A New Approach to Leadership Communication: 8 Ways to Maximize the Opportunity

December 31, 2014


Every now and then, our profession — and indeed, the world at large — wakes up to an issue of such importance that it demands a concerted response.

Over the past year or so, we at Ketchum have been observing such an awakening taking place on an issue that is not only universal and timeless, but also contemporary and pressing; one which represents an enormous opportunity for professional communicators, and a responsibility we should not shirk.

The issue is leadership — and more specifically, the relationship between leadership and communication, not only for individual leaders, but for brands and corporations as well.

In a list of top-10 trends for 2014, “A Lack of Values in Leadership” was cited by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Outlook. The 2015 report puts “A Lack of Leadership” at No. 3.

Leaders themselves appear to be recognizing the crisis. A global report from Bersin by Deloitte found more than 60 percent of all companies cited “leadership gaps” as their top business challenge. A 2014 study from Deloitte found “building global leadership” by far the most urgent issue among CEOs and HR leaders — 50 percent more than the next most pressing issue.

In our own profession, 2014’s World Public Relations Forum in Madrid emphasized the critical link between transformational leadership and communication. The title of the International Public Relations Association’s 2015 World Congress in South Africa in September (at which I’m honored to be speaking) is “Leadership in Communication: The Way to Trust.”

We’ve been particularly fascinated by this increasing focus, within and beyond our profession, because we experienced this awakening about the crucial link between what we do — communication — and what many of those we advise aspire to — leadership — almost four years ago.

Amid the Arab Spring, “shareholder spring” and Occupy movement, a 3 a.m. awakening about the extent of the global leadership crisis — and the potential for communication to play a central role in responding to it — spawned the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor in 2012. We have conducted this annual global study over three years, exploring views on effective leadership, effective communication and the intrinsic link between the two among more than 6,500 people in 13 countries on five continents.

To illustrate what our findings mean in practical terms for leaders and those who advise them, picture this scene: It’s your annual appraisal and your boss says she wants to focus on your leadership. Just more than one in five of your colleagues think you’re a good leader, she says, and only a third believe that you lead based on clear values. Barely more than one in 10 thinks you take responsibility when things go wrong.

What’s more, you learn that, being a man, your female counterparts outshine you on almost every characteristic that your colleagues look for in a good leader. She concludes by telling you there’s a yawning gap between what’s expected of you as a communicator and your delivery on those expectations.

Our report shows that this is precisely the verdict the public is handing down on today’s leaders across business, politics, nonprofits, labor unions and communities.

In the United States specifically, just 27 percent of respondents believe leaders demonstrate effective leadership. Fourteen percent believe leaders take appropriate responsibility when they fall short of expectations, and only 13 percent think leadership will improve in the coming year.

The study shows a causal link between leadership perceptions and consumer spending — 61 percent of respondents had either stopped purchasing or purchased less of a company’s products or services as a result of perceiving its leadership poorly in the past 12 months. Fifty-two percent had started purchasing or purchased more of a product or service because of positive leadership perceptions.

For the third year in a row, consumers scored the technology sector highest on every measure, 39 points ahead of any other industry in our Global Industry Leadership Index. Banking and insurance are at the bottom.

Geographically, European leaders take five of the bottom six spots in our Global Disillusionment Index. China, India, Brazil and Singapore are on top, in that order.

We identified a new group we call “Leadership eVangelists” — a subset of highly active online consumers who wield a disproportionate impact on commercial and reputational outcomes.

The heart of the solution

But before we all get too down-in-the-mouth about the perilous state of leadership around the world, the kicker is that what we do sits at the heart of the solution.

For the third consecutive year, respondents see open, transparent communication as the single most important attribute of great leaders. Seventy-four percent feel effective communication is very important to great leadership, yet only 29 percent believe that leaders communicate effectively — a 45-point gap between expectation and delivery.

Is there a greater opportunity for communicators to help develop a new model of leadership, one with communication at its heart?

The answer is specific to every organization’s leadership and culture, but as you consider how these pressing challenges apply to your organization, here are eight factors to keep in mind that will help you maximize the opportunity:

1. Leadership communication will be more feminine. This is not to assert the superiority of one gender over the other. Rather, our Leadership Communication Monitor for 2014 found that although the world is narrowly looking more toward males to lead over the next five years, their female counterparts are seen as outperforming them on nearly every attribute our research deemed important to great leadership.

2. Leaders’ actions show what the organization values. Leading by example and communicating in an open and transparent way means avoiding “say-do” gaps that can damage individual and corporate leadership brands.

3. Transparency is non-negotiable. Provide it voluntarily to build trust or it will be imposed on you.

4. Chart a course for continuously improving. Amid all of today’s pressures and challenges, the world still seeks leaders who demonstrate clear, decisive vision.

5. Admit mistakes, solve problems and move forward. The willingness to admit mistakes is the third most important leadership attribute and a mark of strength, not weakness, when backed by decisive action.

6. Collaborate to solve problems. The leadership trait set to grow most in the next decade is the ability to build and inspire the teams that will create the future — underlining the role of the leader as empowering facilitator, rather than know-it-all autocrat.

7. Treat your employees as you would like people to treat your brand or organization. The most powerful leadership starts inside the organization — something leaders ignore at their peril.

8. Remember that leadership is not just about the leader. We have moved beyond the era of the solitary, heroic leader embodied in the cult of the CEO. In today’s world, leadership can, and must, be delivered by anyone, anywhere and at any level within the organization — and indeed, by the organization itself.

In an era when leadership is more critical to reputational equity than ever, those of us in the game of helping organizations protect and enhance their reputations should be thinking about leadership less individually. Long-term changes to how an organization is viewed will only be possible if those within it are culturally open to change.

The opportunity and responsibility for us to help leaders by informed communication, decision-making and corporate behavior is unprecedented.

Rod Cartwright
Rod Cartwright is partner and director of Ketchum’s Global Corporate & Public Affairs Practice. For more information on the 2016 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, visit: ketchum.com/klcm-2016.


Timothy P. McMahon says:

A dozen years ago I left the corporate environment. I returned to college and earned a MA in strategic communication and a PhD in leadership. So, your proclamation that people are looking for real leadership is welcome news. Messages like this are needed, Rob. But, the most important challenge still exists: people think its about building leaders when it is about socially constructing leadership. Your last line maybe should be the first: "We have moved beyond the era of the solitary, heroic leader embodied in the cult of the CEO. In today’s world, leadership can, and must, be delivered by anyone, anywhere and at any level within the organization — and indeed, by the organization itself." TIM

Jan. 18, 2015

Rod Cartwright says:

Tim - belated thanks for the comment and can I just say, amen to that! That last point is integral to our thinking and work in this area (and indeed the entire evolution of leadership thinking and best practice), so watch this space for more on that this year and do keep in touch. Rod.

Feb. 5, 2015

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