The Modern Leader – Powerless, Flawed But Grounded

Dr Arlo Brady Managing Partner

Leadership is something that many people aspire to without really giving its evolving meaning a moment’s thought. I have met many such people, who have reached the giddy heights of the ‘C-Suite’, only to realize the view from the top is not quite what it seemed from below. They expected limitless resources and decision-making capability, but the reality failed to match up.

I think that this is largely because our cultural appreciation of power and the supposed benefits of its concentration has not kept pace with the shift of power dynamics across both business and society that has taken place in recent years.

This syndrome is something that is particularly (but not exclusively) evident in large multinational corporations, where the connection with the outside world is often less apparent than it should be.

If you enter one of the beautifully designed glass structures that house many of our great enterprises, rise quickly in a super-speed elevator and walk on shag-pile carpet into your lavishly appointed offices, it is entirely understandable that you might feel important – indeed, over time, hubris may set in. You may feel that different rules apply to you. After all, you don’t even have to take the same elevator as everyone else. You walk on hallowed ground.

Time and time again we see big corporations like HSBC reacting in slow motion to issues like tax and compensation that have quite rightly taken hold in the public consciousness, perhaps assuming that their own business is their own, and that the issues concerning ‘Joe the Plumber’ don’t have resonance in that ever so deep-pile carpeted ‘C Suite’.

How wrong they can be. Power does not exist in isolation from those who give credence to its existence. I don’t believe that we are seeing the ‘End of Power’, but to quote Moses Naim and his brilliant book of that name, “being in charge simply is not what it used to be!”

Power is much easier to obtain. It’s no longer something that you need to be born into, or something only obtainable with a physical army at your back. Battlefields have given way to boardrooms. But it is more difficult than ever to use – or keep hold of. I believe that this vulnerability is driven by two major forces:

First, the democratising force of social media has given non-classical leaders a voice, an audience and a platform. It has given an opportunity, for alternative ideas and their advocates to compete for influence with traditional leaders in their ivory (carpeted) towers.

Second, the decay of trust that has spiraled out of control since the 2007 financial crisis, has struck deep at the heart of power. The general public now knows for sure that leaders in business, politics and civil society don’t always act for the crowd. And without trust, power melts away. No trust – no power.

While social media looks like it may be here to stay (at least for a while), trust is something that can certainly be worked on.

To do that, leaders will not only need to peek over the wall of their ivory towers (and lift their feet off their carpets), but they will also to need to drop the act and show themselves as real people.

I recently read a great book on this subject by Khurshed Dehnugara. In his book ‘Flawed but Willing’, he argues that if leaders are to rebuild legitimacy, leaders of tomorrow will need to fully reimagine their roles. On top of communicating differently, this will involve practicing an alternative form of courage and making an acknowledgment of ones own imperfections.

This humanization of leadership will lead to perhaps the most interesting element of evolution – namely, the exposure of individual values. It is here, at the core of the individual psyche, that if deserved, trust can be reforged and legitimacy rebuilt.

But that is only the beginning. In some of the businesses like HSBC that have experienced problems, their size and scale makes it impossible for the influence of any one leader, however powerful to reach all parts of the empire. Because power is now more diffused than ever before, leaders must encourage the other people that exert power in their enterprise to do the same thing, to lead by example and build a powerful culture that is grounded in values.

Power will never be the same again. But at least those in positions of authority have a route to becoming a better version of themselves. And, banker beware, if the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, we will all know. If you fake your humanity, you will suffer. The truth will out.