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Should leaders try to be popular?

Jul 26, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“Clement Attlee, Britain’s leader in the era of postwar austerity, was once approached by a BBC reporter who adopted the deferential style then thought appropriate. “Prime minister, do you have anything to say to the nation?” the journalist asked. “No,” said Attlee, walking on.
Attlee had never heard of a focus group, and it is not likely he would have thought consulting one helpful. He was surprised to be elected with an overwhelming majority, and his opponents were even more surprised. Neither side paid attention to the opinion polls, few in number, which had predicted his victory.”

JOHN KAY, Financial Times (2 March 2010)

John Kay, teacher and author, is highlighting a little-understood truth here: the desire of a leader to be popular and well-regarded is often self-defeating.

Long ago I heard Bart Simpson, of the famous cartoon series, ask his dimwit father, Homer: “Dad, is it more important to be popular or to do the right thing?” Homer’s response: “You’ve got to be popular, son – if you’re not popular you’re doomed!”

I hope there are not many more Homers out there. They are the ones who tell you to always listen to what the people want, and follow their needs and wants. Yes, an aloof and out-of-touch leader is a disaster. But so is the one who always plays to the cameras, promises the earth to all and sundry, and changes policy at the first gust of an opinion poll.

Professor Kay gives us the view of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest wartime leaders ever, on this subject. When an adviser recommended that Churchill keep his ear close to the ground, he responded that the public would find it hard to look up to leaders found in that position! And it is true: those who most actively seek popularity are the ones least likely to find it. The public soon sees through fakery and false concern. People are more likely to respect someone who is true to his or her principles, regardless of public opinion.

Chief executives pay heed: in Kenya today I come across too many extremists: those who don’t give a flying damn what their employees and customers think; as well those who bend over backwards to pretend to be everyone’s best buddy and saviour. The best leaders have found an effective way to balance on this seesaw: they remain very much in touch with the hopes, fears and aspirations of their constituencies; but they will not be shaken off positions of principle by mob thinking.

As Confucius pointed out: “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.” In the modern world we are way to concerned with selling ourselves, projecting the right image, managing our public relations. We have way too many PR advisors teaching us how to ‘spin’ ourselves correctly in the press and on TV and in Facebook and Twitter.

There is little doubt in my mind that the minute you hand over your policy-making to spin-doctors and image specialists and opinion polls, you have had it. You will spend too little time on developing your core principles and values, and way too much engaging in meaningless fluff that looks and sounds impressive. At the end of the day people want authentic leaders who say what they mean and who don’t look for weasel-words and vapid phrases. They want honesty and resolve in their leaders.

We are all too engaged these days in fancy missions and flowery values statements and hollow corporate social responsibility programmes. Those who revel in these things will usually be revealed to be insecure children, rather than the strong and principled parents that we actually need. I say, look out for the quiet leader who worries more about doing it right than making it sound right.

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