Charles Kennedy: why a personal touch counts in political leadership styles

03 June 2015 -


Hailed for his common touch, the late ex-Lib Dem leader’s leadership style should serve an example to more aloof politicians

Jon Bennett

Traditional and social media have been flooded with tributes to Charles Kennedy, the ex-Liberal Democrats leader who died tragically at the age of 55 on Monday.

It’s not unusual for politicians from all perspectives to have warm words to say at a time like this. But what seems striking about the comments from parliamentarians across the house is the depth of feeling with which they have praised Kennedy at a personal level.

Harriet Harman said he “brought courage, wit and humour to everything he did”. And Iain Duncan Smith remarked, “He just had that kind of look of somebody who didn't necessarily appear to be that professional politician. But the point was most of all … for me and for many others, was [that] he was a good friend – he was a courteous friend and adversary and always good humoured at the most difficult time.”

Bonhomie and warmth

It’s an old adage of leadership styles that it’s more important to be respected than liked. So tributes focused so heavily on his personal character could suggest that while Kennedy was a fine man, he failed to deliver as leader of the third party in the House of Commons. But that’s clearly not the case: under his leadership in 2005, the Lib Dems achieved their greatest electoral success since 1923, winning 62 seats.


The moniker “Chat-show Charlie” – applied after Kennedy’s amusing appearances on shows such as Have I Got News For You – was designed to undermine the Lib Dem leader, who was said to hate it. But it was testament to his ability to present a natural, friendly, and approachable face for his party and politics. Far from undermining his leadership, the bonhomie and warmth were important parts of his value as the Lib Dem figurehead and allowed him to engage beyond the safety of his party and its core support.

By stark contrast, take this description of Ed Miliband by Nick Cohen, as outlined in an interesting analysis for Standpoint magazine on why Labour lost the election.

Aloofness is risky

The first time Cohen saw Miliband at a meet-the-press event in Westminster, he noted how the Labour leader made no effort to woo reporters who weren’t already taking a favourable view of him and his politics:

“He would talk only to the already convinced, and ignore anyone outside Labour’s ‘core’,” Cohen wrote. “He was living in a cocoon. But then so was much of the British Left.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar criticism has been levelled at President Obama. He has been accused of being aloof, and as a consequence, failing to get the support of Republicans for any part of his political agenda. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, managed to get things through a Republican House in his second term, despite many in that camp loathing his politics, and that success has been widely attributed to his personable approach.

Charles Kennedy was a brilliant man who broke new ground in his political career and made his party a serious electoral force. Not only did people warm to him as a result of these achievements, but his accomplishments were underpinned by his sociability and kindness. Yes, it’s important for a leader to be respected. But if you can be liked as well, then you’ve got the strongest of hands to play.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

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