start; its a constant issue that has to be at the forefront of your mind if you want to stay true to a set of principles. Thanks Mike.

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