Everyone has an opinion on what good leadership looks like.
Throughout our lives we encounter good and bad examples, from the classroom to the boardroom. We see them every day on the TV and in the papers; leaders of commerce, politics and academia. All of them have something to communicate, but only a small percentage of what they have to say actually resonates. Only a few of their speeches or communications bleed into our discussions at work, around the dinner table or in the pub with our friends.
So why aren’t all leadership communications successful? The way in which they communicate can explain so much. The urgency or consistency of message, strength of argument, endorsement by independent voices, alignment with our personal views and values, timeliness of message, even time of day and channel. All of these things can help to build credibility in the minds of people like us.
But the art of getting us to care about what they have to say is far more fundamental. Whatever their message, and whoever the audience, the underlying measure of success in any communication, but particularly leadership communications, is not necessarily whether we agree with what they have to say, nor whether we like them, but whether we believe them. And when trust in business as a whole is in negative equity, that belief is often hard to win.
You could argue that through a difficult recession and period of intense anti-corporate culture, business leaders have been too reticent to bang their own drums. They have shied away from talking about their achievements and innovations. Often, their communications have been sanitised, pared back and controlled to the extent to which any emotion or personality was removed from them.
Corporate speak, however intelligently written, does not inspire or create empathy.
For today’s leaders, who need to engage rather than instruct, their messages must now come from the heart. And here I do not mean emotional fluff, I mean credible, believable words and arguments.
These days, great leaders are not expected to have the flair of someone like former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King. Not every leader is blessed with the ability to command any audience on any subject matter. But unless they communicate their achievements, identity and point of view – and do so in a way which is genuine and authentic – they will never rebuild the trust that has been lost.
The general public will remain none the wiser and just as cynical.
The time is right for business leaders to be braver in the way they communicate. To be less apologetic. To give us more reasons to believe. And while being brave in communications terms can pose risks, the risk of remaining silent will be infinitely more damaging.
At the end of the day, leaders will be forgiven for getting it wrong sometimes; for not always having all the answers. But the leaders’ voice is the only voice that can genuinely rebuild trust in business today.