Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Chancellor Gordon Brown has wanted to get his hands on "my precious", the post of prime minister, for a very long time. Like Gollum, he may find that to finally possess "my precious" actually opens up a whole new set of problems. Brown's one true desire could turn out to be a poisoned chalice.
New Labour can no longer rely on a healthy relationship with the electorate, nor, it seems, with the business community. Perhaps we need to find a little sympathy for the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in his moment of triumph. For now, set aside all thoughts of whether or not he has the right policies: Brown's focus should be on his ability to lead.
Research by the Leadership Partnership over the past five years shows that people expect five things from the top leaders of businesses. They are: vision; the ability to motivate others; honesty and integrity; the ability to handle crises; and decisiveness. So, let's see how well Brown stacks up as the new chief executive officer of UK plc.
The term "vision" sounds like Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." (If CEOs start saying this, sell their stock fast.) In practice, a compelling vision is much more simple. A basic vision has three parts: This is where we are; this is where we are going; this is how we are going to get there.
A great vision adds one more element: "This is what it means for you personally". This last element is critical. Visions are not intellectually brilliant creations of pointy-headed policy wonks. Good visions are about people, not just about concepts. For politicians, this makes a vision a very dangerous animal indeed.
The more compelling and distinctive a political vision is, the more divisive it becomes. A vision that talks about ending poverty has the rich talking to their tax advisers and seeking out tax havens.
Visions attract or repel people, and, in this case, the people have votes. The solution for many politicians is to adopt the Watney's Red Barrel approach to visions: they create something so bland that no one takes offence, but no one likes it either. Politicians who do this tend eventually to go the way of Watney's Red Barrel: they disappear.
The second problem about visions is delivering on them. Electors have a nasty habit of wanting to believe the promises they hear. What counts here is what electors think they have heard, not what the politician has said.
A court of law may accept that the politician only said that they would "work towards ending child poverty/business red tape, etc". Working towards a goal needs nothing more than turning up at the office once in a while.
Electors expect a little more. They tend to hear a promise which is "I will end child poverty/business red tape". They then become very disillusioned when the promise is not delivered.
Verdict: Drop the clever ideas ("endogenous growth theory") and focus on people's needs.
Ability to motivate
If Brown has a problem with visions, he would seem to have an even bigger problem with his ability to motivate people. In truth, he shares this problem with most leaders. To our faces, people will tell us how wonderful we are. But to researchers, we found only 37 per cent of respondents were happy with their leader's ability to motivate. At first sight, Brown would not appear to be part of the 37 per cent of leaders who successfully motivate their teams.
Comments from senior civil servants describing him as "Stalinist", or worse, are not helpful to his cause. In electoral terms, it does not matter whether he is nice to his servants, however uncivil their comments may be.
The real challenge for Brown, as with many business leaders, is to recognise that leadership is a team sport. No leader can expect to master everything and do everything: they have to have a team of people who have different skills and different perspectives to balance their own skills and perspectives.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade, he was, arguably, learning precisely the wrong lessons about leadership. He was able to master his ministry and his brief completely, based on hard work and a bright intellect. This is a disaster for him. He cannot do the same as prime minister, however bright or hard working he may be; he cannot do it all himself.
Verdict: Put the best talent on to your team, regardless of whether they voted for you. Then trust your team to deliver.
The trust factor
Honesty and integrity was the surprise entry in the top five expectations of a good business leader. We found that leaders who were scored poorly on this aspect were scored poorly on everything else. Digging further, we found that honesty and integrity had nothing to do with morality and ethics; it was much more important than that.
The riddle of honesty and integrity without morality or ethics is solved with one word: trust. No one wants to follow a leader they do not trust. Once the bond of trust is broken, the relationship is effectively over.
Trust is largely about delivering people's expectations. Unfortunately, the 1997 landslide meant that people thought New Labour had a free hand and could deliver anything and everything. It is tough to deliver sky-high expectations.
This makes things very messy for Brown. During the past 10 years, electors have remembered various real or imaginary promises that the government has made to them. The longer a leader lasts, the more opportunity there is for trust to be eroded. Labour have been in power a long time and trust has been slowly ebbing away. Everyone will have their own reason for loss of trust, and many will quote Iraq.
This leaves Brown with a problem: he inherits a legacy of low electoral trust that converts into a low share of the vote. He cannot make a clean break by disowning the past because he was central to it. He needs to start rebuilding trust through actions, not words.
Brown needs to make some big and early wins to show that things are different and better. He does not need to disown the past; he needs to create a new future.
Verdict: Under promise and over deliver; delivery is everything now.
Crises are the critical moments of truth that make or break a leader. This is not good news for Brown. Economic and fiscal crises tend to be slow-motion crashes, not that he would recognise that there have been any economic or fiscal crises under his stewardship of the economy. Foreign policy crises and many departmental crises tend to be high-speed crashes.
Put simply, Brown has no experience of dealing with high-speed crashes. The accusations that he is like Macavity the mystery cat, always absent when things go wrong, are damaging. He runs the risk of becoming part of the crash instead of part of the rescue.
This is where we return to leadership being a team sport: Brown needs people around him who know how to react fast and well. Looked at positively, if Brown can build the right team around him, then crises could yet be the making of Brown the prime minister.
Verdict: The buck stops with you; build a team to help you manage the inevitable crises.
People want clarity about where they are and where they are going. This requires decisive leadership in an ambiguous world. The Treasury is a bad training ground for decisive leadership. In the Treasury, you can always commission another report and gather more data. These are not solutions that are available to a prime minister living in a faster moving and more ambiguous world.
Leaders need the courage to make decisions based on their beliefs... they need a clear sense of where they are going (vision) and of what is right (values). Leaders use data like drunks use lampposts: for support, not illumination.
Verdict: Trust your instincts; let your vision and values drive the tough decisions.
A final glimmer of hope...
There is one glaring omission from the list of desired characteristics of a good leader: charisma or inspiration. No one objects to charisma or inspiration, and it certainly helps if you are charismatic.
The reality is that most people are not naturally charismatic and do not need to be. Gordon Brown may turn out to be an inspirational and charismatic leader. But, if he is not, then he should not worry; he does not need to start searching Yellow Pages to see who does a decent charisma transplant or charisma training programme.
Leaders do not succeed by pretending to be someone else: they succeed by being the best of who they are. If the best of Brown is "safe, dull and reliable leader who delivers the goods", that could just turn out to be the winning ticket compared with the untried and untested alternative. He does not need to pretend he has a cool play-list on his iPod.
Verdict: Be true to yourself.
As directors and CEOs we may suffer the indignity of being hired and fired by the non-executives. At least we do not have to suffer the indignity of being elected by our workforce once every few years.
It is enough to make anyone feel a twinge of sympathy for a political leader.
Jo Owen is a leadership expert and co-founder of Teach First. His next book, Power, will be published by Pearson later this year. www.leadershippartnership.com