The leader repeats

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

In political campaigns, would-be leaders have their stump speeches. These are the inspirational comfort blankets they produce when they are wheeled out in front of yet another audience. Business leaders have much the same thing. CEOs have neat five-minute spiels they produce on demand for employees, investors, the media and analysts.

Look, for example, at the press cuttings of well-known CEOs. You can guarantee that the same stories, strategies and statistics are religiously recounted. Repetition is safe territory.

But no leader can pay lip service to repetition. Indeed, the biggest sin a leader can commit is to go through the motions, to appear bored by repeating the same corporate goal for the nth time.

This was brought home to us talking with the CEO of Vodafone, Vittorio Colao. A thoughtful man, Colao had a very clear idea of his role and where he added value to the company. It was notable, as he spoke, that as he described it, his role was almost humdrum. There was no gung-ho leadership here, just someone acting as a highly attuned and intelligent conduit to release the talent and power in the organization; quietly impressive. Colao says:

My role in providing the glue is really based on three key elements. I start from the value set, because the value set is more important than anything else. It is the Vodafone way of doing things, a way of respecting the customers, a way of positioning our brand. It’s something that we would never compromise on, and that’s the most important thing that keeps everything together.

The second is the sharing of the experience, the values, the competencies and the solutions. I was in Turkey recently, and I discovered a fantastic solution for handling calls in the call centers, which I’ve never heard before; and I said, “This is great”. Spreading that idea throughout the company is part of my job, and this is a way of adding glue to a big enterprise.

The third thing, quite frankly, is that my role is to go around and explain the future and how Vodafone must find the right local path into its evolution. The evolution from voice to data (and from mobile-only to total communications) is going to take place everywhere in the world. Whether it’s Ghana, Tanzania or Germany, our transition is going to happen everywhere; but each part of Vodafone must find the best way to make the transition happen locally.

The timing will be different and the way it will happen will be different; but, if I have given each locale the framework and made sure that every market then finds its own path, a really good thing will have happened: each part of the company will have a greater sense of ownership and a greater sense of belonging. I present the vision of the future, then help each locale to find the best path and the best way to reach it.

Traveling the world hammering home the same messages time and time again is what leaders do. It is the job. One of the most striking things about leadership is that it is often boring, repetitive work. The audiences might be larger, the stakes higher, but a great deal of repetition comes with the job. Leaders like Vittorio Colao are endlessly communicating much the same messages, the three elements he has decided are fundamental for the company’s future.

And you have to deliver these messages with energy and commitment every single time. ‘If you’re the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, everyone in that room is looking at your face. They’re listening to every word you say and it matters to them,’ says the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. ‘Now CEOs are humans. Sometimes you’re in a meeting, they’re making presentations, it’s boring, you already know what they’re going to say, you’ve got to go to the bathroom. It doesn’t matter. They’re all looking at your face, and if you don’t look interested and caring and motivated, you demoralize people. That’s what being a professional is.’

There is another issue here: consistency. Leaders cannot say one thing to one audience and quote another thing to the next group they encounter. This seems obvious, but we have seen leaders do just that on many occasions.

Inconsistency undermines at every level. Says INSEAD’s Gianpiero Petriglieri:

‘We know in history that people forgive leaders for murder but they don’t forgive them for inconsistency. The classic disappointment with charismatic leaders is that they articulate their vision so beautifully and they embody it with such great purity that people think some profound transformation is going to happen. Then the realization inevitably meets constraints and what happens is people blame the leader.’

For the leader, the ideal mix appears to be an ability to deliver the same messages repeatedly and consistently, but with the passion and excitement essential to rally people to the organizational cause. It is a demanding leadership recipe.

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