This is a powerful acknowledgement of one’s own imperfections from the leader who came second only to Nelson Mandela in the Forum’s recent Global Shapers Annual Survey, which asked the community which leaders they most admired. It is also a crucial lesson in leadership. There is a temptation to portray leaders as infallible, and this is one of the greatest enemies of excellence in leadership.
This was brought home to me recently while listening to a speech in Johannesburg on leadership lessons from South Africa’s history. During the Q&A, a senior communicator in the South African government’s communications team posed an excellent question: as communicators, is the tendency to portray our leaders as near perfect demi-gods part of the reason why they are viewed so terribly by so many (click to tweet)?
And ‘terrible’ truly is the right term. The fourth year of our annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM) global study found that under 25% of 6,000 global respondents say they felt leaders were leading effectively (for the fourth year in a row). Elsewhere in the results, just 24% said they felt leaders communicate effectively and only 17% felt that they take appropriate action and act responsibly when things go wrong.
The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015 ranked “A Lack of Global Leadership” as its third most pressing trend for the coming year, with 86% of respondents in the survey agreeing that the world today is experiencing a crisis in global leadership. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll found that just 13% of employees in 142 countries are feel engaged with their jobs, costing a major economy like Germany $186 billion a year.
And leaders themselves are recognizing the severity of the challenge—a global report by Bersin last year found more than 60% of all companies they talked to cited “leadership gaps” as their top business challenge.
So, with the global leadership crisis of recent years showing no sign of abating, are the professional communicators who advise leaders part of the cure or part of the disease?
I’d argue that the current answer is—both. But also that we can focus more on the cure if we take a more balanced view of how we talk about and promote leaders. What are the practical steps leaders can take to avoid feeding this feeling of disillusionment?
1. Start with an acceptance and acknowledgment of human imperfection. There, I’ve said it. This may be anathema to those who like to talk about leadership in superlatives. But people soon see through a leadership brand based on alleged perfection, when such a thing simply does not exist. And if it’s good enough for Pope Francis, it’s probably good enough for most leaders.
2. Remember that while imperfection is a human reality, leaders do still actually need to lead. Clarity of purpose, sharp decision making, leadership by example and matching words with deeds all consistently score highly in our research. And while I don’t necessarily agree with Jeffrey Pferrer that “Good leaders don’t have to be ‘good’”, the world certainly still craves clear-thinking, decisive leadership.
3. YOU determine the size of your “say-do gap”: This is the gap between what you say or promise, the expectations this creates and your ability to deliver on these promises. By definition, the more we portray leaders as perfect, the further they have to fall and the bigger the potential gap.
4. In 2015, leadership is about the many, not the few: Our research repeatedly underlines the move from a solitary, muscular, heroic, “masculine” model of leadership towards a more collaborative, consultative and “feminine” archetype. To give just one example, 41% of respondents this year felt “the whole organization and everyone within it” should be the key source of leadership for a company. Just 25% backed leadership coming mainly from the CEO.
5. Never forget that a leader is not a leader without any followers: In simple terms, it’s not all about you as leader, it’s about everyone and their willingness to follow. There is no better articulation of this than Derek Sivers’ superb TED talk, ‘Leadership Lessons from a Shirtless Dancing Guy’.
6. Remember that your work is never done: Change is now the only constant and a recent Ketchum Change seven-country Liquid Change study of 500 business leaders found that 76% of global executives believed their organization was suffering from change fatigue.
7. Fail to tell true human stories about leaders at your peril: Leaders are people too – with families, hobbies, pets, hopes and fears. All too soft and woolly? Well, try to think of a leader you admire purely due to their mastery of a finance plan and their corporate vision. It’s not easy, as the best leaders galvanize followers because of who they are as people, not just what they do as professionals.
There is clearly a careful balance to be struck here. But a leadership model that avoids any inference of leadership perfection—when none exists—and instead balances strength and decisiveness with humility, collaboration and a sense of service is arguably far better than one which paints leaders as perfect or close to it.
After all, how many of us recognize in ourselves or those around us the way in which Cassius described Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.” And even if we do, look where that got Caesar.