Following Jeremy Corbyn’s startling victory in the UK Labour Party's leadership election, we can no doubt look forward to a number of articles and blog posts that claim to have identified what it is about 'Corbyn the man' that accounts for his success - and what leadership secrets we can glean from his achievement. This, though, isn't one of them. Wrong focus. Wrong question.
If we really want to gain some insights into the dynamics of leadership from Corbyn's win, we need to look elsewhere. Being a "principled", "authentic", and "honest" individual (all adjectives used to describe him during the election period) is worthy of note. But this is not the main thing that managers, politicians and others might most usefully take from the events of the past few weeks. So what is?
To answer that question, we just need to look at what people said about Corbyn's chances as the election campaign progressed:
- Jeremy Corbyn will not secure enough nominations from Labour MPs to take part in the contest. Oops!
- He will get so few votes from Labour Party members that he'll be eliminated during the first round of the ballot. Oops!
- He will not secure enough second- and third-preference votes to get through to the final, deciding round. Oops!
- He will not win outright. Oops!
- He will not gain a big enough majority over his fellow candidates to be able to claim a mandate to set the Party's future direction and tone. Oops!
- He will not have sufficient credibility with the British public to be elected as Prime Minister in May 2020. ... Who knows?!
Be careful what you wish for
By way of further illustration, the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for," comes to mind...
Labour MPs wished to ensure that the leadership debate reflected the full range of opinion - including what they thought were merely the fringe views of a small number of people on the extreme left of the Party, as personified by Jeremy Corbyn. They woke up to find that a large majority of the Party's current membership appears to agree with those left-wing, "Old Labour" views.
Conservative MPs similarly wished for a Corbyn victory. To them, it presented an opportunity to paint the post-Miliband Labour Party as a far-left group akin to that of the late '70s and '80s: Unelectable and in disarray. They got Jeremy Corbyn; and no doubt raised a few glasses in celebration at Conservative Central Office. Whether or not this gives them a free ticket to Government in 2020 and beyond, though, is a much more difficult question to answer. At this stage, despite the accepted wisdom, it's impossible to know.
In a matter of a few weeks, Corbyn successfully built an informal coalition of support for his cause, comprising frustrated members of the party; enthusiastic young voters who had never before engaged in the political process; people who felt disenfranchised by politics as it currently tends to be played out; and others of various hues who, no doubt, were keen to raise a metaphorical two fingers to the Establishment. He might do so again - this time in a General Election. Equally, of course, he might not. He might fail miserably and fade from the scene. We simply don't know - and neither does anyone else. As always, everything's to play for whatever your political bent.
Whatever emerges, emerges.
Whatever emerges over the next five years in relation to Jeremy Corbyn and the UK political landscape will just emerge. It's not predictable. It's not controllable. Above all else perhaps, it won't arise from scientifically rational decision-making by people who are fully informed about the implications of their actions for their own and others' futures. It will largely be the result of hidden, messy, and informal interactions; with gut feelings, emotion, personal self-interest, and political manoeuvring, etc. to the fore.
The real lesson from Corbyn's victory, then, is that we need to take seriously the complex, uncertain, and ambiguous (i.e. "wiggly") nature of everyday human interaction. Above all else, his odds-defying success has surely exposed the myths of rationality, predictability, and control on which much of the current thinking on leadership, organizational dynamics, and the nature of everyday life is based.
This wiggliness is unavoidable. It arises solely from our own and everyone else’s participation in the world. Understanding this enables us to participate in a more insightful, tuned-in, and meaningful way. It also allows us to see leadership as an emergent property of people's interactions, rather than as an elite practice confined to a privileged few.
Lead-ing then becomes much less about demonstrating a particular set of personal characteristics and much more about seeking to shift the patterns of people's understanding and practice towards something more useful. This means acting to mobilize the collective action of others - as Corbyn has clearly succeeded in doing within the ranks of Labour Party members.
The patterns of conversations in the various arenas of UK Politics are definitely shifting. Change is happening, and those involved are muddling through it. They have no other choice. It's all that they - and the rest of us - can do. The challenge for them - and ultimately for each one of us - is to seek to do this with purpose, courage, and skill.