Leaders who pander to public opinion lose respect

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There is a difference between repeatedly engaging in actions you believe will make you popular, and demonstrating the qualities of leadership that prompt people to vote for you.

Clement Attlee, Britain’s leader in the era of postwar austerity, was once approached by a BBC reporter who adopted the deferential style then thought appropriate. “Prime minister, do you have anything to say to the nation?” the journalist asked. “No,” said Attlee, walking on.

Attlee had never heard of a focus group, and it is not likely he would have thought consulting one helpful. He was surprised to be elected with an overwhelming majority, and his opponents were even more surprised. Neither side paid attention to the opinion polls, few in number, which had predicted his victory.

The world has changed. Politicians blog and tweet. They welcome us to their kitchens and shed tears on television. Every day a Downing Street spokesman informs us what the prime minister thinks of the issues and events that made that morning’s headlines.

The relationship between politicians and the public has changed also. But not for the better. Politicians as a group have never been held in such low esteem. The more attention they pay to public opinion, the less favourably that public opinion regards them.

Winston Churchill, Attlee’s predecessor (and successor), explained the paradox. When an adviser recommended that he keep his ear close to the ground, he responded that the public would find it hard to look up to leaders detected in that position. The leader who is too anxious to please loses the respect of those he or she seeks to please. Not just the achievement, but ultimately the popularity, of political leaders depends on the respect in which they are held.

Contrast the fates of Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson. Mr Byers, who held several ministerial positions in Tony Blair’s cabinet, worked so hard to promote his public profile that he was forced from office amid hoots of derision. Mr Mandelson, the architect of spin, understood its limits and has emerged as the unlikely hero of what are probably the last days of Labour government by discarding spin in favour of disarming candour.

It is hard to imagine Gladstone or Lincoln on YouTube, and certainly not Attlee. Such statesmen did not bare their complex personality to the electorate. To have done so would have been inconsistent with the image they were trying to establish. Wouldn’t we like to have a prime minister who is just an ordinary bloke, with whom you can imagine sharing a drink? No: when complex challenges arise most people do not want an ordinary bloke, we want Gladstone, Lincoln or Attlee.

Every good teacher knows it is easy to make a class like you, but to work too hard to be liked is to undermine the authority on which good teaching depends. The US accountancy firm Arthur Andersen demonstrated that getting too close to the client may win business in the short run, but can destroy the whole business in the long run: if audit is not rigorous and objective, what purpose does it serve? Religious denominations that court popularity by making few demands on their congregation fail to meet the needs people have from religion. They lose rather than gain adherents.

Winston Churchill became the most admired politician of the 20th century. Not because he gave the public what the public said it wanted – it is hard to imagine a less appealing political manifesto than his promise of blood, toil, sweat and tears: but because he gave the public what it really wanted, which was leadership in a time of crisis. His predecessor Neville Chamberlain was, in contrast, vilified because, in giving the public what the public said it wanted and avoiding confrontation, he failed to provide the leadership they needed. When that failure became apparent, he was replaced by a leader with the capacity for the job.

There is a difference between repeatedly engaging in actions you believe will make you popular, and demonstrating the qualities of leadership that prompt people to vote for you. The modern obsession with media management elides that distinction. That is how advisers obsessed with public relations have, in the end, damaged the reputations they have tried to enhance.

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