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Can the business world learn from the leadership partnership of Cameron and Clegg?

The UK's first coalition Government for more than half a century and the untested partnership of David Cameron and Nick Clegg reached their 100th day yesterday. Since 10 May the dynamics of the partnership has certainly shifted, as the new prime minister and his deputy come to terms with their roles and the momentous task facing them and their parties in the coming months and years.

To an occupational psychologist the two men have provided a fascinating example of leadership challenges in action, with each having to learn quickly how the other works and how best they can complement each other’s style for the good of the partnership. So how have they fared and what comparisons can be drawn with leadership in the business world?

When recruiting leaders in the business world, we would usually analyse the personalities of those currently in the leadership team and aim to identify somebody who has complementary skills and personality traits to this set of individuals. However, such an approach was not possible for Cameron and Clegg, with little time available to decide whether they would gel as a partnership.

This is more similar in fact to a merger or acquisition situation where two teams are suddenly thrown together. Given that the majority of mergers and acquisitions fail, either because companies overestimate the efficiencies they will gain or underestimate the cultural difficulties, the evidence was stacked against the coalition’s success.

A significant challenge for Clegg was making the move from being number one, in his role as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to being the second in command in the Government. Being number two would require a rapid shift in focus and style plus Clegg has also had the added challenge of remaining number one in his party, so wearing ‘two hats’ and balancing the different roles.

While there are no fixed traits required in a deputy, the most successful bring skills and attributes that the leader lacks. For example, England football manager Fabio Capello has no interest in the interpersonal, ‘softer’ aspects of management. However, his number two, Franco Baldini, plays this role well and fills the gap. Similarly with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, where the former played the charismatic, visionary part, with the latter working on the details in the background. Indeed, it could be argued that Brown was number two for too long making the transition to leader near impossible.

One of the keys to leading successfully is deciding on two or three central goals and remaining focused on these rather than taking a scattergun approach. In this respect, Cameron has excelled, giving much needed clarity and direction to cutting costs, reducing the deficit and increasing efficiency in public services.

He has also done well to bring the rest of the party with him, a fact evidenced by having two former leaders, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, in his Cabinet. It shows strength of leadership that they have galvanised behind him.

Clegg’s role as deputy has focused on facilitating and appeasing those in his party, while allowing Cameron to be the ‘face’ of the Government. He has also tried to stay true to his role as leader of the Liberal Democrats, making his position clear on voting reform, Trident and the Iraq war. Even though these comments were seen by many as gaffs, they have helped him show that he is using his new found power to further the central aims of his party. Plus the fact that he feels comfortable airing these views is a sign that he and Cameron have a healthy, transparent relationship. 

There have really been few major incidents in the first 100 days and those that have occurred – for example, the exit of David Laws, in the first month – have been dealt with decisively and swiftly, with no signs of in-fighting.

In addition to the central Cameron-Clegg partnership, others in the Government have also shone, notably Hague who one could argue has provided an even more effective counterbalance to Cameron, with his vociferousness in the international arena. In fact the whole coalition Government has provided a unique example of co-leadership, with a number of individuals coming to prominence at different times, depending on their own areas of strength. 

So, it has been a successful first 100 days for the new leadership team. They have proved the critics wrong and shown that parties, which previously argued in the House of Commons, can be flexible and find common ground, even under intense pressure and the media spotlight.

But this has undoubtedly been the honeymoon period and the partnership’s mettle has yet to be tested by any major crises, plus the consequences of many of the decisions made by the Government are yet to be fully understood. Time will tell whether the unlikely pairing can survive when the going gets tough.

Nick Shaw is head of commercial and capability development and Ray Glennon is business solutions manager at SHL