Why should I follow an invisible leader?

Courage and integrity cannot be manufactured, argues CIPD's Laura Harrison.

by Laura Harrison
Last Updated: 26 Jun 2017

Political discourse has taken an unexpected turn.  Like many, I expected the pre-election news and social traffic to focus on Brexit and the economy.  But it seems that was a miscalculation.  It’s almost as if the country is feeling its way towards a strange form of unity, cohering around one question, ‘can we trust our leaders?’  Now, the answers to that question, and the leaders it may point to, may differ wildly, but there’s much that we can learn from what appears to be going on.

A question of trust

We know from our own research that we trust leaders who ‘show up’ as competent, predictable and who act with integrity and benevolence. In the main, competence and predictability are manageable as ‘brands.’ Your communications manager can ensure that your leadership decisions are rationalised clearly for different audiences. Said manager can also ensure that there’s a rhythm and an overarching theme and tone to your messages that meet the requirement for predictability. So far, so easy. And manageable at a distance, behind the glass walls of the corner office. You can convey both competence and predictability through many channels, to people you may never meet. 

But what about benevolence and integrity? Can these be manufactured and displayed at arms’ length?

Strong enough to be vulnerable?

A couple of intriguing examples of benevolence and integrity from the last few weeks come to mind, neither of which involved political or business leaders. The One Love concert in Manchester, in response to the horrific terrorist attack a few weeks ago, was reportedly viewed by almost 11 million people in the UK and was broadcast in over 40 countries around the world. 

The concert’s simple and resonant message that ‘love is stronger than hate’ was fronted by singer and actress, Ariana Grande.  She’s 23, has a background in TV, and I’m fairly sure doesn’t have an MBA, nor spent intensive time on leadership development. But across the world she was hailed as a leader. 

She didn’t have to do the concert. A legitimate and understandable response to having ‘hosted’ the original event at which the atrocities were committed, would have been to hide away, ‘safe’ and invisible. But she chose to put herself in a position of massive emotional and actual vulnerability, putting societal good ahead of her immediate self-interest. Benevolence writ large. 

The second story, viewed now by close to a million people on YouTube, is Baktash Noori’s video response to the Manchester attack. In the film, a young man stands alone, blindfolded, in St Ann’s Square in central Manchester, with a sign asking "I’m Muslim and I trust you.  Do you trust me enough for a hug?" It’s a striking image of defiant trust, vulnerability and exposure.  (And yes, if you haven’t seen it, he gets lots of hugs).

A final, and less compelling image, arises from Theresa May’s assertion that Jeremy Corbyn would be "alone and naked" in Brexit negotiations. Alarming thought that that might be, on many levels, there’s a backfiring irony to this attack. Whatever you may think of Corbyn’s politics, it’s clear that one thing that drew so many to him was his visibility, his willingness to show up ‘as himself,’ not briefed to the hilt but speaking from an almost total alignment of personal values, party interest and (his version anyway) of national interest. 

That level of exposure, turn up, be yourself, sometimes make gaffes, make no excuses for them, is a form of nakedness. And it’s the integrity of values – own, organisational and societal – that make that possible. Contrasting with May’s persona, which many see as over-managed and with a failure to ‘show up’, you wonder whether she could have done with a bit more of a reflection on whether nakedness is necessarily a weakness.

Leaders need followers

So it seems we want more from our leaders than an ability to make tactical decisions and preserve short term or institutional goals. Not only do we want more, but a failure to deliver has never been more visible. Social media enables hyper-vigilance. A misstep can cost a leader dear. The message is pretty much ‘if I don’t believe that you have a purpose that extends beyond self-interest, I’ll be leaving most of my heart and my brain in the car park.’ The implications for performance and productivity are obvious.

Which begs the question, is it clear to your teams that you’re worth following, heart and mind? You may be competent, but do you also care not just about yourself, your career and your goals, but theirs and society’s too? And are you visible enough, vulnerable enough, (naked enough) for this integrity and benevolence to shine through?

Laura Harrison is strategy and transformation director at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.


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