What Jeremy Corbyn tells us about leadership

The traditional route to the top involves “climbing the greasy pole”. It means being promoted one job at a time until you make it. It means putting yourself forward for promotion — and suffering the inevitable humiliations of being rejected more often than not. It’s fair to say that, these days, you don’t make it to the top without striving for it.

The reasons people are promoted include being “ambitious”, “hard working”, “experienced” and “having the right people skills”. But those words don’t mean what they say. Being “ambitious” often means compromising your principles. “Hard working” means putting in long hours — even if that’s simply presenteeism. “People skills” often means not rocking the boat. And “experienced” means having worked through the ranks. It doesn’t mean knowing the business’s products and services.

It’s instructive to notice what’s missing from this list. There’s no mention of “commitment”, “belief” or “ability”. Commitment isn’t commitment to the company —it’s commitment to the product/service and customer. Belief means belief in the importance of what you’re doing. And the ability to do your job to a high standard. These attributes are missing because they’re not valued. In fact, they’re actively disliked because they run counter to what (most) management really want — compliance, conformity and discretion. A truthful job advert doesn’t sound so good.

Wanted. Ambitious manager who does what s/he is told and conforms to the company’s (unwritten) standards in terms of conduct, dress code and ethics. Must be able to keep secrets. Knowledge of the business is not necessary and may count against you. An ability to pretend to care about customers is essential. A Yes Man is preferred.

Ironically, the people who we hold up as outstanding leaders display none of these characteristics. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were never “yes men”. They didn't “climb the greasy pole”. They didn't seek to “maximise profits”. They weren’t “team players”. They believed in what they were doing. They were committed to their products. And they were very, very talented. Everything else (the ambition, the money) flowed from this — not vice-versa. They didn’t start out to make great money. They started out to make great products.

Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. In the ten months that he’s been Leader of the British Labour Party he has tripled membership, making the Party the largest political movement in the Western world. He has transformed a shrinking, morose political party into a vibrant mass movement. Yet he was plucked from obscurity. He had been an ordinary MP for 35 years but never served in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet, never ran for Leader, and hardly even chaired a (significant) committee. But even his enemies, of which there are many, would concede that he is committed, believes in what he is doing, and talented. He also knows the business (of politics) inside out. Conversely, he has none of the traditional skills. He’s not ambitious. He’s not a people person. He’s not a yes man.

Unfortunately, Jeremy’s fate looks like being the fate of everyone who doesn’t play the traditional promotion game. Since he became Leader, he has been systematically undermined by the people who he leap-frogged for the job. In spite of him including his most senior colleagues in his Shadow Cabinet (presumably as a peace offering), they all refused to work for him and walked out. Since they resigned they have heaped attack after attack on him, accusing him of “bullying”, “misogyny” and “anti-Semitism” — akin to calling the Pope “anti-Catholic” given his background and voting record.

So what does Jeremy Corbyn tell you about leadership? He tells you that you don’t need to promote from the level below. That unpromoted but talented and experienced people can make good leaders. That commitment is more important than your job title. That a leader who genuinely believes in what he is doing, rather than belief in making money, can transform organisations. But it also tells you that such leaders will be opposed at every turn. Their only hope of survival is help from the top — in business terms, support from the Board; in political terms, support from the Establishment (especially the media). But, in this particular leader’s case, that relief is not coming.

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