Leadership cult interview HERO
28th May 2020
3 Min Read

World Changers - Explore the trend: 'The Leadership Cult'

Kate Went
Kate Went
Strategy

When we released our first World Changers report earlier this year, we couldn’t have seen the coronavirus crisis coming. But in fact, those ten topics have been thrown into even sharper focus in our new world.

For our World Changers – Explore the trend interview series, I asked senior consultant Alastair Atkinson his views on the ‘cult’ of leadership, why people in power are under more scrutiny than ever, and what good leadership looks like in a COVID-19 world.

Al, ‘cult’ is a strong word. Why did you choose it?

It’s deliberately provocative. Right back to the ancient world, cults have been associated with deities. In the 1980s and 90s, the business world whipped up massive hype around leaders, building them into demi-gods. These captains of industry were seen as possessing intangible, superhuman qualities that others lacked.

Certainly, successful business leaders are talented and driven, but they are still just people. It’s important for them to come across as human. There’s a danger that, if they’re placed on a pedestal, the impact is counterproductive.

When Elon Musk walks on stage at Tesla events, colleagues chant ‘Save us Elon’. It’s tongue in cheek – but not completely. And he’s walking in the footsteps of other leaders, such as Steve Jobs, whose personas reached almost legendary status. This might work for a very few leaders for a little while, but it’s neither feasible nor desirable for most.

Can anyone be a leader?

Rugby player Jonny Wilkinson once summed it up well: “You don’t decide if you’re a leader, other people decide for you.”

Leadership is about other people wanting to trust you and follow you. That said, there are traits and behaviours that can be learned and practised. When you read the autobiographies of successful leaders, you discover the mistakes they made along the way. Often, in their early years, there was little indication that they would go on to become a leader. But when they found their niche, learned to relate to other people and how to get the best out of them, they began their journey to successful leadership.

What, in your eyes, are the traits of good leadership?

I think we have to start by acknowledging there are cultural differences here. In this instance, we are probably talking about a modern, Western view of leadership. If you looked to parts of Africa, Asia or even Russia, you would find that different traits are valued.

That said, research reveals that being seen as human is a key trait of good, modern leadership. It’s about showing a degree of vulnerability and empathy, sometimes holding your hands up and admitting you don’t have all the answers. To be clear – that’s very different to not knowing what you’re doing. Leaders need a clear vision and a strategy to help everyone get there. But being able to show empathy and, in moderation, vulnerability is impactful, particularly now, when mental health awareness is greater than ever.

Visa CEO Al Kelly provided a good example of this recently. Not long into the coronavirus crisis, he pledged that nobody at Visa would be made redundant as a result of COVID. In that message, the empathy and understanding he showed created a positive reaction, both inside and outside the organisation.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, leaders are very much under the microscope. What has this revealed?

Again, empathy surfaces as the differentiator.

I recently spoke with a private sector comms professional who shared that, early on in the crisis, their CEO had delighted employees by giving everyone Fridays off. The paid leave was in recognition that people were working extra hard, adapting to major challenges and dealing with intense and draining distractions .

Contrast that with other leaders who haven’t acted to safeguard the wellbeing of their people, and whose poor communication and rash decisions have led to a rough ride in the media.

Now we’re looking more closely, do you think leaders will change their approach?

I don’t think we can ever go back wholly to the way things were. For example, people who used to go to an office are now working from home and, for the businesses that have kept going, the work hasn’t stopped. The practical barriers we assumed were in place have been swept aside. Leaders who expect things to go back to normal will likely get short shrift from their people – and they may even vote with their feet about the type of organisation they want to work for in the future.

Do you think that what we need from our leaders will change on the other side of the crisis?

During the crisis so far, the best leaders have tuned into wellbeing – people’s thoughts, emotions and concerns – and have delivered their messages accordingly.

As we move forward, leaders need to look ahead too. COVID threw a hand grenade into everyone’s plans, diverting attention away from long-term strategy and towards keeping heads above water, adapting to remote work and then putting a protective arm around colleagues.

However, the importance of vision and strategy hasn’t gone away. As the immediate anxiety around COVID subsides, colleagues’ minds will inevitably turn back to longer-term thinking. They’ll want to know that their organisation still has a vision and ambitions for the future, and that there’s a plan in place to achieve them. It’s up to leaders to provide that direction and reassurance, and to explain what they expect of people in the post-COVID world.

As we move into new phases, our best leaders will be those who can maintain this clear line of sight. If they can show their people the part they will play in rebuilding their organisations – and the wider economy – they’ll foster confidence, optimism and clarity.

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