Today, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, asked the Queen to dissolve parliament, in preparation for a general election on May 7. Next year, on November 8, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the successor to President Barack Obama. In Nigeria, the elections are underway. Last year in South Africa, we had our own. Elections are a regular fixture on any democratic calendar and they are often painful. But in them, there are lessons for any leader who wishes to understand what really drives engagement, and what turns it away.
If today’s business leaders get one thing consistently wrong, it’s failing to create followers. Since by definition, you cannot lead without someone following you, that makes them hardly leaders at all. It’s the one thing that needs most urgently to be remedied.
Here are five lessons that any leader ought to note:
1. I want to be led by someone likeable.
Politicians, or at least their strategists, understand that in order for people to get behind you, you need to give them points of connection. Call it low-information politicking if you must be disparaging, but there is a very clear reason why the President of the United States gets handed a baseball mitt for a quick game of catch in front of the press photographers, when Air Force One touches down on the tarmac.
There’s a reason why the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom pops into a local pub for a pint when he’s out gathering votes, again for the benefit of the photographers.
Without these moments, those leaders are hard to separate from their wealthy families, top educations and privileged backgrounds, which offer only an embarrassing comparison to that of their would-be electorate. You can take those things out of the headlines however when you share imagery of baseball or beer drinking, and you have something that looks to voters who aren’t doing anything like enough analysis, like something they have in common.
It’s hard to accept for anyone who really cares about the issues, but that sort of thing is critical to the election of most major western politicians. When people think a candidate is one of them, or at least that they share enough common interests to really ‘get’ each other, they’re more at ease giving those candidates their votes.
But let’s be clear about something. Obama really does like baseball. Cameron really does like beer. The importance of those photograph is not to create an unreal perception, but to highlight a humanness that can otherwise be lost in the mist of politicking. They don’t get the opportunity to be mere people very often, so they don’t waste it when they get it.
Being likeable is job number one, and as I write this, there are 20 South African CEOs right off the top of my head, who somehow have utterly failed to grasp that obvious fact.
2. I want to be led by someone who looks and sounds like a winner
No electoral candidate will get anywhere near centre stage if they don’t have the gravitas to seem attractive. It’s not specifically about good looks, but it is about polish and the obvious aura of confidence. That’s a demanding mixture because in most cases, elections are fought on promises about the future, which requires real belief.
People who are committed to a course of action that seems mountainous in its scope, are compelling. Especially when that course of action appears clearly aligned with a greater good.
Speak about the future with conviction, and have solid ideas for how you intend to pull it off, and you tick the confidence box.
Many leaders, and a good number that I know personally, spend their time fidgeting with the small stuff, creating the impression both that they simply lack the vision to pick a point in the future and aim for it, and the confidence to truly put their skills to the test.
3. I want to be led by someone who seems honest
Let’s accept that real honesty is a rare commodity and that a certain amount of ego and self-interest is always going to drive any leadership agenda; nevertheless, there are people who are out on the leading edge, challenging things that are clearly troubling, and those who are obviously pushing an agenda that only serves them and theirs.
Leaders who speak from the heart and add in a dose of measurable sacrifice of their own, score highly with voters for good reason. Those who demonstrate their ability and willingness to do the things that they are asking of others, similarly earn respect.
There is a natural order of things when it comes to effective leadership. Leaders must understand that their role is to gather willing support through deed and action for the things they aim to achieve, which depends on people being able to believe them. You don’t create belief by being contradictory; by saying one thing, but obviously doing another.
4. I want to be led by someone who knows it’s not all about them
Elected public servants in advanced democracies, tend to be frequently reminded by their electorates that their job is to serve. In less advanced democracies, they often make the error of believing they have the right to lord it over a nation full of servants.
That latter mode of thought, is too often the case in corporate structures where leaders don’t run any real risk of being removed by their people.
When democracy works best, a leader is elected with a mandate to achieve the things the electorate has green lighted, because they have at least tacitly approved that leader’s manifesto, by voting for them. Not all leaders get that, and in many cases, it is the elected official’s highly-influenced agenda which has overriding importance.
Corporate leaders must understand that though their position is not subject to the whimsy of elections, their ability to achieve great things is absolutely tied to the will of their people to offer more than the bare minimum. Achieving that has more to do with serving an open agenda than many would care to admit.
5. I want to be led by someone who aims to create magic, not personal comfort
The truest measure of a leader is the quality of the people he or she surrounds themselves with. A great team of people can achieve great things; cronies and friends almost never will.
When leaders are appointed within an organisation, just as when political portfolios are given out following an election, you get the clearest view of all, of just what the next year or two will hold.
I want the credentials of those who are being appointed to speak for themselves. I realise I won’t get the opportunity to vet them personally, but I don’t want to be left feeling that someone has been appointed because they are close enough to the leader’s agenda that they’ll provide comfort and cover. I want those people to be so undeniably right for the position to which they are being appointed, that I can confidently predict oncoming magic.
The bottom line
As a leader, I consider elections to be like master classes of both what to do, and what not to. Usually, the people who win have charisma, believability and a brave agenda. How many CEOs can we say that about, right now? If you want real insight into how it should (and shouldn’t) be done, the lessons that are coming your way are free. Don’t waste them.