Ritual cleansing or civil war? What leadership contests in partnerships can teach us about the race to become Prime Minister

Professor Laura Empson explains how the Conservative Party can mend internal rifts and turn public disputes between leadership candidates to its advantage.

The race for leadership of the Conservative Party has exposed divisions between candidates, with each prospective Prime Minister grilled by colleagues about their record in government and ability to lead the country.

According to Professor Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, and Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), the fact that so many people have put themselves forward for the role is a sign that it is time for a ‘ritual cleansing’ within the party.

“The current leadership race resembles many leadership elections I have studied in professional service firms,” Professor Empson said.

“Multiple candidates put themselves forward to be elected to the most senior role and often run slick campaigns. They issue manifestos and hold debates with other candidates at formal hustings, responding to questions from fellow partners about their qualifications to lead and their vision for the firm.”.

“When a large number of potential candidates emerges, it is a sign that an organisation needs a change in direction. While a highly contested election may run the risk of being divisive, and descending into civil war, it is also an important opportunity to take stock and reset direction.

"It can also be a useful opportunity for catharsis after a challenging time and a problematic leadership to reassert the will of the partners and signal to the new leadership that they need to stay close to their electorate.”

Professor Empson warned against the overuse of personal attacks, emphasising that the eventual winner will be judged on how they treat defeated counterparts.

“For the partnership to remain cohesive, the winning candidate will need to win the approval of defeated candidates’ supporters, and one way of doing this is to ensure that their dignity is preserved.

“A new leader needs to be free to operate without the looming presence of a destructive former rival, and a disenfranchised rump of unhappy partners.

“Politicians are happy to open themselves up to criticism and debate in a public forum – it comes with the job – but for professionals this kind of public criticism and failure is a new and potentially traumatic experiences. Losing a leadership race is likely to leave them feeling bruised and somewhat humiliated. A new leader must enable their defeated colleagues to save face, by finding a high-status role for them in the organisation while ensuring they are not ‘in the way’.

“This is more straightforward for young pretenders in a leadership contest, those who have had less experience of leadership. They and their supporters can be brought onside by offering them a more senior leadership position. So in a partnership, this is about bringing them on to ExCo, and in a political party, it means moving them to the front bench.

“However, it can be a challenge to work out what to do for a more senior figure, with little room for upwards manoeuvre. What often happens is that a new role is created – often an ambassadorial role with a focus on major clients or managing relationships within the firm’s global network. This is one way of keeping them out of the office and can cause relatively little damage, away from internal management issues, while ensuring they have high status and visibility.  It also gives the failed candidate a good platform for searching for a new high-status role outside the firm.”

Professor Empson said healing organisational ruptures following the announcement of a new leader can be difficult, but also brings its rewards if carried out correctly.

“Ultimately, the next Prime Minister will be judged on their ability to unite the Conservative Party and hold on to its majority at the next General Election. To do this they must persuade voters that, rather than descend into civil war, the party has benefitted from the ritual cleansing of the leadership context and become internally coherent and externally focused.

“Key to this is ensuring supporters of defeated contestants are not disillusioned. Divisions and bitterness can run deep, but organisations can emerge stronger. There is value in getting feelings out in the open, but only as long as there is a plan in place to address those feelings once they have been vented.”

All quotes can be attributed to Professor Laura Empson, Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass).

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