The Death of the Hero Leader: The Opportunity and Responsibility for Public Relations

The World Economic Forum has recently brought out its “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014,” including what it sees as the top-10 trends for the coming year. Particularly noteworthy was the inclusion in that list of “A lack of values in leadership.” This was striking in its own right, but is clearly also implicit in all of the other trends – be it “The diminishing confidence in economic policies,” “Inaction on climate change,” “Rising societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa” or “Widening income disparities,” none of which stand a hope of resolution without leadership of the highest order. This may be why, according to the Forum, of all the top-10 trends, respondents to their global survey were least satisfied with the attention that governments give to values in leadership.

The report acknowledges the need to find a balance between short-term, pragmatic and occasionally self-interested leadership (perhaps inevitable at times, it suggests) and a longer-term approach that focuses on actions which support the common good. In coming down firmly on the side of combatting short-termist leadership, the study suggests that people “expect leaders not to just stick to what they know, but to be driven by something that moves us forward and brings people together.” And against the backdrop of the radical transparency necessitated by the 24/7 new cycle, always-on access to information and perpetual social (media) scrutiny, the Forum calls for leadership based on “a sharing of views, values and vision.”

I was struck by the enormous similarities with Ketchum’s own global research on leadership, with many of the results of both reports chiming remarkably.  For example, just 24% of respondents in our study believe leaders are providing effective leadership, with the same small percentage feeling leaders take appropriate responsibility when they or their organization fall short of expectations. Moreover, those believing already poor leadership would deteriorate over the coming year far outstrip those expecting an improvement, with short-termism being seen as the default for the majority of categories of leader.

For the second year in a row, open communication is seen as the single most important attribute of effective leaders – making the 29 point gap between expectation and delivery in this critical area, and a 24% year-on-year drop in perceptions of leaders’ communication performance particularly worrying for a beleaguered leadership class. And around the world, our research showed that people crave leaders who are honest about future challenges, clear and practical in their approach to dealing with them and collaborative in finding solutions.

So, is all of this a coded call for the absolute democratization of leadership? The simple answer is no. Our 12-country data show that people still crave some of the age-old facets of ‘traditional’ leadership as much as ever – a simple vision, with an action plan to implement it. Clear decision-making. Leading by example. And showing grace under pressure. However, with the ability to build and inspire teams who, together, will create the future coming out top in a list of emerging leadership attributes, it is clear that while we’re not quite ready for fully democratized leadership, we are nonetheless calling time on heroic, muscular, know-it-all leadership.

And in delivering this new model of leadership that is so patently needed, it is equally evident that it is a combination of values, purpose, action, communication and personal presence – together – that will start to give the world what it is looking for from its leaders. This suggests an emerging role for leaders as hyper-communicative ‘curators’ – willing and able to create the conditions from which solutions can emerge, both within their organization and beyond.

With a collaborative mindset and the self-belief to realize that it is their team – rather than their own heroism – that will ultimately hold the key to success. Coupled with the communication skills truly to bring that vision values and purpose to life, and a realization that their deeds are every bit as important as their words.

So if partial, flawed leadership is implicit in all of the other trends the Forum has drawn out, effective communication the No.1 attribute of the effective leader and deeds every bit as important as words, the opportunity – and responsibility – for PR is enormous. Not only to help organizations engage, but also to inform the decisions they make in the first place and the actions they take to implement them. Exciting times, but with considerable responsibility too. We’re certainly focused on both and hope others in our trade are too.