Attlee’s extraordinary legislative record is testament to his ability to build consensus. It also, referencing that Wikipedia entry I quoted, evidences his pragmatism and ability to compromise, both invaluable characteristics in pushing through radical change in the face of opposition from vested interests. The NHS, jewel in the crown of his legislative legacy, came into being via the National Health Service Act, passed in 1946, the year after his election. Even this faced opposition from the doctors and consultants who believed it would undermine their incomes from private patients. Following a last-minute showdown prior to the launch of the service in 1948, Nye Bevan, Attlee’s Minister for Health, bought them off; in his famous phrase “I stuffed their mouths with gold”. Not ideologically pure, maybe, but pragmatic and effective.
That Wikipedia quote evidences two other characteristics of Attlee which are important in building consensus and pushing through change: his deep knowledge and his objectivity. Both of these are important not just because they contribute to better decision making, but because they help to create two of the other things which are common in good* leaders, namely, that they command trust and respect.
Notice I do not say liking – to be a good leader, it is not necessary to be liked, but it is necessary to be trusted and respected. Trust is enormously important at all levels, primarily at a sort of animal level. At its most basic, if people don’t trust someone to look after their better interests, they won’t let them lead. (This may be, as I have discussed here before, why women have problems ascending to leadership positions, if our monkey brains don’t think a woman is big and tough enough to win fights).
Trust is also important at a more intellectual level. If you think your leader is going to stab you in the back, say one thing and do another, not be able to deliver what they say they will, demand higher standards of others than they do of themselves, fail to support you, act in their own interests rather than yours or in pursuit of the common good, and all the myriad other ways that leaders fail to gain the trust of their followers, then you’re less likely to get enthusiastically behind them.
It’s fascinating to note that Donald Trump, who campaigns mainly on emotions, is attacking Hillary Clinton on the issue of trust, accusing her of being a liar. He knows he can’t win on the grounds of competence, bit he also knows that the issue of trust is an incredibly corrosive one. Barack Obama, who pretty much wrote the handbook when it comes to clever campaigning, is onto this, and is fighting back on the same grounds, by pointing out that Trump has spent pretty much his whole life undermining, attacking, and generally betraying his workers whenever he got the chance. “Don’t vote for this guy”, is his message. “You can’t trust him”.
*In the sense of effective, by which I mean “able to get the things done which they wish to get done”.