Is leadership behaviour the clue to party political success? Part 2

Author: James Finn, senior consutant

Part 2 / 2

Will the ability to consider the views of others and think flexibly lead to electoral success?

Following our behavioural analysis of the first debate, I have decided to focus on a single behaviour in reviewing the second and third debates. It’s a behaviour that is fundamental to managing and leading change, Conceptual Agility. Research into leadership behaviour indicates that the use of Conceptual Flexibility has a clear link to high performance in the workplace, (Managerial Competence, The Key to Excellence by Harold M Schroder, 1989). Based on the first debate, it was also the behaviour where all 3 party leaders could do better.

In the first debate, all three party leaders conveyed messages clearly and with confidence. This helped the viewer to understand basic policy and party commitment to this policy. The leaders did not do so well at positioning why their policy was better than that of the other parties. It was largely left to the viewer to draw the conclusion from this dialectical approach, although Nick Clegg did best at summarising viewpoints. This is likely to have underpinned his early opinion poll success as it helped him shape the debate and appear considered, but flexible in his thinking. It demonstrated an ability to appreciate different perspectives while building his argument.

What is meant by Conceptual Agility?

At its most basic it represents an ability to understand and work with different perspectives. If change is required, it is the ability to recognise different ways of achieving it, different theories, models and concepts that may help explain and solve the problem. For example in very simplistic terms, to reduce a budget deficit, whether it be an individual, a business or a government, strategies might include those of cutting costs, growing revenues or redefining the purpose and questioning the need for the budget at all. The value and impact achieved through Conceptual Agility, is that it provides both options and criteria for making a decision. This analytical approach builds a high degree of confidence in the resulting decision.

Nick Clegg demonstrated use of this behaviour in the first debate and continued to do so in the second and third. It was fundamental to his strategy of comparing what he described as the ‘old ways’ of the Conservative and Labour parties, to those of his own party. He described a situation where voters had a real choice.

Although he started off a little shaky, David Cameron improved in this behaviour by the final debate. Instead of a singular party view, Cameron focused more on establishing criteria for evaluation and justification of policy. Essentially he presented guiding principles or values. His closing statement captures this.

‘We need a government with the right values, a government that backs families,…that backs work and people who try to do the right thing…keeping safe and secure is the most important thing of all…I believe a test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest. That is true in the good times, but it’s even more true in difficult times.’

Here we can see decision making criteria in the family, work and security. We also see decisions being tested in terms of how we deal with the more vulnerable and across two economic contexts – ‘good times’ and ‘bad times’. While this helps to shape and evaluate a debate topic, Cameron could have used these criteria more. A more effective approach would have seen him argue that a particular Conservative policy would be more successful because it can be demonstrated to have a greater positive impact on the different criteria when compared with the policies of the other parties.

Overall, Gordon Brown rated lowest for this behaviour. Brown’s final statement, while recognising alternative election outcomes, sets out a fundamental rejection of policy alternatives, to the extent of rejecting the individuals who present them.

‘Things are too important to be left to risky policies under these two people. They are not ready for government because they have not thought though their policies.’

It may be that Brown has done the evaluation of risk and policies. It may be that in a political context this can be seen as a confident and political debating technique. But by not articulating this evaluation, it relies on the viewer trusting his judgement, rather than understanding it. Interestingly, an Ipsos Mori survey after the third debate sees Brown receive higher ratings for leadership ability, but lower and with a significant fall in ratings for personal and political likability. Brown might argue that he is victim to style over substance. However, while throughout the debate Brown was the most effective at providing the substance of his own policy, more data does not necessarily equate to valid data.

So how could they improve?

When making decisions we look to prioritise or reject viable options in search of the most effective way forward. But this is based on evaluation. While Cameron and Clegg demonstrated a basic level of Conceptual Agility in the debate, a higher and required level of the behaviour would involve the evaluation of the different options. In simple terms, it is about evaluation based on the pros and cons of the different options, it is the ‘compare and contrast’ of essays, it’s the positives and negatives of simple decisions. It’s the stuff that moves a C grade up to an A grade.

For example, when justifying his immigration policy Nick Clegg repeatedly re-iterated the need to not live in denial about the number of illegal immigrants and to tackle criminal gangs, he failed to articulate why his idea trumped those of others. He got caught in a cycle of repeating the logic of the argument, with increasing frustration. This is quite a common occurrence in leadership, where big brains and rational minds attempt to influence through singular logic and confidence. They’ve done the reasoning already they just want us to do it now. It can be a false economy. An approach of actually explaining the different party options would have helped guide the viewer through the logic of his argument. A short cut is more likely to only appeal to those who buy into the argument already.

An example for David Cameron can be seen when he rebuked Gordon Brown’s repeated attack on the negative impact of £6bn efficiency cuts. Here Cameron introduced the concept of cuts in government being different to cuts in the economy. Having established two criteria for evaluating the policy, Cameron failed to deliver a higher level of the behaviour by evaluating the two. The basic level did achieve a clear impact though, Brown’s single view of the situation lacked at least one other perspective.

In terms of Gordon Brown, while the opinion polls show many people recognising his abilities in understanding economic and world problems, the debates did not reveal this Conceptual Agility. There is an assumption he has this ability, however, in the context of the debate he often demonstrated the opposite, rejecting alternative ways of thinking. He was not alone in this, all three leaders attacked and belittled alternate views. For Brown it was less clear that this was just a debating tactic.

There is a clear argument that politics is a unique environment and therefore not directly comparable with typical business environments. While factional interests exist in scenarios such as mergers and acquisitions, there would generally be no outright dismissal of a ‘hung parliament’ as a disaster. We are often compelled to collaborate and not openly attack the perspectives of others in the greater interest of the business.


In summary, I believe that Nick Clegg’s and increasingly David Cameron’s use of Conceptual Agility will have attributed to their debating success. Showing flexibility in their thinking and explaining the rationale for their policy made them appear more approachable and considered. Gordon Brown in contrast felt didactic, single-minded – even “railroading”.

Tips for assessing and demonstrating Conceptual Agility

  • Define the actual problem – what is it you really need to solve. Consider all aspect that might influence the problem
  • Have options - encourage more than one solution and consider the pros and cons of each
  • Don’t just back the first sensible idea
  • Establish criteria for evaluating an idea
  • Generate perspectives – through selecting people and putting yourself in their shoes, using models and theories
  • Think back to school essays – a good argument considers different perspectives and weighs them up
  • Test your solution like an hypothesis – If we do this, it will have this positive impact

Would you like to respond to the author?
Email James

Download and Share

James Finn, Senior Consultant

'Why does change so often fail? Because people nod their heads without actually buying-in emotionally. Because you have to understand individual differences before you set about getting their buy-in. We have a highly detailed map of the emotional route through change. With it we can make the process work.'

More insights with Crelos thought leadership