Claire Aiken: Leadership sorely lacking within our corridors of power

GREAT LEADERS: John Hume was a colossal, a man ahead of his time, while Nelson Mandela is revered for his ability to show not just through words, but also actions, the kind of society that he wanted to build
GREAT LEADERS: John Hume was a colossal, a man ahead of his time, while Nelson Mandela is revered for his ability to show not just through words, but also actions, the kind of society that he wanted to build

GREAT leadership is something that is easy to recognise, yet difficult to find. Whether it’s in business, politics, sport or any other area of life it comes in many different forms and is often shaped by vastly differing experiences and visions.

The qualities required to be a great leader can be visceral, with people having instinctive qualities that set them apart from an early age or they can be borne out of sheer necessity or an overwhelming desire for change or to succeed.

Whatever the catalyst, leadership has fascinated society for centuries from the Ancient Romans and Greeks through to the present day with the most impressive leaders in any walk of life having key traits that sets them apart from others, earning them respect from both supporters and opponents alike.

In any age the strongest and most effective leaders have found a way to inspire those around them through their ideas, words and actions. A vision for a better future, a speech that brings people together or calm decision making in the face of a crisis – true leaders find a way to improve society, their business, or their team.

Strong leaders have that innate ability to unite individuals, winning over hearts and minds and convincing them to accept more difficult or unpopular decisions, all the while standing strong against the extremes. Good leaders are team players. They are open to new ideas and expert opinion, while bringing together the best and the brightest and enabling them to perform to their absolute optimum.

In politics locally, John Hume was a colossal, a man ahead of his time who had a vision for change taking huge personal and professional risks for the betterment of all to build a peace process that delivered transformational change within our society.

Globally, US Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are fondly remembered as Presidents that steered the country through some of its greatest crises. And of course, Nelson Mandela is revered for his ability to show not just through words but also through his actions the kind of society that he wanted to build.

So too in sport. In recent years we have been blessed to see some of the best managers of their generation leading teams to unprecedented success. Jim Gavin, the former Dublin GAA manager springs to mind as someone who displayed all these characteristics when propelling his team to a then unheard-of six All Ireland titles in seven years and Michael O’Neill who achieved so much with limited resources with the Northern Ireland international team.

As for business, you don’t need to look too far to see local companies leading from the front and playing their part in making Northern Ireland a better and more prosperous place. I’ve been very impressed by the way in which businesses across the north have responded to the many obstacles they have faced over the last two and half years. At a time of unprecedented challenge, leadership was the lifejacket that helped keep businesses afloat.

In the absence of political leadership the onus is often on business to fill the gap, a circumstance that we are certainly familiar with here in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive is not perfect, we know that, but it has at times shown the leadership that our society needs to progress. In the teeth of a cost of living crisis and facing down the barrel of a recession there is no logical rationale for not supporting households and businesses through a functioning Executive.

As for Westminster one can’t help but be thoroughly underwhelmed by the lack of leadership on display. If leaders should seek to inspire through their ideas, words and actions, then the current government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson have abjectly fallen short.

While there are those who may want to point to getting Brexit done, which only appears to have undone the vibrancy of the UK’s global trade, and the decision to take a punt on Covid vaccines the outgoing Prime Minister has failed by any measure to provide positive and proactive leadership to deliver for citizens.

While the Westminster bubble has been distracted by scandal after scandal, from dodgy Covid contracts to ‘Partygate’ and latterly to the Chris Pincher affair, the cost of living has soared, waiting lists are spiralling, rail workers are on strike, Scotland is seeking a fresh referendum on Independence and then there is the continued no show at Stormont. All of this add ups to the antithesis of collaborative and cohesive national government functioning hand in glove with devolved regional government, as envisaged within the UK’s constitution.

Indeed, the recent rail strikes and the media performances of the RMT Union leader Mick Lynch brings into sharp focus the failings of Boris Johnson and the distrust he and others within the Conservative Party have engendered. Lynch swatted aside government representatives and media interviewers alike, taking a principled stance on behalf of his members who were seeking better pay and conditions. The contrast between the leadership demonstrated by Lynch and the lack of direction, control and guidance shown by the Prime Minister and his Transport Secretary Grant Shapps could not have been starker.

As the Conservative Party membership weigh up their options for a new leader (and Prime Minister) we can only hope that whoever attains that lofty position restores belief in the highest political office in the land and starts to demonstrate those leadership qualities that can support a better society for all.

Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken