Funny way to choose a leader

We are now roughly half-way through the British general election campaign. The country will vote on Thursday May 6. What was expected only a few weeks ago to be a fairly tame and predictable event has become much more exciting, on account of an innovation in British politics – televised debates between the three main party leaders.

The second of three debates took place last night. A commonplace in other mature democracies, the blockbuster election confrontation has finally arrived in the UK. It has upset the party planners and strategists, and overturned expectations.

So far so healthy. This is supposed to be a democracy, after all. But something is not quite right.

Britain, of course, does not have a presidential system. We vote in separate constituencies to elect individual members of parliament. The only way that you can vote for one of these three party leaders directly is if you live in one of the constituencies they represent.

But more troubling, for me, is the image of leadership that this quasi-gameshow format presents. To win in this game, it seems, it is not necessary to have a profound grasp of material. It is not necessary to have a great deal of useful experience. But it is necessary to be able to come up with a snappy phrase, to be fairly good-looking, and to have a superficially pleasing manner.

Is this really how we should be choosing how to vote, and which leader to opt for? Would any serious business, or not-for-profit organisation, select a new leader with the aid of a kind of popularity contest? There is more to leadership than that.

For one thing, it is absolutely not a popularity contest.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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