What can the political conferences teach us about leadership?

Political conference season often attracts compliments and criticisms of those in leadership positions

What can the political conferences teach us about leadership

The speeches and policy announcements are intended to show a commitment to action, whilst the behind-the-scenes discussions wrangle with the task of delivering on these promises. Here’s three key things we’ve learnt – and what it means for us as business leaders. 

Unite to paint a positive picture of business

As entrepreneurs and business leaders, we play a pivotal part in our communities and what we can achieve together. Yet both main parties missed the opportunity to educate their activists about our influence.

There was room for both leaders to reach across to the other and agree that the ‘too big to fail’ and ‘too big to jail’ business practices that feature so often in the news and films is unrepresentative of the bulk of businesses.

Patiently explaining the under-reported ethical activities of business in the tradition of Lever Brothers, Cadburys, Guinness, and Rowntree, would also have enhanced the image of both business and politics. 

If you wish the ends, you have to provide the means

Many organisations combine ambitious goals for the engagement of their employees (my specialism) but puny, top-down and conventional means for achieving them. The conferences did the same, with examples of big talk diluted by naïve implementation proposals for their stated objectives; leaders repeatedly failed to provide credible means to achieve the stated policy goals.

Yes we need growth as profitable economic activity funds higher wages and investment in public services. Yes we need to reduce hospital waiting list and reform the NHS. Yes we need to build more houses. 

But how? 

Business leaders know that how is one of the key questions to ask before starting any project. How can we achieve this without blowing the budget? How can we make sure we have the right skills to deliver what we need to do, now and in the future? How can we champion and train our staff in the practical skills needed to perform their roles?

Instead of providing media soundbites around how we’ll ‘bulldoze planning restrictions’ while proposing minor changes subject to local veto, we need to provide the means to make changes. 

It destroys credibility when a party emphasises economic growth while simultaneously promoting anti-business policies such as increasing regulation and making strikes easier or champions housebuilding while abolishing the national targets that helped the building industry get planning permission.

Employees see through top-down proclamations that are big on glitter but tiny in substance; so does the electorate. Leaders in both arenas need to be cautious in planning but courageous in implementation.

Apologise when you make mistakes

A key part of the work I do with implementing Rapid Mass Engagement in organisations is creating bottom-up cultures. One example is when I was working with a well-known brand where the Factory Manager apologised to the workforce for mistakes that had happened under his leadership and committed to work with employees to reform, bottom-up and at pace.

Business leaders know that sometimes the numbers don’t add up and you have to change direction. But it’s not something we often see with political leaders. Imagine if those in power apologised when a policy they made didn’t perform as expected, instead of doubling-down or attempting to obfuscate. Imagine what would happen to our levels of trust and their own reputation.

Being able to apologise and hold yourself accountable for your mistakes is a key sign of a strong leader. We can’t expect our employees to do it if we aren’t – and our organisational cultures need leaders who are willing to hold up their hands and say when they’ve got something wrong. In doing so, we create trust. It’s a sign that we’re all human, and we can all work together to build something better.  


Both politics and business are key ingredients of Liberal Democracy, and high-performance leadership is crucial in both. We often talk across each other, but we need to listen and seek to understand the challenges we face both to move forward and support our people, communities, and growth plans.

Frank Devine
Frank Devine

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