Jeremy Corbyn – Leadership for the 21st Century

Colin Powell(1) is quoted as saying “Leaders honor their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.”

As Jeremy Corbyn steps up to the plate as leader of the Labour Party, what might other leaders learn from his unwavering, principled approach? In this post, I look across 5 elements of Leadership in the 21st Century – and outline what we might learn from Jeremy Corbyn and the skills he might need to hone as he takes on the mandate of leader of the Labour Party.

1: Identify and develop your own model of leadership. What do you stand for? What do you value?

As we search for the leadership Holy Grail, we focus on what is external to us; we look to experts and gurus in the field. This approach has its merits, but where are the experts when a decision is required, when action is called for, when a difficult message has to be shared?

In an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain context, where tried and tested methods no longer deliver, command and control is simply not possible (even if it was likely to succeed), content so rapidly changes, and what was true once is rarely repeated, this requires leaders to identify and develop their own model of leadership, and be their own guide. Rather than looking to experts, you need to work out your own approach, do your own thinking and learn from your own practice.

Leaders with a purpose will have a strong “anchor”. The starting point is to build the self-knowledge required to lead with purpose. A leader with purpose can contribute more fully to enable a clear vision(2). A leader with a clearer footprint has more personal power.

This is something we can all learn from Jeremy Corbyn. His career to this point provides great clarity about what he stands for. The principles that we hear about now, we can see clearly displayed throughout his adult life. We can also see the events that created the principles. For example, in an article I was reading yesterday, after working on a pig farm at age 20, Jeremy Corbyn became vegetarian and remains so to this day.

Stepping into the public limelight – Jeremy Corbyn’s personal core values and principles and his personal purpose are more necessary than ever to keep him grounded.

2: You are never too small to make a difference:

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” Anita Roddick (3)

Jeremy Corbyn has never believed he is too small to make a difference and whilst this impact has not in the past, been headline news, his presence has been felt through the corridors at Westminster.

I write this next line with a sense of irony: Rather than offer recipes or follow the recipes of others, how do you pay attention to the impact that you have?

3: It’s never just about you. As a leader you are born from the context you find yourself in.

Often, leaders are ‘given’ their role through a position or title and some do brilliantly; many do a good job; and still others fail miserably – personally suffering. As a successful leader we like to collude with the idea that our leadership position is all about us and our personal, heroic capability.

Peter Hawkins(4) comments that leadership is relational – leaders are not separate at all from the context in which they lead. Leaders are fundamentally people stepping into a space that requires a leader – they are volunteers responding to a need in the system.

Jeremy Corbyn is the person who has been volunteered to step into the space in the Labour Party that requires a leader. It is because of the leadership crisis, not only in the Labour Party, but one that seems to be endemic, that Jeremy Corbyn is the answer that the Labour Party members have chosen.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is important.

But “it’s not all about you.”

It is critical for any leader not to get hooked into the idea that it’s all about you. Let go of the view of you as a leader are separate to the context in which you are leading. If you can’t let this go, then we are doomed to focus on individual heroics.

Letting go opens up the possibility of a shared endeavour and greater success.

The Jury is out as to whether Jeremy Corbyn believes this is all about him. There are clues that he realises it’s not.

Jeremy Corbyn has the chance to reach out to the wider Labour membership, and open up the possibility of a shared approach to resolving the wicked problems that are faced – not just for the Labour Party – but on behalf of humanity. He’s already started this in people’s minds by noting “we need to democratise the way decisions are made in the party”(5).

4: Learning is critical.

W Edwards Deming(6) captures this idea in his often quoted phrase “Learning is not compulsory, but neither is survival”

Learning from adversity is a repeated theme in stories of success that my colleague Katy Lindsay and I witnessed in our work with senior teams. Adversity clarifies priorities and strengths. Whether it’s learning through overcoming a difficult childhood or youth, or learning from business failure, learning was a core theme underpinning success in our team assessment work; not only for business leaders, but often for the entire leadership team.

Why learning from adversity? It’s hard to notice yourself when everything is familiar and comfortable. To learn about yourself, step out of your comfort zone.

There’s no prescription about how far you need to step out, it needs to feel like a safe enough space for you to be stretched a little, feel a little uncomfortable – and not so safe that you can stay firmly wrapped in your personal security blanket of knowledge and expertise.

Reading about Jeremy Corbyn, it seems that he has never chosen the route that others would perhaps describe as comfortable. He has forged and followed his own path. Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to learn what is important for him and prioritise that results in what we see before us now.

Stepping into the very exposed role as Labour leader, Mr Corbyn is not stepping into a comfortable space. How can he keep learning to stay balanced?

5: Leading in a complex world

Organizations are complex adaptive systems and the Labour Party is no different in this. They consist of interconnected, interwoven parts or sets of things that work together as part of a mechanism or interconnecting and dynamic network(7). Ralph Stacey,(8) an eminent figure in the field of complexity, points out that all human systems are “self-organizing” and not open to control.

As a newly elected leader, this could be a disappointing thing to hear and even harder to accept.

At 66, Jeremy Corbyn probably knows that interactions between humans tend to be unpredictable, with multiple possible outcomes at each point of engagement.

Jeremy Corbyn has already noted that his job is going to be a “complicated one”(9). So how might he approach this inherent complexity?

A colleague of mine, Lesley Kuhn(10), talks about developing complexity habits of thought.

Rather than seeing linearity, cause and effect, notice the interactions and the chain of reactions that follow an event. Look for patterns. How are things self-organising? What is emerging?

Step back from how things ‘should be’ and instead, describe things as they are.

Value humility and know that no one idea is completely right – as history repeatedly shows. So be curious about and open to difference rather than dogmatic and rigid in your thinking.

Jeremy Corbyn holds the promise of a strong and impactful leader.

Is he a 21st Century Leader?

We are about to find out.


The ideas above have in part been taken from a chapter on Leadership, one of the many chapters I wrote for “The 31 Practices: Release the power of your organization’s Values every day, Alan Williams and Dr Alison Whybrow (2013)”

  1. Colin Powel, born in 1937, is an American statesman and retired as a four-star General in the US Army
  2. John Baldoni (2011). Leading with Purpose gets the best results. CBS news (accessed January 30th 2012).
  3. Anita Roddick (1942–2007) was a British businesswoman, human rights campaigner and environmental activist. This quote is from: (accessed May 15th 2013).
  4. Peter Hawkins (2011). Leadership Team Coaching: Developing collective transformational leadership. London: Kogan Page
  5. In: Jeremy Corbyn sets to work on Labour shadow cabinet. (accessed September 13th 2015).
  6. W Edwards Deming was an eminent American scholar and teacher, described as the father of the third phase of the Industrial Revolution.
  7. System: a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole. This is taken from the oxford dictionary (accessed July 31st 2013).
  8. Ralph Stacy (2012). Comment on debate article: Coaching Psychology Coming of Age: The challenges we face in the messy world of complexity. International Coaching Psychology Review, vol 7(1), p.91-95.
  9. In: Jeremy Corbyn sets to work on Labour shadow cabinet. (accessed September 13th 2015).
  10. Taken From Kuhn.L (2012) Epistemological reflections on the complexity sciences and how they inform coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review, vol 791), p.114-118.