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Lessons from business for the would-be Labour leaders

How to muscle in on the centre spot. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

The Labour leadership race is hotting up – and it’s interesting to watch how the various candidates are going about convincing party members that they are fit to hold the reins of leadership. With runners and riders now all declared and primed for their first hustings, it is telling that they are all suffering, to various degrees, from anonymity problems.

As recent history shows, the transition from follower to leader is not always an easy one to make. Ed Miliband was a relative unknown before beating his brother in the last leadership contest, but failed to make his mark. Gordon Brown failed to step out of the shadow of Tony Blair and go on to succeed in the top spot. Other, potentially highly talented leaders, such as Chuka Umunna, opt out of the running.

In the corporate world as well as in politics, we see potentially competent leaders lose their way as they make the move into leadership. Studies from the world of business give some insights into how potential leaders can navigate out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Stepping up

Crucial to success is recognising the scale of the transition being made. Stepping into the top job in politics is like stepping into a CEO role in an organisation. Research by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and Jim Noel highlights this as a significant passage. It is not only a skills shift; it requires a fundamental shift in values as leaders step up to fulfil the complex responsibilities and level of accountability that comes with their new role.

In the words of executive coach Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here, won’t get you there”. Leaders relying on tried-and-tested ways of working, thinking and behaving that served them well in the past will find them inadequate in their new positions. Leaders need to make not only a skills shift, but a change of mindset.

Breaking with the past

The transition into the top role is particularly challenging for leaders moving into the spotlight who have come up through the ranks of the organisation – or in this case political party.

Have they really developed the necessary skills for the top job, or are they going through the motions of a personal rebranding exercise in order to influence perception of their leadership qualities?

So Andy Burnham, for example, likes to portray himself as a man of the people who enjoys a game of football – but instead he is booed for not knowing the price of petrol and photographs emerge of him in his younger days, posing in his black tie days with fellow “Demon Eyes” football teammates who ranked among the bright young things of Westminster and New Labour.

Yvette Cooper will struggle to reposition herself from previously unpopular Labour governments. Elected in 1997, she has a great deal of experience. But she is also wedded to the party’s past failings – reflected in her refusal to distance herself from issues such as Labour spending before the financial crisis. She has so far failed to make a strong bid for leadership.

Yvette Cooper’s experience is both good and bad. EPA/Will Oliver

It is a difficult balancing act for those leaders who come up through the ranks. They need to develop and demonstrate their capability to do the top job, while remaining consistent with past behaviour. Being seen to say or do one thing, having previously done something different, can be perceived as inconsistent.

This sort of thing can hurt perceptions of you as an authentic leader. In order for these competing candidates to be trusted, particularly by the public, they need to be authentic and deliver a consistent message – hard to do when you’re trying to rebrand yourself.

Standing out

A further consideration for leadership hopefuls is how they navigate around the legacy left by the outgoing leader. Those stepping up need to have a clear understanding of the challenges they will inherit, not only in terms of the policies previously implemented, but also in terms of the culture created by the outgoing leader.

At fault, but problems run deeper than just the leaders. EPA/Oli Scarff

Research into CEO failures shows that when a leader is forced out (generally when results go wrong for a company), the blame rarely falls squarely at the leader’s feet. While this is fair up to a point, there are generally other major forces at play too. It is widely acknowledged that Labour is in need of significant change to avoid the level of defeat experienced in the last election. Liz Kendall’s response to this is to position herself as a candidate for change, as the only one running from the class of 2010 MPs.

But for leaders coming up through the ranks, their past experiences can ill prepare them for the scale, scope and complexity of the change they need to implement. Furthermore, back to authenticity and consistency – how can you position yourself as a candidate for radical change, when you’ve been waiting in the shadows?

For the political hopefuls their biggest challenge will be to prove they have the real capability to deliver on the complex requirements of the top job and that it’s not just a rebranding exercise.

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