5 management lessons that just might help Jeremy Corbyn save Labour

The Labour leader's mammoth challenge is as much about people as it is politics. Here are five crucial qualities he'll need to learn - fast.

by John Lehal
Last Updated: 13 Oct 2016

With the leadership race over and the fractious party conference drawing to a close, for Jeremy Corbyn the hard work really begins now. The Labour leader faces a huge task if he is to achieve his goals of uniting his hopelessly divided party and of pioneering a 'kinder, gentler politics' and offering a ‘clean slate’ to his MPs.

He’s even planted a symbolic olive tree outside his office  - but good intentions will only go so far. At its heart the challenges he faces are as much about management as they are about messages, as much about people as they are about politics.

Here are five key management lessons that could help Corbyn unite his party – if that’s really what he wants to do.

Flexibility

A 21st century manager has to be able to adapt to fast-moving situations, and change their mind based on the evidence their team presents. Corbyn is well known for his steadfast views, many of them forged in the left wing political battles of the 1970s and 80s.

Now he must prove that he is not – as Kate Green, one of his former shadow ministers, has said - ‘a lazy thinker’ and is prepared to move on and respond to the modern world. Even when that means having an open mind and listening to views he might disagree with.

Inclusiveness

While life at the top can be lonely, especially in politics, a leader is still part of a team. Whether it’s a business or a political party, your organisation stands together and it falls together.

But Corbyn has an unhappy track record of freezing out those he doesn’t see eye to eye with: Owen Smith, his reluctant opponent, only managed to have one policy meeting with him in a year in the Shadow Cabinet. Heidi Alexander, the then Shadow Health Secretary, thought she had her leader on her side, only to find his staff were on the phone days later "clarifying" what he meant – and completely reversing his position.

Good leadership is about being inclusive, not divisive, because if you want the right people to join your team, you’ve got to show that you’re willing to work with them.

Strategic thinking

Alongside building the right team, the other key task of a leader is to set the strategy and see that it’s delivered. This is an area where Corbyn’s inexperience really shows – he urgently needs to demonstrate that he knows what a strategy is and how to deliver it.

Over the summer, the recently-resigned former Shadow Transport Secretary, Lillian Greenwood, talked about a long-planned campaign on rail fare increases that could have given Labour some much needed points on the scoreboard against the Tories.

When Corbyn launched a divisive reshuffle on the same day, stealing the media spotlight and sinking the rail fares campaign, it stung his colleague to make this angry response; "He’s not a leader, he’s not a team player", she said. He’s got to be both if he’s going to get the party where he wants it to go.

Consistency

Instead of provoking this kind of counterproductive clash, Corbyn needs to bring the shadow cabinet together, to come up with a strategic vision and stick to it. Leaders need followers, and followers like to know what the person they are getting behind stands for.

That means articulating the message often and consistently. Being a lone ranger worked for Jeremy when he was just a single voice on the fringes of politics and could say exactly what he wanted to, but now he’s in a management role he needs to show a bit more consistency.

Responsibility

Finally, Corbyn has to learn that leadership means responsibility. He has always been confident standing in front of a crowd of those he agrees with, whether it’s an anti-cuts rally or his local trades council.

But you might have also seen the pictures of Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish Labour MP, being shouted down at the launch of a report into anti-Semitism. Her leader stood next to her in silence and let it happen.

Corbyn rightly says he doesn’t encourage this behaviour, much less ask for it to happen, but still it does. Leadership means taking a stand when things like this affect your team, because your staff have to know they can rely on you to stand with them – and if not, why should they stand up for you?

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Consulting Group

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