MPs – Leaders or Losers?

Leadership is not something you do to people; it is something you do with people.  When the trust goes, so does the moral authority and you are no longer a leader.

The recent revelations concerning the inappropriate expenses claimed MPs has thrown up an interesting question – should the guilty parties resign?  Yes or no.

Those who say “no” argue that most of them were acting within the rules and that it is the rules that are therefore to blame.  The resignation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, should therefore be sufficient as he was the guardian of the rules.

You can see their point.  If MPs were employees in an ordinary business, they might be disciplined for pushing the boundaries of the rules, but it is unlikely they would be fired.  And if they were, it is likely that they would have a good case for unfair dismissal.

But politicians are not employees, they are leaders whose job is not so much defined by a job description or role profile, but by the moral authority they carry to both represent and lead their constituents. 

This notion of moral authority was probably best described by Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg address when he said that government should be: “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

The point is that to represent us, we need to feel that our MP can empathise with our circumstance, to know what it is like to live our lives.  And let’s face it; none of us can claim a plasma TV, duck house or moat clearing on expenses.

While this notion that the guilty parties can no longer claim to be “of the people” is sufficient to rule them out as MPs, at a more fundamental level their actions have ruled them out as leaders, and in this their case should act as a salutary lesson for us all.

During the 1980s two academics, James Kouzes and Barry Posner were conducting research into the traits of effective leaders.  In an interesting parallel with the notion of being “of the people”, their research led them to look, not at the qualities of senior people, but at the qualities that made ordinary people effective leaders.  In this way they were able to identify the qualities of people who had “earned the right” to lead as opposed to those of people who have been “assigned the right” to lead.

Through extensive research they identified 255 characteristics which they subsequently narrowed down to a list of just 20.  On three separate occasions over a period of 15 years they have sent this list out to respected leaders in different walks of life and different countries and asked them to select the seven characteristics that they believe to be the most important

The questionnaire asks respondents to select the seven qualities that they "most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow".  Respondents are told that the key word in this question is “willingly”.  What do they expect from a leader they would follow, not because they have to, but because they want to? 

The results of these surveys have been striking in their regularity over the years.  It appears that a person must pass several essential tests before others are willing to grant them the title leader.  The following table shows three sets of data gathered over the last twenty years, with the dates being linked to the publication of successive editions of the Kouzes and Posner book, “The Leadership Challenge”.

Although all characteristics receive some votes, and therefore each is important to some people, what is most striking and most evident is that, consistently over time and across continents, the top four have always been the top four and “honest” has, by a considerable margin, always been number 1.



Percentage of respondents selecting that characteristic

Characteristic 2002 1995 1987
Honest 88 88 83
Forward-looking 71 75 62
Competent 66 63 67
Inspiring 65 68 58
Intelligent 47 40 43
Fair-minded 42 49 40
Broad-minded 40 40 37
Supportive 35 41 32
Straightforward 34 33 34
Dependable 33 32 33
Cooperative 28 28 25
Determined 24 17 17
Imaginative 23 28 34
Ambitious 21 13 21
Courageous 20 29 27
Caring 20 23 26
Mature 17 13 23
Loyal 14 11 11
Self-controlled 8 5 13
Independent 6 5 10

What this research suggests therefore is that once a person’s honesty has been called into question, their moral authority is gone and with it their ability to lead.

In business dishonesty is occasionally (though in my opinion mistakenly) tolerated as, although a person’s leadership qualities will have been undermined, their assigned authority means that they will still be able to manage.  Because politics has to be “of the people, by the people, for the people”, dishonesty is intolerable.  I would therefore call on all those MPs who have been found wanting to stand down at the next election, or if not, I sincerely hope that their constituents will ensure that they are voted out.

About the Authors
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.