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6th Sense

The Democratic Workplace: what is it with leaders and debates?

March 2015 | Culture, Democratic Workplace

Despite his Flashman like appearances at the Despatch Box, David Cameron seems shy of the live TV debate.  Perhaps he’s fearful of the Clegg-mania that erupted on the eve of the last general election.  Or maybe he just doesn’t want to look out of touch…

Which is why so many leaders either avoid putting themselves into a ‘live debate’ or try and control the situation.  I once read how amazed the US press were when Tony Blair came to town.  Here was a leader [sic] who was happy to take questions from the floor, almost on any subject; while the US President, GW Bush, was extremely reluctant to do the same.

Debates are difficult for leaders.  You can be asked anything.  By anyone.  Who in their right mind would want to expose themselves like this?

But leaders help to define the culture of an organisation through what they say and do.  If they’re not open or keen to be connected to colleagues, then this behaviour can soon percolate through the organisation.

It’s interesting that in Bob Diamond’s reign at Barclays, the task of delivering ‘news’ to employees at Churchill Place was often given to Antony Jenkins, now Chief Exec.  He was able to connect with colleagues as he went from floor to floor.  Equally, Justin King launched Ask Justin (an idea taken from his days at ASDA) when he set about turning around Sainsburys to encourage colleagues to ask questions and propose ideas.

Great leaders have always found ways to connect with colleagues.

Now with technology and social media, employees are more hungry than ever to hear from leaders – it’s estimated that 73% of employees search for what their CEOs are saying in social media.  Progressive leaders have taken up the challenge – using webcasts, social tools, discussion threads, blogs.  But still many are silent or simply wary of getting into a conversation they can’t control.

Of course, leaders are vastly outnumbered by their employees – and it’s impossible to have a meaningful dialogue with thousands of people.  Nor is everyone a natural public speaker or a skilled debater.  But they can at least get closer to their colleagues, be more connected and be ready to respond to questions and challenges, ideas and opportunities.

You might like the TV debate; you might not.  But there are ways for leaders to be more connected to colleagues; and there’s no doubt it has results.  Not least in creating the right culture for people to perform…

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