What does leadership mean to leaders?

Exploring gendered responses from the BBC Election Debate 2017

On 31st May 2017, millions of viewers tuned in to the BBC Election Debate convened by Mishal Husain. Most of the debate was heated in temperature and there was a heightened intensity of the arguments and interruptions that were exchanged during this debate. Despite taking great interest in the issues that were deconstructed by each party’s leader, it was the last 15 minutes that resonated with me.

To set the scene, Mishal Husain (host), turned to the audience and informed us that this was the last question to be taken from the audience. The question posed to the leaders was “in what way does your leadership have the talent and the character required to take this country into the future?”. If you’re ever going to get intimate and understand the heart of any leader, then why not ask what leadership means to them.  In this article, I briefly look at what the leaders said about leadership, and how they said it to make sense of what leadership means in UK politics.


What did the leaders say about leadership?

In terms of who was present at this debate, there were four male leaders and three female leaders present during this debate. Traditionally, each political party has one appointed leader, except for the Green party which has appointed two co-leaders. Each political party represents disparate approaches to governing the UK.

Looking across each leaders’ responses, the party leaders talked about leadership being in a position of understanding (Corbyn: “understanding the people you represent”), tenacity (Nuttal: “never changed my stance on anything”), fearless (Farron: Good leaders don’t run-away”), altruism (Robinson: “leadership is about putting the country before your country”), team work (Rudd: “a good leaders is having a good strong team”), being present (Lucas: “first rule of leadership is to show up”), and taking action (Wood: “leaders should walk the walk”). These different facets highlight the complexity around what leadership means in today’s UK political climate.


How do the leaders talk about leadership?

There are multiple ways in which each leader replied to the question about leadership. Each leader used different methods to talk about leadership.  There is interesting pronoun use from all the leaders.  For example, Corbyn, Robinson, Rudd use the pronoun “you” to talk about leadership from a stance that may be considered more objective (Corbyn: “[leadership is] about not being so high and mighty you can’t take advice”).  This may indicate how such leaders position their responses directly to the audience. Nuttal, Farron, Lucas and Wood, use the pronouns “I” when talking about leadership, assuming what appears to be taking a more subjective stance, indicating leadership might be more personal to them (Nuttal: “I don’t flip-flop”).  Lucas was the only speaker to use the pronoun “we” when talking about leadership, indicating a leadership stance that is based on groups of people.

The leaders used figurative language used by the leaders (that is language that is used not in its literal sense).  There were three key instances of figurative language across the leaders’ debates.  The first was Nuttal’s use of the term “flip-flop” to highlight how he would stick to decisions and statements made.  The second two instances of figurative were gendered with Robinson referring to the Prime Minister (PM; Theresa May) as the “Iron Lady” and “U-Turn Queen” (later repeated by Wood in her reply).  Robinson, contends the PMs character as being “iron” or strong like.  He further contends the PMs integrity to stand by key decisions using the term “U-Turn”.

Farron decided to use a personal anecdote to convey his leadership to the audience (Farron: “I was brought up in Preston during the 1980s … half my mates parents out of a job”). Here he tries to position more of his personal self to the audience in what appears to humanise himself to the viewers.  This is something none of the other speakers chose to do when conveying their leadership to the viewers.


So what does this mean for leadership?

Each political party represents a very different narrative and ethos, all of which can be made sense of from their responses to what leadership means to them.  The question posed by Mishal Hussain, required each leader to reflect on their leadership so they could deliver a reply that would suit the audience they were each targeting.  Although this analysis is brief, it offers some deeper insight around what leadership means in 2017 UK politics.  Given the series of unfortunate events that are leading up to the UK general election, this is a way audiences can be critical about what the leaders are saying and how they are saying it.


Jeremy Corbyn: “Leadership is about understanding the people you represent… is about being prepared to learn… about not being so high and mighty you can’t take advice… about taking people with you… lead a government that cares for everybody in the country… it’s leadership to lead a government prepared to our society we cannot go on like this…

Paul Nuttal: “Never changed my stance on anything… I don’t flip flop… you join [UKIP] because you have principles… we’ve got to ensure that we’ve got the Brexit that people voted for… we pay no divorce bill to the European Union… I’d be strong enough to go through these negotiations… for god-sake let’s be confident about ourselves”

Tim Farron: “Good leaders don’t run-away from a debate… I was brought up in Preston during the 1980s… I was people around what happens when a society… is taken for granted by a Conservative government… half my mates parents out of a job… I trust the people”

Angus Robinson: “Real leadership is putting the country before your country… whatever happened to strength and stability…  not so much the Iron Lady as the U-Turn queen that is not the leadership we require… as leader of the SNP in the hours of commons… we have led the effective opposition”

Amber Rudd: “Part of being a good leader is having a good strong team around you… I’m proud and delighted to be here representing the party… Theresa May will be able to deliver for us… she knows how to negotiate the EU… she’ll be the right leader”

Caroline Lucas: “I think the first rule of leadership is to show up… I feel quite unique here tonight as a co-leader… I’m proud that the green Party pioneers in doing things… two heads are often better than one… leadership is about listening recognising that we all have leadership qualities and it’s about trusting the public”

Leanne Wood: “I believe leaders should walk the walk… should be prepared to defend their politics and their policies… I’m not one for U-Turns… Plyd Cmryu will stick to their manifesto”


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