Through the revolving door: From corporate leadership to politics, and back again

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“If we really do want people who think and behave differently in positions of political leadership, we have to look beyond corporate leaders and we should also be very concerned about the tunnels that take political leaders smoothly into corporate boardrooms.”  

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Imagine: your new boss arrives, and his first words to the assembled employees are: ‘Great to be here. Obviously I don’t know about what this organization actually does because I’ve never worked in this industry, but I’m sure we’ll be fine and I just know I’m the best leader for you all.’

But this is not imaginary. It happens in workplaces every day. It’s not just a question of someone arriving who’s never done very specific jobs in an organization – it’s clearly impossible for someone in a leadership position in a large organization to have done all of the jobs in it. A company like HSBC with 250,000 employees or the VW Group with around 600,000 simply can’t find a positional leader who knows or even understands everything that happens under its umbrella. However, when someone is ‘brought in’ or, even better, ‘parachuted in’ to a senior position at the apex of an organizational hierarchy, who has never been involved in the sector, industry, or area, that is something different. 

There is a case for this approach in conventional organizations like banks and car manufacturing companies. After all, there are common issues and solutions for many of the challenges we find in workplaces. There is however less of a case for people to move from corporate life into politics because the working practices are different, methods of problem solving are different, and above all cultures are different.  

Classical leadership theory suggests that transfers from corporations to politics shouldn’t worry anyone. Leadership studies has always been concerned with identifying generic traits, behaviours, and now even brain patterns that enable leaders to exercise their skills anywhere. The longest established approach is the attempt to identify traits, distinguishing qualities or characteristics, often genetically determined, that enable us to identity who would, or perhaps who would not make a good  leader. These researchers have been arguing for more than a century that all leaders need to be great and have some specific character traits. Initially, trait researchers were convinced that certain physical characteristics qualified people to be leaders – physical features, skills, and aspects of personality were all identified as essential to becoming a leader. As well as often excluding women, this way of thinking about leadership resulted in enormously long lists of contradictory traits that no-one could embody or practise. Aspirant leaders were encouraged to be aggressive and sensitive, dominant and co-operative, extraverted and tactful, often simultaneously. 

This long search for the essence of leadership continues, in a slightly different form. Researchers today haven’t given up on identifying the crucial traits, but some more innovative scholars have discovered neuroscientific research methods. Business school based researchers are now working with colleagues in medical schools to gather data on how people’s brains respond to leadership challenges. The intention here is to identify how ‘true leaders’ think, the neural pathways that are used when confronted with a situation in which leadership is happening. Objections to this approach are many – it has the potential to take us towards employers using brain scans to select for entry to executive-track development programmes. But the most important issue is that it’s still an attempt to find a universal way of identifying those of us who are mysteriously suited to become leaders.

Corporate CEOs who seek political power through the ballot box are implicitly referring us to this kind of leadership theory. They insinuate that the practice of leadership transfers unproblematically from context to context, organization to organization. This may well be true in some limited ways, for example large corporations are highly politicized environments, while working in government can resemble target-led financialized corporate life. Politically aspiring CEOs can also play the populist card of having done a ‘proper job in the real world’, unlike many career politicians. However, leadership is highly contextual, its practice depends on the organization, the organizational purpose, the people working there, the surrounding local and national cultures, and historical conditions. 

Despite this, movement between high level politics and corporate boards goes in both directions. The British political and civil service classes often pass through a ‘revolving door’ from Whitehall to the Big Five accounting firms and back again. Politicians and corporate warriors often share educational background, class position, and financial status. If we really do want people who think and behave differently in positions of political leadership, we have to look beyond corporate leaders and we should also be very concerned about the tunnels that take political leaders smoothly into corporate boardrooms.

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