The hours after the British election saw three party leaders fall in quick succession. Within minutes of each other, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband all announced that they would be stepping down. What happens next for those leaders and MPs who are cast out of their high status, identity-affirming leadership roles?
Leaving leadership requires former leaders to cope with the loss of a prestigious identity, and experience a period of “cold turkey” in which they must overcome any addictions to power, Machievellian cynicism, or altruistic service that can bolster the egos of those occupying high status positions.
Although this will be a time of uncertainty it also opens up opportunities for renewal and transformation. Losing leadership is an experience full of threat and promise, in which previous understandings of ourselves are thrown into question and the individual must find new ways of understanding their place in the world.
The Portillo moment
One notable embodiment of this form of reincarnation is Michael Portillo, the Conservative politician who was first elected to parliament in 1984 and served as minster of defence between 1995-97. The loss of his safe seat in the 1997 general election became known as the “Portillo moment” which defined the Conservatives’ overwhelming defeat, and was later coined by Portillo himself as the moment when he had to eat “a bucketload of shit” on live television.
As an MP, Portillo was often unpopular with the general public, but since leaving the House of Commons for the last time in 2005 he has undergone a surprising transformation into a benign presenter of railway television programmes, assisted by a natty selection of bright linen jackets.
It will be interesting to see which of those who lost their seats in the election make it beyond the inevitable appearance on Have I Got News For You, to redefine themselves in the public or private sphere as someone other than “former member of parliament”.
Politicians are of course not the only ones who have to develop post-power identities; a number of factors indicate that leaving leadership is an experience many more of us are likely to face in the coming years. The tendency for heads of department to return to the ranks after a number of years in post, plus recent large-scale redundancy programmes in defence, financial and public services, and general trends towards an ageing population, suggest that we need more understanding of how this process affects both the well-being of individuals, and the economy more widely through the loss of valuable skills.
On this front, academics are still playing-catch up: research on leadership focuses largely on the challenges associated with becoming a leader or doing leadership – not losing it.
Three steps to recovery
A pilot project conducted by leadership researchers at University of Exeter Business School is seeking to address this gap. Findings presented at the 2011 International Studying Leadership Conference have provided fascinating glimpses into the experiences of those transitioning away from power.
Interviews with former leaders from a range of backgrounds who had successfully carved out new roles for themselves indicated that the following advice may be useful for politicians forced out of the limelight:
1) Remember that leadership is itself a good preparation for coping with the uncertainty of transformation. Leadership involves dealing with so-called “wicked problems”, which have no known answer. In this sense, the uncertainty that comes with developing a new identity as “ex-leader” is not a new experience. Leaders might well find that uncertainty is the one familiar element in their transition.
2) Listen to the advice of friends who have gone before. The experiences of those who have already transitioned out of high status positions can help ex-leaders to adapt lessons learned in the pursuit and exercise of power for a new stage of life.
3) Give yourself time – the transition can take longer than expected. Several research participants experienced a number of false starts and wrong moves before they felt comfortable with their place in the world.
Of course, the consequences of leaving leadership positions resonate beyond the individual going through the exit. Such life-altering transformations significantly affect family dynamics, and the skills economy can also suffer if and when expertise built up during leadership roles disappears without trace.
Whether the political parties will hope to retain the skills of some politicians who were unsuccessful in defending their respective roles this May remains to be seen - but it is likely that for some at least, crafting an alternative public identity will be a priority after the humiliation of defeat.