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How can we measure political leadership?

Understanding and measuring political leadership is a complex business. Though we all have ideals of what makes a ‘good’ leader, they are often complex, contradictory, and more than a little partisan. Is it about their skills, their morality or just ‘getting things done’? And how can we know if they succeed or fail (and why?). From Machiavelli onwards we have wrestled with our idea of what a perfect leader should look like and what makes them succeed or fail.

Taking the idea of ‘political capital’ we can evaluate what sort of authority a leader is granted and how they choose to ‘spend’ their capital. We can think of political capital as a stock of ‘credit’ accumulated by and gifted to politicians, in this case, leaders. Political capital is often used as a shorthand to describe if leaders are ‘up’ or ‘down’, how popular they are, and how much ‘credit’ they have in the political sphere. As with financial capital, commentators and politicians speak of it being ‘gained’ or, much more commonly, ‘lost.’ Most importantly, it’s viewed as something finite;– you only have so much and it quickly depreciates under pressure. This presents us with alternative method of understanding why political leaders succeed or fail.

Politicians are acutely aware of their finite stock of authority. Having plenty of this ‘credit’ means a leader can utilise it to achieve policies through spending or leveraging – think Tony Blair in 1997 or  Barack Obama in 2009, when their support, popularity, and momentum temporarily made them politically unassailable. They believe they can pass laws, set agendas, and dominate the ‘narrative.’ Tony Blair, reflecting in his autobiography, spoke of how he was a capital ‘hoarder’, trying not to spend his authority in his early years as Prime Minister: “At first, in those early months and perhaps in much of that initial term of office, I had political capital that I tended to hoard. I was risking it but within strict limits and looking to recoup it as swiftly as possible… in domestic terms, I tried to reform with the grain of opinion not against it.”

Understanding leadership capital

Academics have defined political capital in a variety of ways. It can be about trust, networks, and ‘moral’ or ethical reputation. By incorporating many of these ideas, we have developed a notion of leadership capital as a measure of the extent to which political office-holders can effectively attain and wield authority.

We define leadership capital as an aggregate of three leadership components: skills, relations, and reputation. We have worked this is into a Leadership Capital Index (LCI) with 10 simple variables to enable leaders to be scored, to capture both quantitative data and qualitative assessments.

The measure of a leader’s skills refers to the required leadership abilities, from the communicative to the managerial and cognitive. We include the power of a leader’s vision, their communication, and popularity. The difficulty for many leaders is that they have, of course, some of these but not all –both Cameron and Blair for example were accused of having the communication skills and (relative) popularity, but not the vision. Theresa May has looked like she has neither of the skill set.

David Cameron and Barack Obama at G8 summit, 2013 by White House. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Leadership is also a relational activity. Leaders mobilise support through loyalty from their colleagues, their party, and the public. Part of the challenge is to retain these ties for as long as possible or, at least, as one scholar put it, to disappoint followers at a rate they can accept. But how they do this can depend on their leadership style. The most obvious and talked about way is through personal charisma; Blair and Obama offered what JM Burns famously termed ‘transformational’ leadership. But effective leadership can also be exercised with quiet, technocratic competence and delivery, more in the style of Angela Merkel, suiting the cultural norms of the country and the context.

Third, leadership is continually judged by reputation. Leaders create their own performance measurements – have they done what they promised? Each type of leadership claim sets up its own performance test. We look at whether a leader is trusted by the public, subject to challenge or not, and to what extent they saw through party policy or their legislative agenda.

Looking across these three areas allows us to understand how they influence each other in ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ cycles. Successful leaders communicate, achieve aims, and strengthen relations and reputation. Failing leaders poorly communicate or never map out a vision, then often lose confidence, control, and credit.

David Cameron’s EU strategy 2013-2016 provides a neat mini-example of capital loss, where he gambled his capital on a series of high stakes policies with diminishing returns. His failure to communicate his European vision, and tendency for a series of ‘Hail Mary Passes’ with a promised 2017 referendum and EU reform, eroded already ambivalent relations with parts of the Conservative party. This left him with less control over EU policy as party rebels exerted more and more influence. So attempts to regain the high ground weakened his capital. This lead directly to Cameron losing the referendum and resigning in June 2016.

Where next for leadership?

Leadership capital offers one way of understanding how leaders succeed and fail. The LCI can measure and identify the ebb and flow of the leadership trajectory over time. It can be used to compare leaders and leadership within and between countries. Comparison across different systems is however a challenge within often contrasting structural frameworks.

There is also the fascinating issue of comeback. If all leaders only have a limited ‘stock’ what of those who bounce back? Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (to an extent), or John Howard in Australia all managed to turn around their political fortunes and reinvigorate their leadership. Winston Churchill may be the prime example of leader who squandered skills, reputation, and relations over and over until late in his life-his career up until 1939 was famously described as a study in failure. Perhaps leadership capital can help us to understand why and how this happens.

A version of this article orginally appeared on Democratic Audit UK.

Featured image credit: Chess Board by PublicDomainPictures. Public Domain via Pixabay

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