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The ultimate office politics: Leadership lessons from the 2015 UK general election

As the United Kingdom prepares to go to the polls on Thursday and with the most uncertain election result in recent memory looming, we’re seeing an unprecedented focus on the leadership qualities of those in charge of the country’s political parties.

Listening to Peter Kellner at the Bloomberg/Seven Hills Growth Summit last week, reading the Sunday papers this weekend and indeed being hit by the tidal wave of opinion and analysis on the television over the last seven days, it seems clear that this is the most unpredictable election in many decades. It appears to me that Cameron, Milliband and Clegg have become an amorphous blob of blandness in order to appeal as broadly as possible to clamour for the magical 326-seat majority. From my vantage point, as a leadership head-hunter and therapist, great leaders don’t all look and sound alike and in fact probably shouldn’t and I wonder if in the end we are all a little confused as to what and moreover who we really want to get behind.

In many ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the headway made by Ukip’s Nigel Farage or the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. Irrespective of their policies, both have done a fantastic job of appealing to the disenfranchised; with leadership styles that not only reinforce political beliefs, but their personal ones too. They’ve allowed the voting public to ‘see’ them, and hear them – and ultimately if they choose – to believe in them.

What struck me, as I allowed the rhetoric to wash over me, was how similar this feels to the results of our annual New World Talent Survey (which we have conducted at The Lighthouse Company over the last 5 years) that has shown a direct correlation between two distinct things; firstly, the growing apathy in top leadership talent wanting to belong to any of the 6 main agency networks at all, and secondly a clear correlation between not the results or work of a company but more the regard for ‘who’ they will ultimately work for – Buhlmann, Sorrell, Wren, Lévy, Bolloré or Roth.

Those perceived to be the ‘most dynamic leaders’, were funnily enough leading the businesses perceived to be performing the best in our poll – regardless of whether in fact the results or indeed the policies of those businesses were actually positive or appealing.

Therefore it’s no surprise that the more charismatic challenger leaders, no matter how divisive, are having such an impact for their parties in the electoral race – especially when compared with the relative middle of the road views of our major parties’ leaders.

In an ever-competitive advertising industry, largely dominated by the six major agency networks, there are many parallels and lessons that can be drawn from the 2015 election race.

Great leaders must be seen to be in charge and to give clear differentiation

With the Lighthouse’s helicopter view of the industry, it is very clear that leadership; be it at a global, regional or domestic level; is one of the top reasons for attracting the best talent and of course new clients. There are a number of phenomenal leaders in the industry who excel at internal leadership, but fail to set the world on fire outside of their own organisation. External leadership is ultimately what will ‘woo the undecided voters’.

Look at Yannick Bolloré and Sir Martin Sorrell by way of example. Both are very visible and incredibly charismatic, yet the openness and candidness of the Havas leader contrasts quite vividly with the more closed, but battle-ready approach of the WPP boss. However, both very publically lead and are not always simply chasing the popular vote but stating their position and principles – which appeals greatly.

Imagine you’re a global client choosing between the formidable talents of one of the leading networks at pitch time. Picking a network based on skills alone, never mind an individual agency within that network, is a daunting enough task – what are their policies on PBR, kick-backs, programmatic, talent, global mobilisation etc? Yet the vision, culture and ultimate energy of an agency’s leader will undoubtedly help navigate that decision in the end. As David Pattison used to remind me during our days at PHD – “We are not for everyone”. That polarisation worked – we gave a client something to choose between.

In many ways, Advertising Week Europe now serves as the equivalent of the electoral TV debates when we see leaders from across our industry positioned side by side with their peers and competitors on panels and in debates.

While we can’t stress the importance of external visibility enough, it is without doubt those that are also passionate, articulate and who can demonstrate deep knowledge of their business that are seen as the leading lights – but when they show their true personal beliefs and indeed purpose we begin to feel drawn just a little further.

Should we be wary of coalitions?

While the Conservative/Liberal Democrat pact has managed a relatively productive five years in power, will the long term impact for either side be worth it? Are we simply accepting that no 1 party is strong, competent or persuasive enough to lead alone and do we as a result end up with a compromise on everything? If we look at the media industry in particular there are a number of shared leadership positions – does this mean that clients are getting the best of both worlds or does it mean a compromised version of each of these leaders? In what is a relatively new phenomenon of co-existence, we believe that only time will tell.

Great leaders surround themselves with the best people

Our top leaders play to their strengths, show their passion and surround themselves with great people – just like our next PM must do with his (or her) cabinet. Take for example Jerry Buhlmann, the Global CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network whose leadership skills and capabilities easily transcend our immediate sector (and I suspect will see him in a FTSE 250 company one of these days). Not only is he a magnificent leader, guiding a ship that has caught the interest of top clients and talent alike, but he’s surrounded himself with great people such as Nigel Morris, Doug Ray, Rob Horler, Tracy De Groose and only last week the super sharp (and getting the housewives’ vote) Mark Creighton. Having a party who show bench-strength in every department surely compels us to choose them? I wonder if the much berated George Osborne is a help or a hindrance to David Cameron’s leadership race!

More leaders are becoming horizontal hybrids

A final trait of great political leaders is their authenticity and passion for their specialism, coupled with a broader knowledge and understanding of all the things that makes us, the electorate, happy. This reflects one of the key themes in our 2015 New World Talent Survey – the concept of ‘Horizontal Hybrids’. The ability to lead cross disciplines is one of the most exciting prospects for the figureheads of our industry. Johnny Hornby is a prime example of this. A celebrated leader of people and indeed client persuader, he chose to break out from the traditional advertising model to launch The&Partnership, with an offering spanning content, digital, social, design and beyond in a credible and compelling way. There are a few creative shops I can think of who would do well to hurry up and catch up.

So my point is this. In this election more than any other, the characteristics of the party leaders will be a prime component in the race for Number 10. Similarly, great leadership in the advertising and media industry has never been so important. If it was our global leaders on the ballot paper come Thursday, who would be getting your vote?

Kathleen Saxton is founder and cheif executive of The Lighthouse Company

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