What can businesses learn from how politicians do their jobs? Eliot Wilson, co-founder of advisory firm Pivot Point Group and former House of Commons clerk, explains how political acumen can translate to the commercial realm
It’s a timeworn idea that politicians should look to the world of business for lessons in how to lead, manage and behave. The pandemic has been a triumphant demonstration of this: the UK’s great achievement has been the creation and distribution of vaccines, which was led by a Harvard MBA venture capitalist drafted in for the job, Dame Kate Bingham.
It is, however, worth looking at the situation from the other end of the telescope: what can businesses learn from how politicians do their jobs? This might not seem an especially propitious moment, as the prime minister’s close circle begins to feel the strain and the opposition fails to inspire. But true genius will look for—and find—lessons in the most unlikely places.
It’s easier than ever before to forget that politics is difficult. Getting to the top in Westminster — or Washington D.C., or Paris, or Berlin — requires a broad range of skills, developed to a high degree. So what are these, and how might they translate to the commercial realm?
The analysis of leadership is much in vogue, as any visit to a bookshop or a browse on your favourite internet market platform will tell you. The slenderest tips can be spun out to a whole volume. Political leadership, however, is a deeply quicksilver quality. Of course an aspirant minister must have direction, as well as the ability to communicate this direction to followers. Any good CEO or entrepreneur will have that too. But a politician has to be attentive to his allies as well — leading can get you too far ahead of the crowd, and leave you dangerously isolated.
Political footsoldiers are not mute empty vessels. They have beliefs and instincts too, and these have to be accommodated. The successful minister must have a receive mode, and, crucially, be able to articulate other people’s thoughts better than they can themselves. Equally, a business leader lets an opportunity go to waste if they cannot — or will not — draw from employees and partners’ ideas. Building a coalition requires a supple ability to both forge ahead and to include at the same time.
Then there is communication: We expect our business leaders to be brilliant, swashbuckling and iconoclastic. Politicians, however, must rein in their most extreme instincts and remain relatable — someone with whom both the voters and the spear-carriers within the bubble can imagine a relationship.
Striking this balance is not easy. To do it successfully, you must know the limits of your abilities, and the edges of the public appetite. Ford’s decision to create the Edsel brand was ahead of its time in terms of segmentation and specialisation of the car market, but consumers were not ready. The new brand failed to ignite the public imagination, and was defunct within three years. Leading or isolating?
Then there is the management of your team. In theory, a successful politician should want the best people around him, a team of rivals in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s phrase. Yet we see again and again that this is very uncommon: Thatcher could not keep the mercurial Nigel Lawson in his tent, and one of the accusations often levelled against Johnson is that he keeps potential competitors like Hunt, Tugendhat and Davis on the backbenches.
The door to the boardroom also needs to be carefully watched. It is simply and plainly self-destructive to keep talent below the level it deserves, but no sensible business leader thinks that competition is an unalloyed good. A talented CFO is invaluable, but the same ally can soon grow to think that perhaps they are leadership material too. Managing that talent and balancing ambition against threat needs fingertip sensitivity — but the best politicians know its essential, like Blair keeping Gordon Brown nervous with more ideologically attuned allies like Alan Milburn and David Miliband.
Business is not politics. The rare success of leaders from one sphere in the other should tell us that plainly enough. But a true genius is humble, and knows that there is always more to learn. So perhaps CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs should watch our political masters closely, seeing not only what they do but, crucially, how they do it. If you don’t make the effort, your rivals might.