We must make tomorrow's leaders today: Douglas Hague argues for a specially-trained political elite to cope with the pressures at the very top

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The Independent Online
IT HAS become a commonplace that the current generation of national leaders does not seem able to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex world. But despite many diagnoses of the problem, there have been few practical suggestions as to solutions. I believe we can fill this deficit only by redefining the role of leaders and creating ways of selecting and training a new leadership elite.

A key focus must be on our systems of education and professional development, to tackle the problem of over-specialisation. While we lack national leadership, we do not lack leaders in particular fields: business, finance, public services, law, the arts, or academia.

This is because people working in a particular specialist field have a common way of thinking and talking. Although derived partly from their specialised training, this shared set of professional values comes more from listening to what those at the top of their field say and watching what they do. Leaders are easily recognised and widely respected by their followers.

Difficulties arise in individual fields when people from other areas try to move in. In companies producing science-based products, for example, scientists complain that their boards prefer their members to be accountants rather than scientists. This is in part because accountancy provides a common language for business. But it is more because an accountancy background gives a better understanding of both business and the world than does a scientific one. Some specialisms are more specialised than others, and those who work in them are correspondingly more isolated than their counterparts elsewhere. On this basis, science comes off badly.

Much of our current leadership deficit arises from this difficulty of transcending our specialisms. A leader from one can converse easily with fellow specialists, but will find it very difficult to lead an electorate or a nation because of a lack of any built-in way of communicating easily with many voters and citizens.

Politics is not a specialism in the same sense, and if one ever develops it will have to be very general. At present, law seems to be the most appropriate preparation for political leadership. It provides an ability to think, to master a brief, to argue well, and so on. But it is still a very specialised discipline.

If hyper-specialism is our disease, what is the cure? Professor Howard Gardner, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contends that leaders must be able to create a story about their society - a persuasive narrative which both accounts for its present condition and for individuals' place within it. This story must be capable of linking individuals from different specialisms, allegiances and abilities. To put it differently, a successful leader must be able to link followers such as nuclear physicists and philosophers with shop assistants and dustmen.

This is manifestly a tall order, yet in their own ways leaders such as Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill made a good fist of it. Margaret Thatcher found it more difficult, precisely because an approach that suited skilled workers appealed much less to the now much larger number of people in the professions.

Reducing our leadership deficit will be difficult, but two changes would set us off in the right direction. First, action. To succeed, today's leaders must learn to use multi-disciplinary teams which bring together, for example, individual specialists in science, technology, economics, anthropology, management, etc. Leaders must recognise that no one person, however clever, can hope alone to comprehend and handle the complexity of the modern world. Leadership today must be team leadership and all leaders must learn to work well in this way.

Second, we should speed up innovation in education. At intervals, I challenge British universities, and especially Oxbridge, to create an education for leaders in the 21st century. In the less complex world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an Oxbridge arts education gave an understanding of people, the world and history which provided as good a start as any to aspiring leaders. In our more complicated age it does so no longer. Oxbridge should try again to create a broad and open university training for political leadership.

Without offering a detailed blueprint, one can suggest guidelines. First, such training should identify and develop personal and interpersonal skills for successful communication in a mass-media age, giving the ability to tell 'stories'.

Second, it should provide an understanding of how to lead organisations in a complex, changing world. In policy-making and in management, leaders must learn the skill of inspiring multi-disciplinary teams to understand and handle large economic, technical and social systems.

Third, aspiring leaders must comprehend both historical processes and the modern world - science, technology and all. Training should also inculcate a fondness for literature and culture to avoid too narrow a focus by politicians on their political lives.

The need for so broad a training for tomorrow's leaders does, however, mean that it cannot be left wholly in the hands of dons. Embryonic leaders need close discussion and argument with national and international leaders and commentators from inside and outside politics.

This means that if there were ever a case for establishing lifelong education and action learning - learning through working in teams on real-world problems, but with appropriate new knowledge fed in - this is it.

Sooner or later someone will create the archetypal learning community of thinkers and doers which brings scholarship and action powerfully together. What better catalyst for this than the task of revitalising political leadership in the Western world?

Sir Douglas Hague is Chairman of the Strategic Leadership Programme at Templeton College, Oxford, and author of 'Transforming the Dinosaurs', a Demos publication.