Leadership, Courage and Public Relations

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Leadership and social purpose, taking others on a journey with you as their leader, making your team feel like they are all walking on cloud nine, and providing them with opportunities to develop and thrive are all the hype of the moment.

However, what I very seldom see and hear/read about is the pre-requisite of any true leadership position, something without which there could be no journey, no social purpose nor any cloud nine: that’s courage.

Very often, and sadly still, we confound leadership with management – a leader, in the true sense of the word, may not be the Chairman or the CEO of the organisation; they are the Executive team, paid to do a job and safeguard the business.

We should call a leader the person we truly look up to, aspire to become/behave like one day, someone whose advice, opinion and guidance we really count on – such an individual is also known as the ‘informal leader’ and, often, they are more powerful than the “formal” ones.

For anyone to truly call themselves or their line managers/executives “leaders”, they need to have the courage to lead the organisation or a group of people towards what they genuinely believe they need, want or would be better for them.

On this matter, Prof Kirk Hazlett shared with me his views:

Over nearly half a century as a PR professional and a PR professor, I have had the fortune and the misfortune to work for executives who fall squarely into one or the other category. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working with executives who had the courage to step up and say: “Let’s do this and learn.” And all of us, from senior management on down, stepped willingly into the unknown with our leader because we believed in his or her convictions.

I’ve also had the agony of working with executives who were mortally afraid to “rock the boat.” They got “compliance” from those of us who reported to them, but they did not get “co-operation.” We did things our own way…we “made do.”

In looking back, those in the former category have thrived and continue to adapt and evolve. Those in the latter are no more.

I believe Prof Hazlett is right – “rocking the boat” and being “different” don’t sit well with many. It’s the difference between doing a job and getting paid for it, and doing a job while striving to put forward a better, leaner, more cost efficient and effective way of doing it.

Hierarchical cultures are known to foster a “don’t rock the boat” mentality because of the sheer magnitude of the domino effect their “rocking” would cause. On this issue, David Landsman argued:

More often, hierarchical cultures dominate because the “boss” is acting like a “middle manager”: under pressure from his/her superiors, Board or shareholders, the leader is afraid of mistakes for which he/she will have to take responsibility and therefore insists on over-tight control.

We live in a society where more – not less – regulation comes our way: from the myriad of various internal policies and procedures, continuing with the regularly updated Risk Register, moving towards the implications of GDPR and various cyber-security contingencies, and ending with the potential corporate fall-out generated by an executive’s mishandled social media interventions, courage in leadership is becoming scarce.

There is no longer an appetite – at least from what I have seen – to take a leap of faith and stand tall, to “put your money where your mouth is” or to be the first who “jumps in the fire”.

Adrienne Gibson, in an article for Edge, said:

“Walking the talk”, leading with authenticity, showing bravery in the face of the unknown, and helping our teams feel secure on the journey, are all part of demonstrating courage.

How many “leaders” – both formal and informal – do this today? Not many. Leadership has become such a casual conversational term that we often forget that true “leaders” are only those individuals who are ready to move mountains for their teams and organisations.

Courageous leaders are those who stand by – regardless of the potential fallout – their actions and are ready to “rock the boat” no matter how many waves would hit it, because they know only by rocking it the boat would move forward.

Leadership is as much about the others as it is about you, the leader. Authenticity is the first step of being a courageous leader and accepting the status-quo is the first step towards being a non-leader. Public Relations is no different – we get paid to do a job, make headlines for our clients, build and protect their reputations etc.

We become true leaders in Public Relations only when we have the courage to stand up for what we believe in, when we challenge set ways of “doing PR”, when we take our peers aside and say “what you do is not PR”, and when we are not afraid to dispute a long-held view that we have no place at the Boardroom table.

In the end, it’s all down to what everyone wants to be known and remembered for, pretty much in line with the implication of a wall sign I read the other day in a CEO’s office:

“You only live once. If you do it right, once is enough”.


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