Popularity and leadership

Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR
By Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR

Political leaders can be, and frequently are, rolled by rivals or replaced by more popular candidates. We've seen plenty of in recent times, but are there any lessons business leaders can learn from leadership churn within NZ political parties?

They say that a week is a long time in politics. While political polls might not come out that frequently (unless an election is looming), polls give a popularity score directly from the most important political stakeholder group: voters. This influences the confidence party members have in their leader.

In a commercial environment, customers give a popularity score based on their buying decisions, which affects the commercial success of the business.

Customer surveys may help, but the purchase (or not) of a company’s products or services is the ultimate test. If it is good and it is desired, people will buy it. The popularity, or otherwise, of a business leader may be overlooked.

The organisation could get an internal popularity score from employee engagement or pulse surveys, but once again, if the business is commercially successful and the success appears sustainable, the leaders will generally be supported. Lack of internal popularity may only be a factor if it becomes an impediment to commercial success.

Effective leadership

Politicians live and die by their popularity in a way that is unlike leaders in business, though, in every context, an effective leader must have people who are willing to follow them.

Having clear direction, unity, and purpose are all critical to ensuring followers stay committed.

A good leader presents a clear vision, delivers consistently against that vision, and leads people to success. Some individual leadership decisions may not be popular in-and-of themselves, but if they fit into a clear bigger picture, the company will generally carry on unharmed.

However, setting and maintaining a clear direction is usually not enough. The juggling act of being able to set and stick to a clear strategy, while simultaneously changing, in order to successfully overcome unforeseen challenges, is a true skill of leadership.

A leader who cannot stick to their strategy and jumps every time somebody sneezes can appear weak and directionless. Equally, a leader who refuses to change and doggedly sticks to a plan while the world is falling apart around them, will clearly not succeed.

The skill is in being able to nimbly and effectively manage these competing priorities and deliver a positive outcome. To be able to change course while making it appear to be a natural part of the strategy evolution and then bring everybody along for the ride.

Then there is integrity, resilience, strength, and self-awareness. Leaders will be criticised, this is inevitable, as decision-making (by its nature) requires the selection of one thing over something else. There will always be those who vocally disagree with, and criticise, a leader’s decision and prefer the course not selected.

Having the resilience and strength to weather criticism and hold course when it is right to do so is an important leadership trait. As is having the self-awareness and integrity to step aside or change when the time is right.

We don't always see that in politics (or business). Leaders can put their own interests ahead of those of the organisation and its people. If it goes on too long, it can cause turmoil in the ranks, disturbing unity, focus, and performance.

While business leadership is not a popularity contest in the same way politics is, business leaders must have the support, backing, and trust of key stakeholders, and they need to maintain this support, backing and trust.

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