In early November Burger King posted an advert on Twitter with the title ‘Order from McDonald’s’. Whilst at one level this was an eye-catching bit of marketing, the text which addressed the question of supporting take-away food outlets of all kinds as we enter another stage of lockdown is also making a strong leadership statement. It is signed ‘Team Burger King UK’ but whoever wrote the copy and whichever leaders approved it, were taking a confident stance that by investing in an ad campaign that supported the whole sector their organisation would naturally benefit too.
In many walks of life over the last few years there can be a perception that ‘Strong Leadership’ means someone who is; unwavering in their views, willing to stand alone, untrusting of others or certainly not going to be duped by them. This model of leadership does win support, in business and in politics, perhaps because it connects to the fears of people struggling to make sense of a complex world with seemingly multiple threats to their way of life. It can be attractive to see a leader who promises simple solutions that cut through the messy tangle of modern life with a slogan. This type of leader draws strength from their connection to a constituency – and uses language that reinforces the fear many feel of being out of control by saying follow me and I’ll get things done – you don’t have to worry about what or how.
But the leadership shown by the Burger King advert is an example of a different sort of strength and confidence. Confidence in leadership capability and confidence to say that although I can’t make this happen on my own, by sharing control with others we can achieve a bigger and better result for us all – and from that I and my followers will also benefit.
In a business world that relies on global supply chains and high speed internet connections to develop and deliver products to our door, and a political world faced with threats such as climate change and future pandemics that respect no national boundaries, leaders need to face the reality of inter-dependence. Nice though it might be to draw a line around what you can control and wish the rest of the world away there are few examples of this ever working outside a fantasy state.
So if the reality is that leaders have to deal with sharing control in order to succeed in these times, can they do this while still being perceived as ‘strong’ – or will any admission of need to work with others be seen as weakness?
If 2020 teaches us anything it is that leaders need to; listen to different perspectives, draw out ideas from many sources, build alliances between different constituencies, handle inevitable conflicts of opinion or priority and bring groups together – ultimately confident in their own ability to share the control required to reach a long-term solution.
That sounds a lot but the other big message from this year is that these leadership abilities on their own are not enough. Leaders need followers and at a time when fear and uncertainty is rife, successful leaders are also continually out campaigning and convincing people that they are listening to their fears, that those fears are real, and that tackling them requires understanding the fears of others too and investing in shared solutions.
In an interdependent world no leader can promise certainty or absolute control over events. But whether it is in response to the threat of climate change or the future of fast food sales in a pandemic, by sharing control with colleagues, and sometimes with rivals, it is possible to navigate through the dangers and build confidence amongst your customers or constituents. This is not a new lesson. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln built his presidential cabinet around what’s been called ‘a team of rivals’ in order to bring together the greatest range of skills, attitudes and opinions to tackle the biggest challenge of his age, 160 years later his words still offer good advice for aspiring strong leaders in 2020.