Strategy for the Common People

Nov 03 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Many leaders fair to inspire because their main skills have been gaining promotion and getting the job. Unlike some of history's greats, most just don't have the common touch.

In 1995, Pulp, a British indie band, released what was to prove its most famous single. 'Common People' reached Number 2 in the UK and has remained an anthem that explains the difference between those who find the "common people" a romantically cool notion and the people themselves who, it explains, "will laugh at you, then bite you and never warn you".

Worse perhaps, for business leaders, is the way in which people will "laugh at you and then ignore you."

All strategy is executed through "common" people. If they don't work with the strategy then it will fail however clever, visionary, or insightful. When people work to make a strategy a success then it may succeed even if it is flawed.

This months Harvard Business Review publishes research that finds intelligence "predicts work performance as well as competency tests and about ten times better than personality tests" because they are able to "appreciate and navigate the complexities of interpersonal situations in an intelligent way". Among these are "recognising the probable effects of one's actions" on others.

This is a neat way of promoting the services offered by the author's company and - while it acknowledges the importance of intelligence - it underplays how seldom intelligence is targeted at solving this problems and how often an intelligent planner (Rove) still needs a leader with a common touch (Bush).

A leader needs to find a way of creating and communicating the strategy that makes everyone feel part of it

A leader needs to find a way of creating and communicating the strategy that makes everyone feel part of it, so that each person contributes his discretionary talent to it.

That's what Carlos Ghosn at Nissan did with his 100 day turnaround plan by making it clear that there were no buts, no thou-shalt-nots and no taboo subjects. Despite not speaking Japanese, he walked and talked his way around the business to clarify his openness to change anything and everything based on ideas from anyone anywhere. The result was strategy for the people, by the people.

The same thing has happened throughout history. Alexander the Great fought and frolicked with his men; they loved him for it and followed him on his quest to conquer the ends of the known world.

Julius Caesar - perhaps because of his own relatively humble birth - also looked to his soldier's comfort, to popularity among his citizens and even among the monarchs that he defeated, showing himself to be "perfectly prepared to serve and flatter everybody, even ordinary people... and he did not mind temporarily grovelling".

He recognised the value of communicating ideas powerfully, choosing to train with the greatest public speaking coach of the day to such effect that Cicero said of him, "Do you know any man who, even if he has concentrated on the art of oratory to the exclusion of all else, can speak better than Caesar?" Even his assassination did not put an end to his strategy of restoring the monarchy which lived on through the will of the common people.

Similarly, the Duke of Marlborough fought furious political battles to ensure that his soldiers were paid and clothed. As Walker put it, "no leader ever handled his men more consummately on the field of battle, or took more zealous care for their comfort and welfare in camp and on the march. He was rewarded with adoration by his soldiers and was able to expect of them marches and fights such as no one else could expect."

Churchill also used his understanding of the need for purpose to recreate a mythical sense of Britannia that inspired a nation on the verge of defeat. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat… You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory."

The need to know how to work and talk with the workers is a shock to many leaders whose main skills are gaining promotion and getting the job. They have garnered power through impressing a small number of senior people for a short period of time and are ill-prepared for the task of engaging a large number of people for an extended period of time.

Many do the greatest damage while winning the initial war for pre-eminence and find themselves trapped, like corporate Arafats, within the confines of their own Ramallah compound.

Even those who have the 'touch' will be betrayed over time if they fail to formulate strategy for the people and live to see the day when the support they have successfully acquired transfigures into disappointed apathy, discontent, or rage.

Alexander was poisoned, Caesar stabbed, and Churchill abandoned by an electorate who preferred a post-war cradle-to-grave welfare plan to more wartime grit.

Others, like Fiorina at HP, Amelio at Apple, or Purcell at Morgan Stanley never get the chance because they were not able to borrow even the ears of their fellow countrymen, never mind their hearts and minds. They picked one audience and neglected another at the expense of their strategies ever having a chance to succeed.

Some even delegate completely the task of motivating their employees and separate it from the serious business of strategy. Marks & Spencer's Stuart Rose has hired U.S. motivator Mary Gober - who has been ridiculed, unfairly perhaps, for her part in a £10m team building exercise that includes "inspirational dancing".

The weakness of these attempts is that the leaders who do the day-to-day job do not learn to create visions and plans that make sense and allow their people to make a difference.

But when leader with "the common touch" opens their mouth, it is as if they are speaking to each employee individually. This is often confused with charisma but it's not the same thing. It is about sending powerful messages in what is said, how it is said, what is done and how it is done.

For my money, Bush has it, Kerry doesn't. Reagan had it (remember the third time luck basketball shot?), Carter didn't. Clinton still has it - Hillary still doesn't.

No-one ever did it better than Mandela and the Freedom Charter he was so instrumental in writing. The language - even more powerful than that of the U.S. constitution - stirs the soul and cries out that: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people…that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities …"

So how does a leader in the 21st century reach a world-wide audience with the 'common touch'?

Fortunately, as so often happens, organisational necessity -in this case to create engaged innovation cultures - is made possible by technology, so that now any leader who wants to share his strategy can start to use blogs, internet diaries that are changing the nature and tone of communication and media.

The president of Sun Microsystems blogs, the CEO of GM blogs. And while there are arguments against the practise, these tend to be so out-of-date that you fear for the future of any company that listens to them.

Sure, it tests the communication skills of the CEO and his office, but they can start as internal missives that begin the kind of real conversation that is needed to provide strategy for the common people - for you and for me.

more articles

About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

So right! There's a great piece in Time magazine by Joe Klein talking about 'The Permanent Campaign' a concept that encourages politicians to keep doing the little and big things that speak to the voters. He then warns that the campaign is replacing action but also makes it clear that Bush is probably the most effective permanent campaigner ever. He may be bias, greedy, or less intelligent than his rivals but that country bumpkin style speaks to many who see him in themselves.

Charlie Tushman Boston

You don't have to be a Reagan, a great communicator, to effectively run a company. I can't comment on reaching a 'worldwide audience', but reaching employees in any size company is relatively straight forward and does not require being a 'great communicator'.

The secret is to get with your people regularly and find out what they need to do a better job. Then give it to them. Managements generally do a whole bunch of things which demotivate and demoralize their employees and make it much more difficult for them to meet their responsibilities. Listening to employees and addressing each and every one of their complaints, suggestions and questions in a responsible, timely and complete fashion is the way to truly superior performance. By superior I mean up to 400% increases in productivity to say nothing of morale and quality of life.

Corporate leaders don't need to be great communicators, only great listeners who use what they hear to remove the obstacles to superior performance built up by managers.

Best regards, Ben Simonton Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Bennet Simonton

How very true your article reads. Currently we are going through a period of big change. Part of this change will require us to be more invloved in what the new organistion will look like and how it will deliver services to our customers. The only trouble is the people who are leading us (term used very lightly) don't communicate with us at the common level the cliche, i'm alright jack!!! springs to mind.

Tom Neilson Scotland