Browse courses

At the time of writing, the UK has recently entered a surprise General Election campaign.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer are both battling to communicate their visions for the future, and convince people that they will be the best option to lead the UK through the next five years. In both cases, they are also competing in another area: attempting to step out of the shadow of their predecessors.

This is something we commonly see in a business context, where a new leader attempts to distinguish themselves from whoever came before them. This is an exercise not just in communicating who you are and what you stand for, but also in establishing distance. This disassociation with the past is the key to establishing credibility in leadership—and winning the trust of the people you lead.

The business of politics

In political terms, Rishi Sunak has had a fairly short window of time to ingratiate himself with the British public. Having first come to prominence during the pandemic for his furlough and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ schemes, the Prime Minister was initially passed over in favour of Liz Truss during the leadership election, before getting the top job in October 2022. In that short time, he’s had to contend with the legacies of both his immediate predecessor – who lasted just 44 days – and Boris Johnson, who served for three years after a landslide election victory.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has had a slightly longer run at his job, having started in 2020, but his job was similarly challenging. His predecessor had changed the dynamics of the party, leading Labour to its biggest swing since 1945 in his first election, before overseeing its worst defeat since 1935 in his second election. Along with tackling the internal conflict this inspired, Starmer was also faced with transforming the public image of the party after a series of scandals, which had dogged both it and Corbyn.

Both cases highlight the myriad of problems with following in the footsteps of a previous leader. In Sunak’s case, he had to reestablish the credibility of the party after the tumultuous reign of Liz Truss, and overcome the popularity of Boris Johnson, who initially remained as an MP. In Starmer’s case, he had to strike a clear division between the old and new Labour, making it clear to lapsed voters that the party had changed, without also riling up the many younger voters who had joined in recent years.

Why credibility is important in leadership

Trust in politics is important given the magnitude of the issues involved: economic stability, crime, the environment. For individuals, the stakes within a business can be equally high. Effective leadership of a business means the security of people’s jobs and livelihoods, and the expectation of progression. Establishing credibility as a leader means instilling employees with the confidence that you will lead the business in a direction that benefits them, and reward their investment of time and effort.

Doing this means embodying certain qualities that are expected for your position, but it also means evidencing your ability to manage others. Without a cohesive strategy and vision for success, you risk confidence waning, and credibility being lost. Without distinguishing yourself from whoever came before you, you risk tentativeness and uncertainty. A new leader can offer continuity, but there is always the potential for improvement, and they should map this out.

Regaining the public trust

In the examples of Sunak and Starmer, these tasks were no mean feat. One can argue about the extent to which either leader has been successful in their bid to establish their own credibility, with polls showing that both men’s approval ratings are relatively low. But both are interesting case studies on how new leaders can work to impose their own personalities on the position, and engineer a transition that is both smooth and helps to steer their organisation in the right direction.

Sunak attempted to achieve this by presenting a competent, assured front after the disastrous reign of Liz Truss. Having been a popular Chancellor, he was in theory a reassuring replacement for Truss, under whose leadership the economy had suddenly tanked. At the same time, however, he had to establish his credentials as a leader rather than one of a group of ministers, cater to a growing right-wing faction within the party, and appease more centrist MPs and voters in former ‘red wall’ seats.

For Starmer, the challenge was restoring faith in the Labour Party after a series of scandals and a divisive period of leadership. This was a slower transition, steadily replacing cabinet members and candidates to build the party in his image. In both cases, establishing credibility would be imperative to a successful election campaign. The responsibility of leadership at such a crucial stage in UK history – for the economy, environment and security – means that the public needs to be confident in their ability to stand up to these challenges.

Bringing credibility to business leadership

The picture is similar for many businesses, who face the same geopolitical and financial challenges as the country at large. The question then is how to bring this credibility to leadership. If these political leaders with massive media engines behind them have struggled to step out of the shadows of their predecessors, what can a new leader do to establish themselves, and successfully drive an organisation forwards?

Everyone who works under you is investing trust in you to lead your business effectively. Your success is the success of the business, and by virtue of this, the success of their careers. Winning this trust starts with a demonstration of integrity. This isn’t one single action, but an approach and an ethos. Identify your values, and stick to them through your decisions and actions. You need to mean what you say, follow through on your commitments, and not make promises beyond what you can realistically achieve.

Authenticity is also important. The worst thing a leader can try to do is ape their predecessor, even (or particularly) if they were very successful. Trying to be someone else will either lead you to take actions that you don’t fully believe in, or betray this false persona by following your own lead. In either case, people will see through the ruse, and lose confidence in you as a result. You’ll also make the comparisons with previous leaders more stark, setting yourself up for a fall if things don’t go perfectly.

This honesty applies to your own actions, and your ability and willingness to learn. Being transparent in the actions you take and the reasons for them can build trust, and will also help to get across your character. This applies to bad decisions as well as good ones. Every leader will make a bad decision at some point, but the best way to maintain credibility is to front up to them and learn from them. This process of learning shouldn’t just be reactive, but proactive – seeking feedback on both how you can improve, and the mistakes that other leaders made in the past.


There is no shortcut to establishing credibility as a leader, as the two main election candidates have proved. Winning people’s trust can be a long and iterative process, whether you are replacing someone popular or unpopular. The biggest key is to be honest: about yourself, your leadership style, your beliefs, and your actions. Show everyone that you have the right ideas, and you should be onto a winner.

Develop the leadership potential in your team

Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your training and development gaps, build training plans across multiple teams, or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

Contact Us

Mark Fryer

10th June 2024

Want 10% off your first scheduled course?

Sign up to our newsletter and receive 10% off any of our scheduled courses as a thank you! Our monthly newsletters are filled with features, advice and information about our forthcoming courses.