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Hollow the leader

Published on Friday, 07 Jun 2013
Rod Cartwright

A loss of faith in the current generation of bosses is sparking calls for Generation X to seize the reins

In business, as in every other sphere, change is a constant and must be accepted as such. For leaders, though, there is a particular challenge not just to see change coming, but to see where it will lead, then position their organisations and adjust their actions to benefit rather than founder.

 In most cases, there are no clear milestones and no sure paths, but one thing is fairly certain. A transition is taking place and to achieve success in the next decade and beyond, corporate leaders will be judged against a differing set of standards from the pre-financial crisis years.

That much is apparent from the findings of this year’s Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM). The survey used online feedback from close to 6,000 respondents in 12 markets, including China, to ascertain current views on what is looked for in leaders in various sectors and, by analysis, to discover where some people are going wrong.

 “Indeed, the study points to an enduring global crisis of confidence in leaders across the board,” says Rod Cartwright, director of Ketchum’s global corporate practice. “Communication effectiveness scores are plummeting and perceptions of poor leadership are directly hitting sales.”

These lessons reflect trends that have become increasingly obvious over the past two years and, undoubtedly, confirm a message that today’s leaders and those who advise them need to grasp.

“These imperatives are not new,” Cartwright says. “After all, effective leadership has always been one of mankind’s core collective organising principles, but it has become an overwhelming requirement for today’s brands and corporations. We want and need excellent leadership – individual, collective, societal and corporate – but we are sorely disappointed with what we are getting.”

Ever more, the style people now look for is not “heroic”, but one which encourages collaboration and participation at all levels. Employees, or “followers”, like society as a whole, are losing patience with the directive, domineering approach increasingly ill-suited to the structures and complexities of modern organisations.

Identifying the characteristics they most want to see, survey respondents pointed to decisiveness and the ability to engage authentically with others involved in the business. Open communication and transparency are also essential, as are personal presence and “action” – in contrast to words alone.

Casting the net wide, the survey polled people in politics, labour organisations, community groups, and the non-profit sector, as well as in business. And summarising their general views of current leaders, Cartwright describes them as “distinctly unimpressed”.

“The good news is that people care a great deal about effective leadership and are looking hopefully towards to Generation X (those aged roughly 35 to 50) to tackle the problems,” he says.

Among the most eye-catching findings this year was that 60 per cent of respondents said perceptions of poor leadership caused them to stop buying or buy less from a company during the previous 12 months. That is pretty clear evidence that consumers are watching – and know what they expect to see.

Also notable was that the technology sector won generally positive comments, putting it well ahead of other industries. Its leaders are broadly perceived as providing quality products and services, putting customers first, communicating well and, therefore, serving as role models in all these respects.

Elsewhere, the survey highlighted issues like short-term thinking and buck-passing as major concerns.

“Fewer than three in 10 of respondents felt leaders take appropriate responsibility when they or their organisations fall short of expectations,” Cartwright says. “But interestingly, given the rampant stereotypes about [companies’] obsession with quarterly results, business and non-profit leaders were viewed as prioritising longer-term considerations over short-term.”

He adds that to dismiss these findings would be a mistake. What people think of leaders within an organisation and, consequently, how well they follow, has direct implications for performance, morale and overall efficiencies. In similar vein, external perceptions can have a direct impact on everything from sales and revenue to stock price and even survival.

“It is a high-definition picture; there is nothing fuzzy about it,” Cartwright says. “Few leaders are performing as expected and that brings direct, negative consequences for what they are trying to achieve.”

Getting things on the right track, though, may simply be a matter of listening, absorbing and acting. The survey results already point the way. Respondents were clear about what is needed and that starts with the good leader “formula” of open communication plus decisive action plus personal presence. Next, people want to see honesty on future challenges and practical solutions for tackling them.

“This is particularly the case in a crisis, where honestly acknowledging the problem and acting decisively to fix it are seen as essential to good leadership,” Cartwright says.

Not surprisingly, trust remains a top attribute. It should extend from the quality of products and services to all other business dealings and relationships. And in building trust, there should be little or no “gap” between what leaders say and what they actually do.

“Inspiring teams of people who will build the future together involves turning complex problems into opportunities,” Cartwright says. “Leaders need to be collaborative in finding solutions and practical when taking action.”

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