As you’ve no doubt heard and felt, our current disappointment, disillusionment, distain, (insert your favourite appropriate word / epithet) for our elected leaders, those responsible for leading and governing our major financial institutions and even those charged with the responsibility for providing spiritual guidance to our increasing secular society is palpable.
One question that comes to mind is whether our expectations of our various leaders are too great?
Maybe the better question is: if we believe that effective leadership is important to us as citizens, employees of businesses large and small and members of the community, then from a self-responsibility perspective what specifically should we be doing about improving the performance of our leaders?
I believe that we each have three crucial roles to play in making a difference to the performance of our leaders in all spheres:
Role 1: Hold our Leaders to account around the “Why”
As individuals we quite reasonably expect those in leadership positions to hold a vision or context (a “Why”) that guides their own journey and enables them to show the way forward for the people whom they serve. With expectations also come a responsibility to hold our leaders to account when they fail to explain a consistent “Why”.
As a case in point, the current lack of ability of our recent crop of politicians to express a consistent “Why” in terms of a policy narrative and the degeneration of political debate to positional arguments, is showing up as a major weakness in our political process.
Mark Thompson extensively explores this issue in “Enough Said – What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?” Amongst other issues, Thompson considers the irony that in our age of mass communication channels, it often seems virtually impossible for a message to be clearly and consistently conveyed.
Unfortunately, the most recent examples of effective “cut through” messages are those that seek to “spin” rather than inform opinion. In one famous (infamous?) example, US politician Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase “Death Panels” in relation to an incorrect interpretation of a deeply-buried Section of President Barak Obama’s Affordable Care or “Obamacare” legislation galvanised enormous opposition to the proposal.
This is what Thompson writes: “It [the “Death Panel” phrase] achieves its impact by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty. It exaggerates wildly to make its point. It is built on a presumption of irredeemable bad faith on the part of its political target. It accepts no responsibility to explain anything to anybody, but instead treats the facts as if they were a matter of opinion. It rejects even the possibility of a rational debate between the parties. With language like this, no wonder so many citizens turn away from politics in disgust.”
It’s not unfair to note that American political debate has lurched far further in this direction since the publication of Thompson’s book just prior to President Trump’s election.
Role 2: Have an informed opinion
We have a right to have an opinion – there’s certainly no shortage of these expressed in cyberspace – but we also bear a responsibility to have an informed opinion. In light of the discussion above, getting to the truth of an issue requires some considerable effort in the current environment, which brings us to Role Number Three:
Role 3: Be engaged in the conversation
When we constantly observe our leaders speaking and behaving out of alignment with their espoused “Why” then we quite rightly experience symptoms of cognitive dissonance such as confusion, frustration and disconnection. The easy option for us at this point is to just disengage from the conversation. But why does this matter?
Let’s consider this from a business perspective: A wide range of studies supports the concept that leaders can influence employees’ level of engagement. Research shows that employees who have trust in senior management and feel that they have a voice in the organisation show higher levels of engagement and lower withdrawal attitudes. Then from the opposite perspective: what if leaders choose to actively reduce their employees’ levels of engagement? This may happen for any number of reasons: reducing the level of scrutiny is one reason that naturally springs to mind. This would of course lead to that uneasy feeling of mistrust and with good reason!
So the message here is to hold our leaders to account by being engaged in the conversation and being open to others with a different point of view. The challenge is to be aware of and strongly resist the “easy” option of disengagement – bad things can come from this space….