What a fascinating week for week for politics and leadership with the leaders’ debate at the centre of the age-old question whether leadership is about personality or substance. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson seemed slightly surprised when reporting that people on the street were expressing more views about the leaders’ personalities than the content of their policies. Move immediately to after the first leadership debate, where the media deemed Nick Clegg the winner, and Gordon Brown said leadership was more to do with substance than personality and David Cameron said he would be focusing much more on exposing Nick Clegg’s policy content.

So, where does this take us in terms of understanding leadership, the most researched and perhaps the least understood component of the management sciences? Well, first and foremost it’s naive for political party leaders to say politics is all about policy content and substance. But it’s naive to assume it’s solely concerned with personality. The reality is it’s about both but character rather than personality and not necessarily in equal amounts.

To be a leader the individual has to establish an empathetic relationship with potential followers. We often forget that it’s followers who create leaders, not the other way round. Just because you’re a chief executive, chair or director it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re a leader, which is why leadership is status-free. The potential leader has to have a compelling vision and a story of how to achieve it as the basis of their relationship with followers. So, if there’s no vision and content, there’s no leadership. Simple as that.

But if push comes to shove, what are potential followers looking for most of all? Well, it has to be the character of the potential leader before any consideration of the supporting team. Do people believe that the potential leader can lead them from where they are now to a better future? Does the potential leader have the strength of character, the energy, the personal resilience and flexibility of approach in managing their team and working with stakeholders to achieve the compelling vision?

It is this that is at the heart of leadership - and at the heart of the political leaders’ debates currently taking place. And it is the same for those NHS senior managers who want to be more than managers and aspire to lead their organisations and health systems to a better future the other side of the recession.

HSJ management webchats

HSJ is hosting two free webchats: one on leadership in the NHS and one on NHS managers’ pay.

Join the discussions from your PC to talk about how managers can lead their organisations through the financial difficulties and political changes that lie ahead, and how they can demonstrate their value to the public.

Find out more