UK Politics

Can you teach cabinet ministers how to govern?

Zoe Gruhn
Image caption The Institute for Government's Zoe Gruhn believes ministers can learn to be more effective

As a new Labour leader is crowned this weekend, and as the party conferences offer much image-making and speechifying, the art of political leadership is very much to the fore.

And every political leader likes to give the impression of huge self-confidence, a natural talent for being in charge.

But are our leaders really so well-equipped for such key roles? Might they not benefit from specialised help and training, just as leaders do in many other walks of life?

That is certainly the hope for the future. This week, Oxford University announced the creation of a major new school for government, aiming to train future world leaders.

However, leadership training for top British politicians is, in fact, already happening.

Strengths - and weaknesses

Ever so discreetly in recent years, the Institute for Government, an independent body, has begun working with politicians - mainly cabinet minsters - and civil servants to try to improve their leadership skills. This has included individual coaching and frank feedback.

Zoe Gruhn, the Institute's director of learning, came from the world of corporate business training where this kind of approach is common. She is now applying it to the political world.

"What's really important," she says of those she advises, "is to be quite self-aware, examine what your own capabilities really are, and get some support and help along the way."

Political leaders, famous for inflated egos and basking in their supporters' adulation, may not always be keen to acknowledge their faults.

But Zoe Gruhn and her colleagues have pioneered the use of 360 degree feedback with politicians, "which is very powerful".

This involves asking many of those a leader deals with directly - ranging from outside organisations to political colleagues and staff in the leader's own private office - what they really think of their boss's strengths and weaknesses.

Such techniques may be commonplace in the business world, but have rarely been applied to senior politicians.

Emotional intelligence

The training also focuses on specific questions, such as keeping an eye on real aims amid the distractions of short-term events.

Those who have sat in the leadership hot seat ruefully acknowledge such hazards.

Image caption The BBC comedy The Thick of It satirises government ministers struggling to assert power

"It's very important and difficult," says former Conservative party leader Michael Howard, "not to be distracted from your long-term strategic objectives by tactical opportunities which may come your way."

Responding to the relentless demands of the media can be an opportunity to raise your profile, especially if you are leader of the Opposition. But there are dangers too.

Here, believes Zoe Gruhn, encouraging emotional intelligence is most important.

"Do you let the emotions just suddenly react, and then you regret potentially just how you've reacted? Or do you take control about how you're going to respond to things?"

Where the buck stops

There will of course be limits to how far political leaders will be willing, or have time, to accept regular training and coaching in how they perform. Their own political aides may also resent the idea of independent advisers having greater influence.

And then there is the sheer number of people trying to mould and influence senior politicians. Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, recalls being deluged with advice to which, at first, he paid too much attention.

"The more you can have the confidence to listen to the advice and if necessary ignore it, the better."

"In the end," he adds, "leadership is leadership, the buck stops at the leader."

And Zoe Gruhn accepts the limits on how far her kind of advice can, or should, go.

Asked about the possibility of annual independent appraisals of top politicians' skills, she laughs and counters: "I thought that was the role of the electorate, actually."

But aside from voting and policy, she and her colleagues remain convinced that the leadership skills which senior politicians need can be improved with outside help.

Politicians, never keen to advertise their weaknesses, may not accept this openly. But quietly, behind the scenes, the idea of learning how to lead is gaining ground at the highest levels of British politics and government.

Beyond Westminster is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 25 September at 1100 BST. Download the programme podcast or listen via the BBC iPlayer.

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