Leadership Style Assessment: Road Map for Podemos in Spain

A demonstration of Pablo Iglesias’ participative leadership style in a difficult negotiation

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Leadership Style Assessment: Road Map for Podemos in Spain

The skills required for honing an effective participative leadership style have a great deal in common with those used by good negotiators.

Back in May of 2015, following the municipal elections in Spain, all of those skills were being put to the test. The elections delivered a stunning rebuke to the incumbent conservative Popular Party of Mariano Rajoy, and vaulted the little known leader of the year-old leftist Podemos Party to the forefront of Spanish politics. Next, Podemos head Pablo Iglesias would need to quickly form the coalitions that could hand him the keys to the Prime Minister’s office in upcoming elections.

Podemos’s win was a setback for the two long-standing parties in Spanish politics; Rajoy’s conservatives and the Socialist Party. Voters sent a clear message rejecting the fiscal austerity measures implemented by Rajoy following Spain’s recent financial woes, while signaling to both parties that they are dissatisfied with widespread corruption.

Yet the rise of Podemos presented its own set of problems. The election shattered the bi-partisan electoral structure in Spain. There became an unprecedented need for Iglesias to form parliamentary coalitions if he hoped to oust a conservative candidate in November. Meanwhile, his hard-fought campaign left scars with Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, while many of the newly elected leftist mayors come from parties affiliated with Podemos, but not under the party’s direct control.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


With leaders at every echelon, all eyes were on Iglesias, who would need to employ a persuasive participative leadership style if he hoped to negotiate his way toward becoming the leader of a strong, viable coalition. In just a matter of weeks, the pony-tailed politician from Spain showed an understanding of the demands at his doorstep. His actions are useful for any negotiator interested in understanding how to set up the conditions for success in a challenging multi-party negotiation.

Setting Aside Differences

One of the hallmarks of participative leadership is that leaders must identify other leaders with whom they must work and understand their needs. For Iglesias, the first person on the list is Sánchez. In the campaign, Iglesias did not hold his punches, lacing into the leader of the center-left party. As a result, Podemos siphoned votes from Rajoy and also won over a substantial number of Socialist Party voters. The consequence, however, is that no party had enough votes to win the presidency outright in November.

If Iglesias had any chance, he had to make and sustain amends with Sánchez, and Sánchez would need to do the same. Otherwise, the two could find themselves in the same position as their counterparts in the United Kingdom, who split the vote in 2010, giving the Prime Minister’s post to conservative leader David Cameron.

In the weeks following the elections, Iglesias and Sánchez set aside their differences and sat down at the table together, looking for a way forward as partners. If they hoped to sustain any truce, they would have to go further, doing something all negotiation experts advise. They would have to leave their rival positions at the door and replace them with shared interests.

Shoring up Your Own Side

A good negotiator starts any negotiation by identifying shared interests that narrow focus on a zone of possible agreement (ZOPA) between their own side and the other. The Podemos victory gave the party clout on the national stage, but Podemos is the largest one of a host of leftist parties that made gains that May. Incoming Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena and incoming Barcelona mayor Ada Colau were both from parties affiliated with Podemos. Their wins doubled the demands on Iglesias.

He needed to ensure their support for a national Podemos platform by trading their authority in Spain’s two most significant cities for his viability as their potential representative on the national stage.

Whatever steps he would take would need to account for the possibility that the alliances he formed with the left wing might alienate moderate voters who support Sánchez’s socialists. In order to succeed, Iglesias would need to find a delicate balance of participatory leadership with his counterparts.

It is a tough needle to thread, but Iglesias immediately began showing interest in adopting unconventional aspects of the mayors’ platforms on issues that had widespread popularity, including pay cuts for municipal leaders and increased anti-corruption measures.

Set Expectations

Anti-corruption and fiscal austerity measures send a clear message to the most concerned party of all—the European community. The Podemos victory followed recent Greek elections, where similar dissatisfaction with belt-tightening lead to the election of the leftist, anti-austerity Syriza party. Syriza’s negotiations with creditors across Europe had been fraught from the outset, giving rise to persistent fears of a Greek financial default. As such, the Podemos victory was cause for widespread anxiety among Spain’s creditors.

In negotiations where prices are at stake, anchoring with an opening set of numbers can have lasting value. The same is true with setting expectations. Instead of avoiding concerns that Spain might go the same way as Greece, or being combative with the nation’s creditors, Iglesias immediately sought to calm concerns about the Podemos ascendancy. When representatives from the International Monetary Fund reached out for a meeting, he readily agreed, sending the Podemos economic team to discuss the party’s plans for addressing Spain’s debts.

Ultimately the 2015 election ended in a deadlock, and the 2016 election was won by Mariano Rajoy.

The winds of politics can shift precipitously, but the goal of participatory leadership approaches to negotiations is to create shared perceptions of value that can benefit diverse stakeholders over the long term. While any leader has his ups and downs, Iglesias’ response to an unexpected victory will have lasting value for negotiators of all political stripes for years to come.

Related Leadership Skills Article: Advantages and Disadvantages of Leadership Styles: Leadership in Crisis Negotiations


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


Originally published in 2015.

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