Since the turn of the century, we’ve learned that our leaders have illegally avoided taxes, lied about emissions in the car industry, rigged interest rates, presided over an offshore banking system that was larger than anyone ever thought, destroyed pension funds as they themselves grew wealthier.
Collectively, they oversaw the biggest collapse of the financial system and watched as their life savings placed into investment funds set up by leaders of unimpeachable integrity turned out to be Ponzi schemes. Our spiritual leaders have covered up sexual abuse in the Church. Our political leaders have cheated on their expenses, admitted sexually inappropriate behavior, and were taken completely by surprise by the Brexit vote. Our charity leaders have sexually abused the vulnerable. Our entertainment leaders are facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Our leading broadcasters have falsely accused some political figures of being child abusers while allowing actual abusers to commit crimes on their premises. Meanwhile, our sporting leaders have been caught cheating and doping.
These events sound unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible, but they all happened in the last two decades. Outside of the cataclysmic events of the world wars, it is difficult to remember a time when our leaders have appeared more wholly and thoroughly discredited.
How do we rebuild trust in our leaders? It won’t be quick or easy. We cannot establish the presence of the positive without first ensuring the absence of the negative. We have to understand why these events happened by asking what they had in common. Could it be that we lacked the imagination to think, this was even possible? Did the leaders never imagine that they would be caught? An obvious connection was that they all had leadership groups that lacked diversity. Another factor is that these groups were fronted by confident men. We’ve seen the effect of this in pollsters and pundits who didn’t see Donald Trump or Brexit or the financial collapse of 2009. We have to stop predicting one outcome and preparing for all outcomes.
Another factor was that all of these leaders had been traditionally educated in drill-down, analytic, Western Reductionism. This makes them good drilling-down but not necessarily at looking across. By their very nature, diverse groups tend to have a broader view, think longer-term in their views, and tend to be qualitative. A disproportionate number of MPs are from privately-educated background and/or attended Ivy League universities. Equality and representation in leadership is not just a matter of social justice, it’s a matter of business efficiency.
The over-reliance on logic and analysis tends to favor thinking rather than the feeling. This means or leaders can misread the mood because they’re too reliant on the math. During the British parliamentary expenses scandal, for instance, the politicians argued that the scale of the expenses abuses was tiny compared to state expenditure. They were missing the point about the overall level of trust.
If it’s a problem of trust you’re trying to fix, you have to start with an understanding that what makes us trust our leaders is not always logical. More data and more education may not be the answer. We’re looking for evidence that they are representing our interests first and not just their own. If they looked more representative of the communities they are seeking to serve; then this would be a start.
This is especially true of our technology leaders. They can no longer argue that they are furthering the interests of the community they serve when they treat personal data carelessly. Cambridge Analytica was an example of this. If this wasn’t enough, Facebook providing a live-stream of the murdering Muslims in a mosque was a watershed moment.
It’s no wonder people are angry with the current leadership. They feel they’re not listening. They think they don’t care. The elevators seem to be broken. This is dangerous. It opens the way for demagogic leaders with ‘simple solutions’. History tells us quietly that we’ve been here before.
Trust is something that takes years to establish that can be lost in moments. It’s so precious that we can no longer entrust it to one infallible (often male) individual. It needs to be invested in teams that work in a collective structure that have timeless values. These are called leadership institutions, and they survive the test of time better than any individual leader.
This is an excerpt from the book “The Leadership Lab” by Dr Philippa Malmgren and Chris Lewis (pictured above).
Dr. Philippa Malmgren is an author who writes about megatrends in the world economy. She is especially interested in explaining trends in the economy that people can take advantage of or better prepare for. She is very focused on technology and policy. Rather than just talking about the world economy, she tries to shape it by advising Presidents and Prime Ministers.
Chris Lewis is the founder and CEO of LEWIS. He is a media trainer who has coached senior politicians, business people and celebrities, and a published author and journalist who has written for the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian.