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Leading from the front, back, top, bottom, middle, outside and inside

By Peter Gilheany

16 March 2016

Charities are currently under a harsh media glare for excessive salaries, dodgy fundraising practices and daring to bite the government hand that feeds them, amongst other things. Businesses that take a stance on social change issues are often cited for cosmetic CSR, hypocrisy and not sticking to the knitting of making money.

From a communications perspective, you can take one of two broad approaches to this. You can hide under the duvet and hope it goes away by issuing bland corporate statements and justifications disguised as half apologies. Or you can take the lead and stand up for your beliefs and approach while being open about mistakes, failures and bad practice and what you are doing to sort them out.

The second requires leadership and leaders, but if it is just the old fashioned concept of the all-powerful head at the top of an organisation, you may as well stick with the bland, corporate statements.

It simply isn’t credible or sustainable anymore as the growth and impact of social media has made it easier and easier for the curtain to be pulled back. Openness, whether aspiration or reality, is firmly out of the box, a trend that is only likely to grow and grow in importance and relevance. Brewdog, the Scottish brewery, recently scored a PR coup by publishing the recipes for its beers and being open and showing your workings is going to be more and more critical to the reputation of all organisations. That openness needs to be reflected in leadership communications that is pluralistic if it is to be authentic and make an impact.

This was really brought home by the recent documentary chronicling the downfall of Kids Company. Throughout the film, Camila Batmanghelidjh, the flamboyant CEO, used “I” when describing pretty much every aspect of the charity’s operation, except, tellingly, when the darkest hour was reached and the charity was about to close. That’s when it changed to “we”.

There is something incredibly compelling about a charismatic leader, someone who seems impervious to the slings and arrows of everyday life, coated in Teflon confidence and able to, not rise above, but simply sit beyond mundane reality.

However, investing all your leadership communications in one person is risky, skewed and means it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact it could have.

Leadership is often framed in the singular but it is most effective in the plural. Leadership at its best is imbued in the culture of an organisation so that many people within it can and do fill a leadership role, whatever their position in the hierarchy, especially when it comes to communication. Most organisations are layered with their own complexities, a product of all the issues, people, suppliers, customers, stakeholders and services that make them up. Channelling all communications through a single representative of an organisation is reductive and never helps others really understand what it does and what it is about. You need multiple voices to truly and clearly represent an organisation.

The big exception to that is when things go wrong. In those circumstances, the person in the most senior position needs to front up, to be accountable for the organisation. That is when the “we” should be replaced with the “I” and the opposite appeared to happen with Kid’s Company.

Old thinking might recommend the duvet approach at this stage, stating that there is often nothing to be gained from putting forward a person or even a point of view. For any organisation committed to social change, that simply doesn’t cut the mustard any more, if it ever has. It is much easier to build or rebuild trust and confidence, to inspire people to take positive action, by engaging through a person or community than it is through a faceless organisation.