As we start to look back on the past year and to consider the year ahead, I’m not sure even those with literal 20/20 vision could have foreseen the world before us, as we turn the corner into a new decade.
The combination of widespread populism, nationalism, protectionism and polarization has created an environment characterized by lower levels of trust and higher degrees of uncertainty than I can ever remember.
Are professional communicators partially to blame?
As we mull the year gone and the decade to come, I have an intentionally provocative question for you: Are we as professional communicators partly to blame?
This challenge was first thrown down to by a senior member of the South African government’s communication team after a speech I gave a few years ago in Johannesburg. She posed a simple question: Is our tendency, as communicators, to portray our leaders as near perfect demi-gods part of the reason why they are viewed so terribly by so many?
After all, individual leaders are only human—with all the imperfections, doubts and vulnerabilities that implies. Logically, even the greatest corporations are inevitably every bit as flawed, being composed of the same fallible human beings.
And yet our wiring as professional communicators and marketers is to ignore those imperfections and convey as unblemished a picture as possible. In the process we risk creating expectations that will rarely, if ever, be met leading to the “say-do gap” as it’s known.
The alternative of vulnerability
There is, of course, another way—a path inspired by the likes of Pope Francis, international rugby legend Gareth Thomas, and a growing number of corporations in crisis situations. An approach based on acknowledging imperfection and vulnerability in ways that, ultimately, build greater trust and connection than flawed claims of invincibility.
The Pope closes every speech and sermon he gives with four simple words: “Please, pray for me.” It’s a powerful acknowledgement of one’s own imperfections from the holder of an office that has often seemed to lack such a degree of humility and accessibility.
An even more striking example is the latest twist in Gareth Thomas’s remarkable story. For those unfamiliar with rugby, he was a true giant of the game. The second-most capped Welshman of all time, he also captained both his national side and the British & Irish Lions.
Back in 2009, he was also one of the first international players to come out as gay. Then, just before the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan, he announced in a video on Twitter that he has been living with HIV for many years. The decision to communicate this, he has said, was forced on him by the actions of a journalist threatening to reveal his “secret” to Thomas’s family.
The same day, he completed the toughest Ironman challenge in the world, the Tenby Ironman, involving “distances most of us would find exhausting if we were obliged to complete them in the back of a taxi,” in the words of Daily Telegraph columnist Jim White.
In his short video, having revealed the fact of living with HIV, he says: “Now you have that information, that makes me extremely vulnerable. But it does not make me weak.”
— Gareth Thomas (@gareththomas14) September 14, 2019
In those brave words lies one of the key lessons we can learn from this titan of a man. Vulnerability is not simply elements of credibility and effective leadership: It is critical to it.
In a major, annual global study on the link between effective leadership and effective communication, which I conceived and led in a former professional life, “admitting mistakes” was seen by respondents around the world as the third most critical attribute of an effective leader in four out of five years. “Leading by example” came in the top two attributes every single year.
I have argued in the past that accepting and, when appropriate, acknowledging one’s own imperfections is the mark of strength, not weakness, in a leader, particularly when it comes to helping shape organizational culture.
Balancing yang with yin
There are those who disagree passionately, such as Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pferrer, in his 2015 book Leadership BS. Pferrer argued (as paraphrased by the Financial Times) that: “bosses are not modest, leaders are bound to lie (even ‘great’ leaders such as Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela), authenticity is overrated and the gap between aspiration and reality is one reason that trust in leaders and leadership gurus has evaporated.”
Make no mistake, in today’s complex and confusing world, we absolutely need leaders who are decisive, clear-thinking and robust under pressure. But that supposedly “strong” approach should no more be the sole leadership default behavior than constant statements of personal or corporate imperfection. It is about balance.
Just look at the reactions to Thomas Cook’s approach, in 2015, to the death of two young siblings through carbon monoxide poisoning in one of its hotels, compared with Lufthansa’s humble and human response, two months earlier, to the loss of flight 9525.
Positive crisis cases
Crisis communication provides a particularly rich source examples of corporations acknowledging their failings in ways that built, rather than damaged, reputation and trust.
Take KFC’s multi-award-winning crisis response in 2018 when a change of chicken supplier in the U.K. saw two-thirds of the chain’s stores go without chicken for up to a week. Dry holding statements? Frantic, defensive social media management? Embarrassed-looking CEO interview tours? Not KFC! Instead they radically and humorously played with their own logo, and used simple, honest, human and self-effacing language to say one thing: “We’re sorry.”
We saw a similar acceptance of imperfection, and a determination to act on it, when Starbucks closed 8,000 U.S. stores in May 2018 to put 175,000 employees through racial-bias training. The training—described by the chain as a first step, not a solution—followed the arrest of two black men accused by staff of trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks, when they were in fact there for a business meeting. Hardly the defensive posturing that far too often characterizes responses to corporate reputation crises.
New decade, new responses
In a world where political leaders, in particular, would have us believe that they are omniscient and quasi-immortal, vulnerability and the admission of imperfection remain a powerful and underused element in the leadership toolkit—for both individuals and organizations.
As with so much in life, there is yin and yang to be found here: strength in vulnerability and vulnerability in strength, if you like. But as we strive to find that elusive balance and make a positive mark on the 2020s, we could do worse than look at the example set by the these firms in the face of reputational risk and figures like Gareth Thomas.