The convergence of the 50th Anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death with what looks set to be an explosive UK election year undoubtedly should serve as a catalyst for leadership debate. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the British media is already preoccupied with dissecting the proposed format of the leaders’ debates set to take place ahead of the poll on the 7th of May, the dominating point of interest so far being the potential expansion of the field to include UKIP, the Greens, the SNP as well as Plaid Cymru.

The politics of the leaders’ debates five years ago seemed at times to be in danger of becoming even more diverting than the politics of the actual party manifestos themselves. This is the mild complaint that has been lodged recently by David Cameron, who has claimed that the media’s obsession with the televised debates last time round was responsible for overshadowing discussion of the issues themselves.

Cameron’s point seems valid in view of the long-extinct ‘Clegg mania’ that was prompted by Nick Clegg’s performance in the first of the 2010 debates. The Liberal Democrat leader was widely perceived as a transformative force within a two-party deadlock largely on the basis of what he said during those ninety minutes of airtime. This was followed, of course, by one of the most staggering drops in political popularity witnessed in modern British politics. So far, so inaccurate.

On the other hand, the debating events held throughout Scotland during the Independence Referendum were partly responsible for demystifying politics and bringing it back to the grassroots level. Leadership is, or should be, intimately related to the masses it is intended to serve. The staging of televised events in different Scottish cities over a longer time frame provided useful insight into geographical variations in opinion in the run-up to the referendum. When formatted correctly, televised political debate can fulfil its original purpose; it becomes less a point-scoring exercise in petty antagonism and more a conversation between party leaders and the electorate as they prepare to fulfil their mutual social contract.

While the perennial concerns about what is in store for the UK’s multiparty system and whether our parliamentary traditions are becoming ever more presidential will be important themes to reflect upon come spring, it is arguably even more of an imperative to debate leadership in abstract terms.

What does leadership mean in the twenty-first century? Are the admirable attributes we yearn for in our leaders essentially fixed, or are they mutable, evolving in response to the key trends of the times – globalisation, global terror, technological advancement? Is the short-termism of today’s spin-driven political environment even capable of forging leaders we would recognise as great? Regardless of whether or not we agree with his conclusion about Churchill in particular, Jeremy Paxman nevertheless raised a valid point by suggesting that the great statesmen of one era may not necessarily be electable, or even tolerable, in the eras that follow.

It is certainly easy, especially when watching a televised leaders’ debate, to vocalise what one does not want in a leader; complacency, entitlement, insensitivity – characteristics which all too often may unfortunately appear to correspond to those being displayed on screen. However, if we sincerely want to start making our political choices matter, then the answer should not to be to abandon our vote altogether, but rather to start proactively debating what we want and need from leaders today. From this starting point, we can begin to find, demand or, better yet, become these future leaders who will be fit for purpose.

Embarking on this exercise, it useful to consider the change and continuity in the virtues that would animate an ideal leader. Seriousness – or what used to be called moral courage – has always been important and today is no exception; overseeing the national and ethical responses to increasingly horrifying global events are weighty responsibilities. Wartime prime ministers such as David Lloyd George and Churchill were serious and had to be, but maintaining seriousness in the age of Twitter, memes and pundit shows is another matter.

Consensus-building is one virtue that will become ever more important as global problems escalate. History teaches us that consensus often comes at far too high a price; in the wake of disaster, war or threat, politicians are usually willing, at least in the interim, to put aside their differences. But the future will demand that consensus-building be no longer just a wartime strategy or policy exception, but rather the rule of daily governance. Internally, future UK leaders should prepare themselves to navigate a diversity of hung parliaments and coalition paradigms. Externally, they should be committed to nurturing multilateralism and cooperation among states in pursuit of global stability.

Humility is crucial to leadership; the ability to admit one’s mistakes or recognise when something is not working often turns out to be one of the most courageous moves a leader can make. Conversely, determination is equally relevant; the ability to stay the course, to persevere, to speak unpopular truths to colleagues and citizens who may be unwilling to listen. A leader who, for example, could be resolute over global warming or nuclear proliferation, standing up to vested interests and powerful lobbies in the process, would be a refreshing change.

However, the virtue of leadership that comes at the very top of the list is one that perhaps was less important in the past; the virtue of creativity. The powers and positions that leaders occupy in society can seem emblematic of the status quo and therefore antithetical to creativity. However, the future is increasingly uncertain. Everything from the conventional waging of war to global trade seems ever more vulnerable to ‘Black Swan’ events that could potentially have a catastrophic impact on our systems. Consequently, we need leaders with the dynamic and creative vision to govern the ungovernable; to implement solutions most likely at short notice and with the very highest stakes on the table.

It may be a truism to say that the very quality that galvanises a person to seek a position of leadership – that is to say, a thirst for power, megalomania – is the very quality that should disbar a person from occupying positions of leadership in the first place. True, but not very enterprising in terms of discovering or inspiring the leaders of tomorrow. It is time to start seeing leadership in a positive light again, even if, come April, we cannot quite bring ourselves to feel the same way about what we see on screen.

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