Note: This Article was also published in the International Executive Newswire
If you’ve been listening to the news lately, you may be wondering where all the leaders have gone. Where are the Churchills, the Kennedys, the Ataturks, and the Welshs? Now, more than ever, our countries and our companies need real global leadership. And this might be the problem. All this globalization might be pulling the rug out from traditional models of effective leadership.
Leaders frame reality for others. They perceive events and then interpret them for their followers in a way that motivates action. Currently the US government is on the verge of a shutdown. If you ask a Republican leader why, he will frame the event in terms of the failure of Democrats to rein in spending. But when you ask a Democratic leader, he may blame the other side for stonewalling any compromise. Each is trying to convince as much of the population as they can to see things their way. I think it’s the only reason Sunday morning news shows exist.
Leadership researchers Smircich and Morgan concluded that a person emerges as a leader in large part “because of their role in framing experience in a way that provides a viable basis for action, e.g., by mobilizing meaning, articulating and defining what has previously remained implicit or unsaid, by inventing images and meanings that provide a focus for new attention, and by consolidating, confronting, or changing prevailing wisdom.”
This concept can be seen as the distillation, or basis, of many of other leadership theories. It explains the leader-follower relationship by underscoring why followers do or do not accept another as a leader (does the leader’s narrative work for them in creating meaning from what they see?). It underscores Leader-Member-Exchange (LMX) theory, as the management of meaning by the leader influences the perceptions of organizational justice of the follower (the leader’s effective use of narrative in explaining why justice occurred will affect the follower’s perception of such, and subsequent depth of relations between the two). Even the “great man” theory and other trait- and behaviour-based leadership models lean on this framework: does the leader have what it takes to effectively create meaning for followers that they will accept and act upon in desirable ways? Is the leader motivated enough to do this? Driven enough? Smart enough?
Crafting a narrative isn’t as easy as it sounds. A leader must develop open communication channels both upstream and downstream in order to receive and deliver messages with minimal distortion and delay. Reports and briefings may provide some information, but the savvy CEO will also have his ear to the ground by interacting regularly with all levels of the organization. This should be informal as well as formal.
Many people (all people?) struggle to make sense of their world. They absorb news and information and try to assimilate it into a coherent view. The more solid this view, the more confident they are acting in accordance with it. But the problem is this: with the advent of communications technology and the evaporation of cultural borders the common man has much more access to all kinds of data on a daily basis. Much of it is conflicting. The more data there is to understand, the more difficult it is to create one clear worldview through which to grasp it.
When people’s worlds were smaller, it was easier to create a narrative that made sense of the observations and “reality” that people experienced. Leaders had only so many concepts and observations to weave into their narrative. It was easier to motivate people to action because one frame of reality—one story—could explain everything they saw. And if a leader chose the right story, he could line up motivated followers to his cause.
Increasingly people are bombarded with many more variables than can fit in a concise narrative, and as such faith in some traditional leaders and their interpretation of events has waned. Twitter and smartphones transmit the experience of any person across the world in seconds. Virtually all public events are digitally recorded, and the video lives forever online, waiting to catch the unwitting politician or CEO in a moment of hypocrisy. Leaders can no longer change their narrative without being called out for being inconsistency and disingenuousness (fans of the Daily Show will recognize this Jon Stewart’s main modus operandi).
What some might call the current crisis of leadership is a reflection of this. Most leaders, save for some religious ones (I’m thinking Eastern traditions here), can’t create a narrative which meaningfully encompasses all the stimuli most people receive. The more people know, the harder it is to tell them what to think. And the world is not a black-and-white place; shades of gray are now obvious to all.
I’m not sure what this may mean for the future of leadership, although one hypothesis is that we will increasingly see a split between two modes of thought- the first being a dogmatic and closed-minded adherence to the old story, where any contradicting information is summarily ignored or discounted (Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann come to mind), and the other is one that increasingly accepts a narrative so expansive and inclusive that it can’t inspire followers to take action. This can be seen in Taoist or Buddhist narratives of accepting the interplay of opposites and holding two contradictory thoughts in one’s head at once—a koan of sorts. The consequence of this is a feeling that “there is nowhere to go, there is nothing to do, there is no one to be.” How do you inspire someone to act on that?
While the tidal wave of technological revolution affects us all, there are tactics for the aspiring leader. First, choose your audience carefully. The smaller the target the better you can manage meaning. Second, do your research to know what they know. If you send out a company-wide email explaining why the organization has to make budget cuts next year, make sure that month’s newsletter doesn’t cover the lavish executive retreat the C-staff just came back from. Third, frame events to motivate employees in the right direction. The best stories inspire people toward an event (e.g. increased revenue) rather than away from something (e.g. decreased spending).
As for the state of global leaders, I don’t envy their challenge.