Time for Leadership or Populism 2.0?

Photo Credit Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Initiating change is hard. I quickly learned this at the start of my career after graduating in Production Engineering. Full of enthusiasm, I aimed to revolutionise and automate production processes at the Siemens factory where I had just begun working. Despite the evident gains in productivity, the lack of immediate enthusiasm puzzled me. I had to learn, adapt, but not lose my determination.

For anyone in leadership roles driving such change, the approach is clear. Strong leadership is essential, combined with the ability to bring people along by a true understanding of their concerns, addressing them, and ultimately conveying the benefits of change, to them. Above all, being authentic and leading with strong moral social values helps bring people along.

A leadership style that has never worked for me in driving change, is one that seeks excessive permission. In my first factory job, I wouldn’t have made much progress, seeking consent from every worker for automating their workplace processes.

While the world of politics operates differently and demands greater democracy, every type of change necessitates determined leadership. Progress in women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, and climate change action would not have been possible without such leadership.

My puzzle lies in the recent evolution of political leadership. The change movements I mention above were initially championed by charities and community-driven lobbying. Their cause was eventually embraced by political leaders who then propelled them forward. These changes were perceived as progressive and over time, gained support from larger groups of society, especially from future generations.

More recent changes like Brexit, the anti-trans movement and hostility towards migrants, were largely not initiated by community groups. Rather, they were devised by political leaders and their strategists to gain power. This populist approach, exemplified by Donald Trump, and its success has now become better understood. Brexit, in particular, serving as the first wave of modern populism, or ‘populism 1.0’ here in the UK. While the general public was not overly concerned about the European Union relationship, a handful of political leaders were able to convince the nation otherwise and gain significant political power.

What deeply concerns me is the lack of opposition to this populist leadership. Although community groups advocating for improved trans rights and accelerated climate change action exist, few political leaders are displaying the courage to champion their cause. This leads to desperate actions like the Just Stop Oil movement and Greenpeace’s protests at the Prime Minister’s residence. I do not endorse these actions, but I understand them as expressions of desperation due to the absence of champions for their causes. Indeed, I felt this desperation myself in the 1980’s, when the then Conservative Government tried to block me from being who I am, with their horrible and homophobic Section 28. 

We now find ourselves in a precarious place. The new anti-net-zero rhetoric arising from recent bi-elections seems to have given populists a second wind, and has the risk of becoming populism 2.0.

There is no doubt that in recent weeks, the populist are winning the argument, whist all the data tells us they are wrong, and denying the global climate changes that are taking place. I find it unbelievable that we’re starting this wave of populism at a time when we’re literally seeing the world heat up and burn. The images we’ve all seen on the television of Hawaii are just horrifying.

The expanded London clean air zone policy, ULEZ  was never one to ask for permission. It’s one for leadership, listening, making the transition least painful and slowly bringing the community with you. I think Sadiq Khan was doing that rather skilfully, until the populists took to the airwaves and political leaders that believed in clean air ran for the hills.

In contrast, the majority opinion, particularly among the younger generation, lacks leadership and is the one that is gradually marginalised. It totally puzzles me, why progressive leaders, don’t want to be stronger advocates of future generations or indeed empower them. After all they are the future, their causes will eventually win, and it’s much more rewarding to be on the right side of history. 

My plea is directed at political leaders aligned with the values of future generations. Please step off the fence and exhibit your authentic true beliefs and moral courage.

I have talked to many of you over recent years, and it is evident that your polling data suggests potential vote losses in certain constituencies, if you advocate for swift climate change action, a more respectful stance on migration, support for trans rights, or a more aligned relationship with the EU.  Nevertheless, your true belief in these causes are a better guide than polling data. That is a strange thing to say for an engineer, as I love data, but I have learnt from my business intersections with politics, that when dealing with populists, data and rational thinking is the wrong antidote – as is asking for permission.

Please, embrace authentic leadership, follow your heart, rather than hiding behind the polls on these populist attacks. If you do, I’m confident that you’ll be rewarded, and you’ll undoubtedly receive fervent support from charity groups, community organisations and numerous business entities that have a strong belief in social purpose. The ultimate prize is providing our nation positive progressive leadership, winning over the electorate and taking the wind out of the sails of populism 2.0.