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Popularity and Leadership

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

Andrew Little resigned after poor results in the pre-election polls. Can business leaders learn anything from leadership churn within political parties?

Political polls give a popularity score direct from the most important stakeholder group – voters. This also influences the confidence party members have in their leader heading into an election.

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, the popularity, or otherwise, of a business leader may be overlooked.

An internal popularity score may come from 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.

Politicians live and die by their popularity score in a way that is unlike leaders in business, however in every context, an effective leader must have followers. 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 organisation will generally carry on unharmed.

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. Changing course while making it appear to be a natural part of the strategy evolution and then bringing 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 something 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 another important leadership trait. As is having the self-awareness and integrity to step aside or change when the time is right.

Whatever your political views I think it is widely acknowledged that Andrew Little acted with integrity by resigning rather than fighting. He put the organisation first, something others before him had not always done.

This act paved the way for a very smooth transition. While giving full credit to Jacinda Ardern’s powerful and decisive arrival, Andrew Little’s departure meant there hasn’t been any focus on the leadership transition itself, no talk of a coup or any potential turmoil in the ranks. Instead Labour, having just changed leaders 8 weeks out from an election, appear more united and more organised than ever. An important lesson for business leaders.

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.

There is enough relevance here for business leaders to take lessons from recent political events.

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