Democracy cannot be improved nor have its backsliding reversed without effective leaders. Yet, democracy support rarely focuses on the issue of political leadership, tending instead to favor civil society, institutional reform, and rights. Some initiatives are developing wide-ranging support for democratic leadership, but cultivating political leaders in nonpartisan ways is still a severely under-supported part of the democracy agenda. European democracy supporters need to correct this. This article, partly based on interviews with key stakeholders and experts, outlines the Political Leadership Entrepreneurship space as well as a framework and key aims for supporting political leadership.
Leadership matters to the quality of democracy. We cannot improve trust in democratic systems without effective politicians who can deliver and communicate tangible solutions to the biggest problems the world faces. The biggest democratic reforms and innovations, like citizen assemblies and quadratic voting, require courageous and humble politicians.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s emergence as a charismatic and rallying leader on the world stage since Russia’s invasion of his country in 2022 has put the importance of political leadership front and center. In recent years, Tunisia has provided a contrasting example of the importance of political leadership development for democracy. A secular constitution and free and fair elections made it the democratic jewel of the Arab Spring, but today the country’s democracy is under threat. Since his election in 2019, President Kais Saied has removed the prime minister, assumed the legislative function, and overseen the adoption of a new constitution expanding his powers.
Former acting prime minister Mehdi Jomaa, who organized Tunisia’s first post-revolution presidential election in 2014, has argued that one of the main reasons for this regression is that post-revolution leaders forgot about a crucial aspect of functioning democracies: the quality of politicians. “We succeeded in putting in a constitution, but we forgot something important… you need the right leadership,” he said. “The deep work we have to do is… to prepare these leaders with the right competencies… and the right democratic behavior.” Mr Jomaa’s words are another reminder to those working in democracy support, that individual leaders matter and that it is crucial to pay attention to them as much as to the democratic systems and procedures they are part of.
The competence of politicians and the public’s perception of it will determine the fate of lives, democracies, and humanity. Disappointment in elected leaders is palpable in democracies around the world. In one 2021 survey, more than half of European respondents said they wanted to replace some of their parliamentarians with algorithms. In a UK study in 2022, 46 percent of 18-to-34-year-old respondents said army rule would be a good way to run the country. Many gender equality advocates, young climate activists, anti-racist movements, election deniers, vaccine skeptics, and insurrectionists taking to the streets have at least one thing in common: they do not trust or feel represented by politicians and government.
Some say politics is beyond repair. Politics, like other environments, has bad actors but accusations of all politicians possessing “self-interest, careerism, dishonesty, and Machiavellian qualities” are “psychological accusations that go largely unchallenged and have, until recently, been largely untested,” according to the political scientist James Weinberg. The reality is that many politicians are worthy of respect and admiration.
Our societies criticize politicians heavily but do little to prepare them for or support them in their important role. Professions like lawyers, psychiatrists, and doctors have well-established training paths. Taxi drivers require licenses to operate in most countries. Politicians have neither. They need not know how to make policy, talk to constituents, or even how democratic institutions function. At the same time, they need to be more agile, adept at systems thinking, and technologically proficient in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.
Politicians have been telling the world that they were not prepared for office for years. Then Minister Ed Milliband sounded the alarm about a lack of training for UK ministers in 2007. One UK minister said role preparation was “hopeless,” adding “I was appointed before the weekend and was making big spending decisions on Monday”. At a 2022 Political Party Peer Network event, one politician said they were not even shown where the light switches were.
With this in mind, what if courageous, trusted and ethical politicians were consciously recruited, trained and supported?
A Framework for Supporting Political Leadership
In May 2022, the Apolitical Foundation released “Better Leaders, Better Democracies: Mapping the Organizations Shaping 21st Century Political leaders.” This first-of-its-kind report identifies political leadership entrepreneurs around the world and proposes a framework for nonpartisan support for political leadership. Earlier this year, the Foundation produced the Political Leadership Impact Path, which shows citizens, political parties, and democracy support organizations the points of entry to assist current and future politicians.
In this new framework, Political Leadership Entrepreneurship is the umbrella term for the field of people and organizations from civil society improving political leadership from outside the political system in cooperation with those working inside it. The organizations in this field fall into three different categories:
- Political Leadership Incubators (PLIs) recruit and select people who are outside of politics, often from civil society, but who are considering or committed to running for office. They provide these emerging leaders with peer-to-peer learning and training opportunities. These programs come in partisan and nonpartisan forms but are not involved in actual elections. PLIs work on points one to four of the Political Leadership Impact Path.
- Political Leadership Accelerators (PLAs) work with people from when they run for office up until when they leave it; that is, points five to nine of the Political Leadership Impact Path. As with PLIs, there are partisan and nonpartisan PLAs.
- Political Leadership Ecosystem Supporters help build better political leadership in other ways, including through strategic research, funding, narrative change and convening. They also support the work of PLIs and PLAs. PLIs and Ecosystem Supporters can help mobilize people who may not normally join a party.
This framework is being refined and updated based on feedback from the space. Major external factors—like the media, political and social norms, laws and rules, financing, and citizen perceptions—influence the Political Leadership Impact Path. More needs to be done to better understand the direct and indirect linkages between these factors and the pathways of current and future political leaders.
Democracy Support for Leadership
Some democracy donors have been historically hesitant to provide support for initiatives working to enhance political leadership, even in a nonpartisan fashion, often out of fear of being seen as too political. This is changing, but the situation is critical and a bigger effort is needed. The corporate training industry in Europe is expected to grow by 11.79 billion euros between 2021 and 2026, while Foundation Maps has tracked 313 million euros’ worth of grants for all democracy projects in Europe from 2019 to 2023. While fully tracking philanthropic spending is hard, these figures call into question what it is we find important. What would Europe look like if it spent billions of euros every year training and supporting its politicians?
Democracy supporters need to develop a stronger and more systematic focus on democratic leadership. “Think of funding for a well-functioning democracy like a sandwich,” says Transparency and Accountability Initiative Executive Director Michael Jarvis. “On one half we encourage citizen engagement and accountability, on the other we promote democracy programming. But there is a missing ingredient in the middle: support for political leadership development.” A donor recalls hearing “how critical nonpartisan democratic learning and support opportunities are—and how functioning democracy underpins and intersects all other philanthropic and impact initiatives” and describes this as a “pin-drop ‘aha’ moment.”
Democracy support aimed at better democratic leadership should follow six key aims.
Cultivating good politicians requires finding and selecting people with the necessary attributes for public office. Research and public opinion increasingly point to what these attributes are. Research by the political scientist Saad Gulzar suggests that “Emphasizing prosocial motives for holding political office instead of personal returns… raises the likelihood that individuals run for office and that voters elect them.” These intrinsically motivated candidates were also found to be more effective politicians once in office. Donors interested in better candidate selection can fund further research with academic and practitioner input into the skills and attributes that politicians need. This will help PLIs and parties have more clarity in their recruitment and selection processes. Donors could also fund tools that help them find and assess those skills. Creative ways of screening and selecting potential candidates with the mindset and attributes to succeed in office include evaluating their egos and character traits, bringing in organizational psychologists to look for narcissistic traits, and putting people with different political views together during screening activities to see how they listen and negotiate.
Open Up the Pipeline
More diverse political leadership pays dividends for societies. Beyond positive trust impacts, we know, for example, that having more women parliamentarians, regardless of their political persuasion, improves public health outcomes and achieves lower carbon emissions via stricter climate policy. Recruitment changes can help address the need for greater diversity in politics. Political Leadership Entrepreneurs, especially PLIs, can be a pipeline of prepared and enthusiastic leaders. But a pipeline only works if there is an outlet at the end of it. Parties still need to recruit new types of qualified people that they would not otherwise have access to. Parties are often accused of being gatekeepers that are hesitant to innovate, but those that want to survive, need to change. “Political parties around the world have started to accept that they must do new things to maintain relevance in changing democracies. There are people within them embracing change and seeking advice from outside the party system,” Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy Executive Director, Lisbeth Pilegaard, says. Some European parties are already trying new things. The Greens in Germany and the Social Democrats in Sweden, for example, accept expressions of interest from people wanting to run for office even if they have not yet joined the party. Donors could also do more to understand the barriers facing underrepresented groups as they try to enter politics.
Training effective political leaders must go beyond showing them how to win elections. Deep, transformational training is needed for the hard work they will face in office. This should encompass four areas: deep personal leadership skills and methods (Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, which emphasizes deep listening and co-creation is an example), political skills, policymaking skills and knowledge, and political system knowledge. Political leadership is an under-researched field and data on skills is lacking. Large gains could be made with even a small amount of additional research in this field. Parties should also have a say on what transformational training includes. Donors and Political Leadership Entrepreneurs should investigate how they can work with parties in nonpartisan ways. Additionally, donors need to think beyond immediate results. Research in the private sector indicates successful training requires reminders and follow-ups to stop initial results from fading. Donors should therefore take a long-term view of political leadership training to protect their investment.
Focus on “Gardeners”
With their membership long in decline, European parties would benefit from being more supportive of new candidates, especially those from diverse backgrounds. Their many members who help new political talent find their feet are key to attracting new and different people. These party “gardeners” create the fertile “soil” in which fresh political “seeds” can flourish. As Jana Degrott, one of the youngest elected Luxembourgish politicians and co-founder of We Belong Europe, says, “Not only do [gardeners] provide training and support, but they show us compassion and love, something that so many of us new politicians need.” Discussions between these “gardeners” and parties and foundations to explore how to make parties more inclusive and full of gardeners, can help mitigate the risk that new talents develop an allegiance to one gardener rather than the party as a whole.
Support Mental Wellbeing
Being a politician is hard. Heavy workloads, intense scrutiny, and online trolling have some leaders calling for more “compassion in politics”. Those from historically disadvantaged groups face particular challenges. Former UN General Assembly president Abdulla Shahid has called violence against women in politics “a moral and ethical failure”. Amnesty International calls the levels of online abuse directed toward black women parliamentarians, “shocking” and “extremely disturbing”. Political leadership coach Victoria Hasson says: “Our leaders make big decisions with huge consequences for us all. We need them to be at the top of their game.” Yet, ongoing wellbeing support for politicians is lacking in most contexts. Initiatives aimed at remedying this include Elect Her in the United Kingdom, which partners with Glitch to help participants address online threats and harassment.
Further investment could be made in protecting politicians from threats, harassment, and physical violence. The Apolitical Foundation is carrying out a multiyear research project to investigate the state of politicians’ mental wellbeing and how it affects their decision making and outcomes for their constituents, as well as to uncover initiatives and opportunities for support.
Early Depolarization for Candidates
Nonpartisan Political Leadership Entrepreneurship organizations can serve as a brake to growing political polarization. Focusing on commonalities and gaining insight into the values of those one does not agree with are proven approaches to reducing polarizing attitudes. Much has been said about strained multilateral relationships. Multilateralism cannot exist if political leaders are so polarized that they cannot talk. While good work is being done to depolarize citizens, starting a process to depolarize potential politicians before running for office could impact the tone and language of political campaigns. Deeper work on addressing polarization can also be built into the curriculums of PLIs and PLAs. This is a complicated topic that needs further research and tested practice, which requires funding.
No part of the democracy-building effort can turn back democratic regression on its own. Parties and other democracy institutions have a crucial part to play in the incubation of political leadership. There are many ethical, courageous, and trusted leaders, but more are needed—and they can be found through cooperative and focused efforts. As former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, said during an event at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2022, “The world needs leadership. It’s short on it… [But] we can change this.”.
Breaking the cynicism cycle is one important part of achieving this change. Statements like “all politicians are bad” are unhelpful and untrue. They contribute to a culture in which the bright leaders we need do not see becoming a politician as an attractive choice. Telling the stories of what is working in political leadership will go some way to changing this. So will pushing back against hate and threats aimed at politicians and their families. But, though it is important, a different narrative will not be enough to fix the dangerously low perceptions of political leaders. Doing so will also require tangible improvements in leadership and reforming institutions so that all cultivate and support transformational leadership. The quality of their leaders impacts every part of Europeans’ lives, from war to finance and to the future of humanity. Politicians are too important to be left unsupported.
Lisa Witter is an eternal optimist, executive, entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker. She is the CEO of the Apolitical Foundation, a not-for-profit set up by Apolitical.co to advance the revitalization of democracy through effective and transformational public and political leadership. She is also co-founder and board member of Apolitical.co, the global learning network used by public servants in 170+ countries. Apolitical.co was named one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies in 2018. Lisa was a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, serves on and has co-chaired the Forum’s Council on Agile Governance, and served for six years on the Brain and Behavior Council. As a policy geek and lover of politics, Lisa has co-founded several political training institutes over the last 25 years.
Kimberly McArthur is Chief Operating Officer at the Apolitical Foundation, where she helps more diverse and better prepared people get into politics and supports ethical, trusted and courageous politicians already in office. She has deep expertise in learning design, policy making and political communications, particularly regarding polarization, mental wellbeing, and women in politics. Kimberly’s experience spans countries such as Australia, Germany, Burundi, and Haiti, where she helped establish non-profits and social enterprises. She has collaborated with government, UN agencies, philanthropy, academia and civil society including and was Partnerships Manager at Apolitical.co, the peer-to-peer learning platform for government with 190,000. She holds an Honours Degree in Law and a First Class Master of Arts in Law, Politics and Cultural Studies.
Rebekah Ison is Head of Communications and Content at the Apolitical Foundation, where she works to nurture narratives of hope and possibility in politics. She’s developed a wide range of communications, strategy and political expertise during her career spanning journalism, international relations, EU projects, and political leadership entrepreneurship. She got her professional start as a reporter for Australian Associated Press, for which she covered courts, royal commissions, politics, finance and social-justice issues. After moving to Germany, she was chosen as a 2018/19 European Journalism Fellow and went on to work for EU projects related to the Asia Pacific region. She holds a Bachelor of journalism and Master of International Studies.
This article was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.