The power of not saying what you want to hear

How much value should apparent affability have when it comes to identifying leaders and defining great leadership? Why do UK politicians feel a need to be “laddish and cool”? Why should we put any credence whatsoever in leaders who try “doing that ‘down with the kids’ thing”?

In an excellent piece for the Guardian today (Saturday 24 May 2014), Stefan Stern surveys the state of leadership in UK politics in 2014, and finds it wanting. Stern says:

The blurring of talent show contests and politics continues, with celebrity status sometimes counting for more than some of the traditional virtues of political leadership. Affability, or the appearance of it, beats seriousness. Jokes beat speeches. Soundbites beat policy. […] Politics is not supposed to be showbiz. Soundbites, “jokes”, bullying and broadbrush statements may get you through PMQs, panel shows or shorter broadcast interviews. But something serious is supposed to be at stake.

A great pleasure in life for me comes in reading interviews with Neil Tennant. He has a dextrous mind, a sharp wit, and an understated turn of phrase. Stern’s Guardian piece put me in mind of Tennant’s fantastic description of the power of Obama’s rhetoric (from this epic 2009 Atlantic interview with Tennant):

It is very powerful, because he doesn’t say, necessarily, what you want to hear. Just the other day, and this is a very trivial example, he was with Gordon Brown, and as everyone in Britain has to be laddish and cool, someone from the press asks Obama what he thought of England’s chances playing Ukraine at football that night, and Obama, rather than doing that ‘down with the kids’ thing said something along the lines of ‘I have difficulty enough understanding baseball let alone getting involved in European football.’ So he just didn’t go with it, and I thought, ‘Good for you.’ At the moment he doesn’t do the bullshit.

As Stern suggests, when political discourse is reduced to this sorry level, your Farages come out on top. Stern says:

The degeneration of our politics has led to a situation in which Nigel Farage can command the undivided and often unquestioning attention of much of our media and wider public. And this is what passes for leadership.

And when this is what passes for leadership, and for media coverage of politics, the truly disturbing animus that is at the core of Farage’s politics goes unchecked.

My friend Sukh Pabial puts it perfectly in a very powerful piece of writing about what the rise of the “festering” UKIP means to him (and to a great many other people):

It all bothers me because it’s taking the UK national debate back to thinking which I believed was expired and only remained with an insignificantly small minority.

I wish Sukh hadn’t had to write this post in the first place. But given the dismal circumstances of UK politics in 2014, I am glad that he has had his say.

Not necessarily saying what the audience wants to hear is a virtue of leadership, in politics, in the workplace and elsewhere.

It’s time for seriousness to start trumping affability.

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