uk flag UN057

The Importance of Diversity: Lessons from the UK’s Political Leadership

The failure of political leadership in the UK is a lesson in the importance of diversity. Learn how you can make a change and improve diversity in your leadership.

There is much to celebrate in the diversity of political leadership in the UK currently and historically. Over the last four months, we have welcomed our third female leader, our second from a minority ethnic background, and the first who is a practicing Hindu holding the keys to 10 Downing Street. The circumstances of these appointments may be more something of despair but reflect the unprecedented political change over the last six years

Following the decision to leave the European Union, we have now had the fifth Prime Minister in office. This is as many leadership changes as we had in the preceding forty years. While the Conservative leadership has struggled to find direction since Brexit in a way that not only unites the country but even its own party, this struggle has also been seen in the main opposition party.

Although Labour has managed fewer leadership changes, it has also struggled to contain the internal conflicts that have stopped it from setting a strategic direction that has appealed to the country. This was evidenced clearly by their historic loss in the general election in 2019.

Where has this instability come from, especially in a country known to be a safe, if not somewhat boring, bastion of moderate political governance? Unquestionably these are unstable times: the rise of populist movements globally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, post-Covid economic recovery, and climate change are some of the critical political challenges facing the UK. Challenging enough but navigating in an environment where political leaders are less able to control messages and communication makes governing even harder.

In this context, it may be unsurprising that we are seeing such instability, but this is being compounded by an inability of leaders to be able to connect with the wider population. Over this period the leadership from both parties has higher representation from both genders and more ethnic groups than ever before but still fails to connect. Is this because they are still predominately privately educated or from Russell Group or Oxbridge universities or are there other factors at play?

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour and Conservative party underwent significant changes to the process of choosing their leaders. Both parties now put more control in the hands of their party members, typically activists with stronger political orientations than the wider population. In doing so, they moved the selection of their leadership from MPs to those unaccountable to, and less representative of, the wider UK population.

For example, while the Labour party membership surged in 2016 to almost 500,000 members, the new members although gender-balanced, were 58% graduates, 75% in ABC1 socio-economic status, with an average age of 51, and more likely to live in a major city. The Conservative membership of less than 200,000, is 63% men with a median age of 57, tending to live in Southeast England (but outside London) and 80% within ABC1 categories. When the United Kingdom population is 51% female, 43% graduate, 53% ABC1, average aged 39, and geographically dispersed, it is clear there is a disconnect.

It is hardly surprising that those with sufficient passion to join a political party do not represent the wider population. However, by then using this narrow pool to choose a leader, is it surprising that the leaders, and the teams they build around them, then struggle to inspire the broader electorate?

The importance of diversity in leadership

What can organizations learn from the political leadership in the UK? Research has shown that organizations with workforces and, especially leadership, that reflect the diversity of their target markets are better able to build stronger connections, make more informed decisions, and see the improved business performance, especially in more ambiguous circumstances. In order for leaders to have the confidence that the decisions they are making for the benefit of their organization will also benefit their customers, and wider society as a whole, their organization must be representative of those populations.

Organizations with workforces and, especially leadership, that reflect the diversity of their target markets are better able to build stronger connections, make more informed decisions, and see the improved business performance, especially in more ambiguous circumstances.

Diversity in itself is not enough. An organization with a diverse workforce, even at the leadership level, that fails to provide the psychological safety for diverse opinions to be heard will not see the full potential of its employees. Creating a culture of inclusion and belonging is critical in order to see the results of the foundations of a diverse workforce.

Many organizations, with the best of intentions, get lost in the multitude of criteria and advice on building diverse workforces and leadership teams. This confusion can stop them from making progress by taking simple steps. While the unique circumstances of the UK political parties may not seem applicable to many businesses, many still use the subjective opinions of a small number of like-minded, but unrepresentative groups to make selection and promotion decisions.

It then becomes a vicious cycle, and unrepresentative organizations struggle to attract diverse talent or engage them when they join. It then becomes increasingly harder to promote more representative groups, as many people are heading for the exit.

How can organizations break the vicious cycle and improve diversity in leadership?

There are simple steps that can help an organization break the cycle:

  1. Using objective data to evaluate an individual’s fit based on data relevant to the role or leadership potential.

  2. Ensuring groups tasked with making selection and promotion decisions are equipped to critically evaluate evidence and recognize when subjective bias may be impacting their decisions.

  3. Continually monitoring each step of talent management strategies, such as selection and promotion, to look at the impact of your processes on diversity.

The key to these steps above is also consistency. Ensuring that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion run throughout the organization is a journey, not a one-off effort. Regardless of the change in the organization, the mission should stay, and leaders need to carry the torch so the teams would follow. Only then you can truly make a change and improve diversity in leadership and any processes in the organization.

SHL can help your organization to create a more diverse workforce and leadership team. Contact us so we can help you with your talent management strategies!

headshot edward rivlin


Ed Rivlin

Ed is a chartered occupational psychologist with almost 20 years of experience helping international organizations improve talent decisions using people science. He has particular focus on balancing both established and newer research to find pragmatic solutions that can improve clients’ talent strategies throughout the employee lifecycle. As a leader of a European Professional Services team, he has seen the value of talent assessments in improving business performance and is passionate about sharing this with both team members and clients.

Explore SHL’s Wide Range of Solutions

With our platform of pre-configured talent acquisition and talent management solutions, maximize the potential of your company’s greatest asset—your people.

See Our Solutions