The Diminishing Returns of Leadership Capital

Mark Bennister
Mark Bennister

How can we measure leadership? What makes a leader succeed or fail? Dr Mark Bennister at Canterbury Christ Church University has been gathering scholars together to investigate the idea of ‘leadership capital’ and offer a way to understand why some leaders ‘spend’ their ‘capital’ successfully and others squander or waste it. Dr Bennister is co-convenor of the PSA Political Leadership Specialist Group and is leading a section on political leadership at the 2015 ECPR general Conference in Montreal in August.

2014 was the year of ‘Capital’ thanks to Thomas Piketty. Piketty’s weighty tome breathed new life into economic analysis of economic inequality.  Capital, for Piketty is a stock – its wealth comes from what has been accumulated in all prior years combined. So what happens if we take a concept of accumulated capital and apply it to political leadership? This presents us with alternative method of understanding why political leaders succeed or fail, how they remain in office, and how they win elections.

If we take the definitions of capital by Piketty and others and apply them to leadership we can think of political capital as a stock of ‘credit’ accumulated by and importantly gifted to politicians, in this case leaders. Piketty uses it to explain the gap between income and wealth, here though political capital is used as shorthand to describe if leaders are up or down, how popular they are and how much credit they have in the political sphere. Like financial capital, commentators and politicians speak of it going ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘gained’ or, much more commonly, ‘lost’. Most importantly, it’s often seen as something finite-you only have so much and it quickly depreciates under pressure of the media, opposition or events.

By lumaxart ([1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By lumaxart ([1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Politician’s themselves are acutely aware of their finite ‘stock’ of authority and the ticking clock. Having plenty of this ‘credit’ means a leader can lets of things done by ‘spending’ or ‘leveraging it’- think Tony Blair in 1997 or Barack Obama in 2009 when their support, popularity and momentum temporarily made them politically unassailable. They believe they can pass laws, set agendas and dominate the ‘narrative’. Tony Blair, reflecting in his autobiography, spoke of how he was a capital ‘hoarder’, trying not to ‘spend’ his authority in his early years as Prime Minister:

“At first, in those early months and perhaps in much of that initial term of office, I had political capital that I tended to hoard. I was risking it but within strict limits and looking to recoup it as swiftly as possible… in domestic terms, I tried to reform with the grain of opinion not against it” (Blair 2010: 123).

Understanding leadership capital

Beyond economic salience, journalistic shorthand and politicians own words, academics have defined political capital in a variety of ways. It can be about trust, networks and ‘moral’ or ethical reputation. It can be about building bottom up influence and top down elite authority. In work with Professor Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht) and Dr Ben Worthy (Birkbeck), we focus on concepts of political leadership from the top – exercising authority. By incorporating many of these ideas, drawn from political psychology, sociology, political science and business we develop a notion of leadership capital as a measure of the extent to which political office-holders can effectively attain and wield authority.

We define leadership capital as an aggregate of three leadership components: skills, relations and reputation. We work this is into a Leadership Capital Index (LCI), for those that like such measurement tools. The Index has ten simple variables to enable leaders to be scored, using a mixed methods approach to capture both quantitative data and qualitative assessments.

You can see our full article in West European Politics here and more details on our measuring leadership blog.

Dr Mark Bennister is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He specialises in comparative politics, political leadership, British and Australasian politics. Mark is an expert in comparative prime ministerial leadership. He published ‘Prime Ministers in Power: A Comparative Study of Political Leadership in Britain and Australia’ in March 2012. He tweets @MarkBennister

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