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What can leaders learn from Jeremy Corbyn

Matt Chittock

After a month in the Labour hot-seat – what lessons does the UK’s most controversial politician have for leaders?

It’s not hard to see why the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a figure of fascination from people on all sides of the political divide. An old-school protest politician who went from virtually nowhere to land Labour’s top job, he’s enraged critics and enthused supporters in roughly equal measure. 
Whether he’s successful at uniting his party and taking it to power is anybody’s guess. But there’s a lot leaders can learn from his ultra-fast rise to the top.

Don’t underestimate the power of authenticity

Even voters who oppose Corbyn’s views seem to appreciate that they’re genuinely his – not the work of a PR or spin-doctor. While this outspoken approach has put him in trouble with some sections of the press, it’s also one of his key strengths. "For both business and political leaders, authenticity is key,” says Marcus Hayes, co-founder and director of culture change consultancy The Storytellers. “Voters have become accustomed to hearing the same rehearsed and rehashed sound-bites, and Corbyn’s individual views and ways of conducting himself in the political sphere have ruffled a few feathers. But, this sense of honesty is what has made him appeal so strongly to some of the electorate.”

Hayes insists that leaders looking to connect with their employees must ensure they are communicating in a truly ‘human’ way. As he points out, lots of leaders have tried to do this before – but have often come across as insincere. “Corbyn’s strength is that he is not one of the establishment (yet),” he says.
“He looks like the guy off the shop floor, and this gives him permission to play the man-of-the-people card. Leaders need to work hard to build this angle into their personal story. However, you can only come off the shop floor if you have spent time on it in the first place!”

Communicate a clear and consistent vision

Coming out of Corbyn’s sense of authenticity is a clear vision of what the Labour party should stand for under his leadership. Because of this, in interviews with the media, and when speaking with his own party, he creates the impression that his vision is both consistent and compelling.
“There’s the feeling that with Corbyn this is not just a job he's doing – he totally believes his vision,” says Nikki Owen, award-winning speaker on charisma, energy and leadership. “Because of his belief he is very passionate and has this kind of smouldering intensity. I'm not sure he would fair well if he didn't have that complete belief in the vision that he's moving towards.”

Don’t be afraid of emotional intelligence

Owen also notes that Corbyn is able to bolster his vision with a high level of sensitivity. “To inspire and engage others you need that emotional intelligence which allows you to really evoke the emotions of others,” she says. “Corbyn’s able to deliver a very tough message, yet he holds a surprising level of sensitivity – that’s a very unique combination.” Sensitivity can be hard to show in a cut-throat leadership arena, where it can be seen as a sign of weakness. However, Owen explains that equally, ‘putting up a front’ emotionally can be highly stressful, and stops leaders from performing properly.
“Sometimes it's okay to show some vulnerability, it's okay to let your wall down and have some courage to be yourself,” she says.

Bring people together around your purpose

"The media and public’s reaction to Corbyn’s relationship with other senior members of the party and the new cabinet powerfully illustrate the effect that leadership teams have on their organisations,” says Hayes. “Creating a team that is truly aligned to the journey the business (or party) is on is critical in building trust. Corbyn’s first few weeks as the leader of the Labour Party illustrate that the story of how a leader acts is as, if not more, powerful than the story of what they say.”

This is where Corbyn has faced an uphill struggle bringing together opposing views around his leadership to present a united front. Yet this is vital if he wants to succeed for the future.

"During any period of change, it’s important that people feel part of what’s happening – whether this is a political party, or the workforce. Taking on board the views of others is vital to ensuring they believe in the direction in which a leader is trying to take them,” continues Hayes. “Corbyn’s ability to create an inclusive story has been a real strength of his leadership style. It has helped him to adapt his narrative from a leader who is trying to impose radical change on people, to a leader who is enabling others to realise the change they want to see. It helps people to feel like heroes, rather than a victim of the changes he is proposing.” 

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