By Geoffrey Rowan
TORONTO, March 20, 2012 — Short-sheeting your brother’s bed is a dirty trick.(“Ohh, you brat!”) Impersonating a government official to rig an election is a felony.
But the sad truth is most of us don’t care. We don’t expect any better from our leaders. We don’t believe what they say, and who can blame us. In the political arena, at least, we have been conditioned to ignore all the faux wounded hyperbole and ersatz indignation of our leaders. Every day someone in government does something so egregious it can only be fixed by his or her resignation, or the prime minister’s resignation or someone’s ceremonial disembowelment. Who’s to know when something serious actually happens?
Many if not most business leaders are just as disingenuous, obtuse, evasive and self-serving. Leadership in the worlds of religion, not-for-profits and at the local community level is no more inspiring. If perception is reality then we are one sorry family of man because around the world we perceive our leaders as a dismal lot.
You know this because you are aware of the U.S. race for the Republican presidential nomination, or our own robo-call scandal, a dysfunctional city council and mayor’s office or countless other examples that range from bumbling buffoonery to malicious malfeasance. I know it because my colleagues in research at Ketchum surveyed people in 13 countries to find out what they think about leaders. The results were dismal. (Here’s the link to the results media release – http://bit.ly/GCotzV)
There is a huge gap — a 28 percentage point difference — between what we expect from our leaders and what we think they deliver.
Business leaders were the best of a weak lot globally, with a little more than a third of respondents giving them an excellent rating of eight or above on a scale of 0-10. (In Canada, not-for-profit leaders were best.) Even more surprising, among businesses, leaders in banking and financial services rated near the top of the pack. (Leaders of tech companies were rated highest by 44 per cent of respondents for effective leadership, compared to consumer packaged goods firms at the opposite end of the spectrum, cited by just 20 per cent for effective leadership.)
As jaded as we are in our view of leaders, we’re still hopeful. We want good leaders and believe that we need them to guide us through these difficult times. And we don’t seek the impossible in leadership. Around the world, across many countries and languages, people were pretty consistent about their expectations in response to this survey.
1. Close the Say-Do Gap – People aren’t as stupid as our leaders seem to think. If you say you love people and then you bomb them, or take away their jobs, or their health care, or abuse their trust, they will grow cynical. We want more from our leaders than catchy slogans and lyrical sound bites. We want people who lead by example, who have the courage and commitment to act, and who keep a level head in a crisis.
2. Strong, Silent Types Need Not Apply – As important as it is to act decisively and with integrity, leaders also must keep people informed. In the absence of clear communication – whenever there is ambiguity – we will assume the worst. So, no to slogans and sound bites but yes to clear, consistent communication, with a little humility. Be willing to admit mistakes. Be aware that different situations require different leadership styles, and different leadership styles require different communication styles, but they all require good communication.
3. Don’t sugar-coat it – The survey was decisive on this. Speak the truth with purpose and without ambiguity. We can handle a challenge if we understand it and if we know what our leaders are doing to address it.
4. The way to be seen to be trustworthy is to be trustworthy – (See No. 1, Close the Say-Do Gap.) For organizations to be seen to be leaders, nothing rated higher in the survey than trustworthiness, including quality of products, services or management, financial strength, or innovation.
5. Let Them Look You In The Eyes – Face-to-face communication is by far the communication channel that creates the greatest sense of leadership credibility. The lack of credibility given to some digital communication channels was surprising given their fast proliferation, but we believe Twitter feeds and social media were useless for leadership is because most of the content doesn’t meet the other criteria for effective leadership. It’s usually bland marketing speak and sloganeering, and it’s rarely actually written by the leader. Does anyone believe Stephen Harper writes his own Tweets?
The bad news is that we have grown so cynical that we expect our leaders are going to be even worse in 2012 than they were in 2011. There is such a powerful hunger in so many to be anointed “a leader” and then to hang onto that perceived power that they have forgotten the fundamental tenet of leadership – that they work for the people they are leading.
And so cynicism grows, and alientation, and disengagement, until we end up with leaders no one listens to, or until a new kind of leader emerges — one who leads instead of manages. That’s where leadership opportunity exists now.