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Education, education, education... for MPs

Politicians need training, too – but they could give businessmen and women lessons in leadership.

Politicians regularly score among the lowest of professions considered trustworthy by the public. In an American poll they came just above insurance and car salesmen. They are berated by the media and scorned by the public - so who would want to be a politician?

Yet the work they undertake is arguably among the most important for the economic success and social well-being of nations. We need good political leaders to represent our needs in government and take the decisions that will have the most benefit for ourselves, our families, our communities and our countries.

But what is good political leadership and what makes a good political leader? I have been interested in the answers to these questions for the past decade.

A remarkably consistent pattern emerges from analysing interviews, focus groups and questionnaires capturing the views of more than 2,500 national and local politicians, their political colleagues and appointed officials from all UK political parties. While the values held by members of different political parties vary, the competencies they identify as important for performing political work do not.

A clear vision
These include leadership (being able to inspire others and communicate a clear vision); analytical skills (the ability to understand and prioritise complex information); representing people (engaging with and representing the needs of different sections of the community); relating to others (being seen as approachable, empathic and trustworthy); and, perhaps not surprisingly, resilience (the ability to withstand criticism and cope with the pressure and demands of a 24/7 role).

In 1882 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Familiar Studies of Men and Books: "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary." For most politicians little has changed. There is still negligible preparation for political roles or support once elected: in politics a Darwinian process exists that assumes the fittest will survive and rise to positions of power. This contrasts starkly with business and the professions where billions of pounds are spent annually on preparing future leaders and developing existing ones.

Research suggests that political leaders - just like other leaders - need to develop a range of skills and abilities if they are to perform political roles with competence.

Over the past decade I have worked with political parties and political organisations such as the Local Government Association to help to create a range of tools and methods to support political development.

Cross-party project
Projects have included creating new competency-based assessment procedures for approving prospective parliamentary candidates for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties; a cross-party project to develop a political skills framework for newly elected councillors; development centres for local council executives; and 360-degree review systems for parliamentary candidates and local politicians.
Working with politicians has given me privileged insight into the nature of political work as well as increasing my respect for the unique challenges faced by political leaders.

There has been something of a quiet culture change in politics over the past decade. Politicians are recognising the need for better preparation and support in order to cope with demanding and important roles. There is an opportunity to draw further links between leadership development in business and politics.
However, much might also be gained by studying political leaders.
Rather than accepting Aristophanes' assertion in Thesmophoriazusae, his parody of Athenian society, that "under every stone lurks a politician", perhaps we need to recognise and learn from their expertise at working in political environments.
Political skills and political awareness are undoubtedly important in business too.

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