David Cameron has just made the defining strategic decision of his career as Prime Minister.
Rarely do politicians do things that impress me but, yesterday, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, did just that and there are several lessons that any business leader can learn from what he did. David Cameron has boldly re-positioned the Conservative Party, under his leadership, as the party who will get a “democratic mandate for our continuing membership of the European Union”. He will try and negotiate a better deal and then let us all have our say, in an “in/out” referendum about remaining part of this ever-more-complicated and federalizing entity. It is a defining moment because there is now a major point of difference from the other “big boys” in the sordid political game and he got there first. He has added an extra dimension to our sad 2D political parties, and the leaders, that we had until yesterday.
Lesson #1: Be Meaningfully Different
Of course, at a time of great difficulty for Europe, making statements like this isn’t the sort of Old Etonian team-player behavior you might want in the leader of a major European power, but in cold electioneering terms, and frankly, that is what politicians mostly care about, it is an extremely smart move. Why do I think this? Well, simply because the Conservative Party have very few strategic options and this is, in my mind at least, his best one. It also addresses the emergent competitive threat from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) very nicely as well.
Lesson #2: React to Emergent Competition
What he has done is totally in line with my fundamental beliefs about good business strategy too. I have my own definition of just what strategy is, and it applies to the Conservative Party as much as it does to BP, or to your business. It is deceptively simple, but rarely applied with conviction, and it is this “the best business strategy drives consistent behavior that makes the most of what you have.”
Lesson #3: Own Your Strongest Market Position
At the heart of the good strategy is real clarity about where your strengths lie. It could be argued that we currently have a coalition in the UK because most of our political parties are sitting together in the “middle-ground” and it is only the UKIP’s of this world, that obviously has a very strong anti-European positioning of its own, that has made any real impact on public opinion in recent years. The “mainstream” parties are just not clearly differentiated enough anymore. Until yesterday they relied solely on out of date class-based divisions that just reflect fairly stable social division in the UK; for a game-changing move, someone needed to find a cause that crosses class boundaries. It is all well and good for the government of the day to say it is going to “do something about the economy” but we all know that is out of its hands, so it is far better to focus on a “market” position that exploits something it has more control over, and expertise in, and there is nothing more ripe for polite exploitation than Europe.
Lessons #4&5: Make Sure There is Enough Demand for the Idea and Play to Your Strengths
The Conservatives’ support for “wealth creation” and protecting the accumulated assets of the “haves” in our society is of course only attractive to a minority of the populations, so wouldn’t it be good to find a big idea that resonated with everyone? How can it divert our attention from “tax breaks for the rich” and “raise the flag” to do battle with Johnny Foreigner once again? Any sort of nationally oriented conflict is always unifying, as is rallying the troops behind the leader, no matter who he or she is. Look how well that worked out for Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands campaign.
Lesson #6: Look for a Unifying Emotional Angle.
Any market position you take needs to be credible and of course there is a sizable Eurosceptic underbelly in the Conservative Party that we know has always been there; it has now been unleashed like “the dogs of war” and we won’t be able to avoid their jabbering for years to come.
Lesson #7: Be Credible
This is what the Conservative Party has done well here: it has made a bold choice to be different; it has reacted to emergent competition; it made a strong and credible positioning choice, based on the party’s history and fundamental beliefs; this choice responds to a significant unaddressed (apart from worrisome UKIP) demand in society that is way bigger than its past loyal “fan” base, so it has the chance to significantly build “market share” around this idea; it is both hugely democratic and unifying “behind the flag” and we Brits love all that stuff; the midterm timing is perfect; and in being bold there is a Henry V leadership resonance that won’t do the PM any harm, particularly in the light of the hopeless response from the “generals” leading the competing political armies.
Both David Cameron and Henry V, as it so happens, have a lot to teach us about strategy and leadership, although anyone who knows me well will fall off their chairs reading this sentence and barely credit I wrote it!