Hilary Benn – that speech

On the morning after the speech made by Hilary Benn in the debate about intervention in Syria, I was asked by the website of a national newspaper to write 500 words analysing it in terms of the psychology of leadership. I asked how much they were going to pay and when they needed it. They never replied. I am guessing they wanted it for free or perhaps decided the world had already moved in in the 30 minutes it took me to reply.

I just came across the short article I wrote and thought it was worth putting out so I tweaked it a little so it makes sense now. For those of you who don’t remember, this is the speech:

Hilary Benn speech on Syria

As a psychologist who lectures in leadership and teams, I ( amongst other things) run leader development programmes with business executives and Civil Servants. I have previously delivered similar programmes for the military and the emergency services and developed an interest in the nature of course. Recently I have been interested in the presence of something of a vacuum amongst our political leaders. In early December it could be that a ray of light came peeking through the storm clouds when Hilary Benn unleashed a speech of extraordinary impact. So here’s my analysis.

Leadership is about drawing people with you, creating a sense of common purpose and inspiring people to strive harder, cope with setbacks and keep going for longer. In politics, this is true but there is also a more open element of leadership in politics that relates to persuading people to adopt your viewpoint. The politicians I know can assemble a persuasive, coherent argument about absolutely anything and do it on the hoof. I think this is where people like me differ from them because my answer to most questions is “I don’t really know.”. The true leader does better than that. Very often the leader simply has to have something to offer.

There are very many ways to achieve this certainty but a word of caution: we often over estimate the value of charisma. Leaders do not have to have this sense of otherness where people are drawn to them by virtue of some magnetism of personality. And before last night, Hilary Benn could never have been accused of being a charismatic politician. Somehow he pulled something extraordinary out of the bag and this is one of the reasons it stood out – it was such a contrast to his career to date which has been quiet and workmanlike. So why did it stand out? First of all it was courageous. He stood in front of the Prime Minister and to his face berated him for the “terrorist sympathizer” comment. He fixed the most powerful man in Britain with a stare and faced him down, transmitting a sense of moral outrage. Cameron was left looking deeply uncomfortable and Benn at the same time won huge sympathy from his side of the house.

1800Leadership is brining people with you and Benn also did this. He turned to his own side, addressing them directly and appealed to a higher level by bringing in the reference to “sister socialists” in France who had asked for support. This is of course taking a particular spin on the stance of the French Government following the recent terrorist atrocities and of course would not have worked with a government of a different political hue despite the same situation almost inevitably resulting regardless of what government was in power. This was a theatrical gesture and placing the argument into an emotional response appealing to the fundamental idea of Labour being about organising and standing up for people of the same political views. He spoke with respect for his own side with whom he would disagree on the vote in question.


We want our leaders to know what we are trying to achieve. In politicians we demand this even more so. Perhaps the most negative thing you can say about a political leader is that they performed a u-turn. For most of us, changing our mind s regarded as demonstrating flexibility; that you listen and reflect on things. But in politics we need our leaders to be clear, resolute and unflinching. In other jobs this could be called stubborn, unthinking and ignoring the evidence. In fact it has been known in Organizational Psychology for a very long time that really exceptionally high performance comes from constructive disagreement within teams and from leaders who are able to change their mind having rigorously debated issues. Most of us experience this at work pretty regularly but oddly we don’t seem to tolerate it in our politicians.

It’s unlikely Mr Benn could have the same impact again and it is tempting to say he couldn’t pull the same trick. And as I write, rumours are spreading that he might be demoted. But perhaps he will be kept on because he has made quite an impact from this one performance. With turmoil in the Labour party, it will not escaped the notice of a significant chunk of the membership that perhaps they didn’t have a strong candidate for leader, that they may well do next time there is a vacancy.


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