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Searching for the leader inside

Alison Hicks, Associate Director, Four Communications

The next WIPR event on female leadership is another sell-out. This indicates there’s a volume of aspiring leaders in our industry eager to learn the secrets to success from panellists who have already made it to the top. Yet the latest CIPR State of the Profession report published last week reveals a ‘boardroom skills’ gap preventing the industry from moving from tactical to strategic player. Which begs the question: where are PR professionals getting lost somewhere between ambition and actuality?

‘What makes a great leader?’ is a million dollar question as a quick Google search will testify – pages and pages of search results with blogs listing various qualities that characterise the best leaders. I don’t intend to add to that with another list as quite frankly – going up against a whole host of business school professors, historians, analysts and other far more qualified experts on the subject – I don’t fancy my chances of making a dent when it comes to defining the undefinable. And I think that’s part of the problem when trying to make the leap into leadership, the end goal is so intangible and largely subjective that it’s difficult to know if you’re on the right track, on the tipping point or even made of the right stuff to start with.

Thinking about the strong leaders I’ve been exposed to either directly or the generally acknowledged best in class leaders in existence during my lifetime, one single thing makes them stand out in my mind (not a list!) and it’s that they have the courage of their convictions. It’s a certain air of confidence that makes me trust they will move things forward and have an impact – regardless of whether I believe in the direction of travel. It’s also not necessarily that they are the most talented or experienced in their field, or even the most innovative, likeable or morally robust candidate for the job. Defining leaders by success further blurs the picture as success itself is another subjective metric.

So perhaps the central issue here is a confidence crisis. Not enough people in our industry believe they are, or could in future, be a great leader. The aforementioned CIPR report cites 66% of recruiters looking for business acumen in senior hires but only one in three respondents ranking that skill as a key strength. But perhaps there’s more going on here than meets the eye with PRs simply undervaluing their own leadership capabilities rather than boardroom skills being actually AWOL.

And if lack of confidence is the problem then gender difference is likely to be at play as women still make up the majority (56.8%[1]) of the PR industry. I’ve worked a lot in the human capital space and ‘imposter syndrome’ is well-documented in relation to high-achievers, and particularly women in early studies, whereby despite external evidence of their competence they remain convinced they are not deserving of success and have been over-evaluated by others. And a recent New York University study found that women are less likely to put themselves forward for jobs requesting a ‘brilliant’ candidate pointing to an inherent under-estimation of their own abilities in women.

So if the best leadership is about being bold then surely so long as you back your own talents, values and strategies, you can’t fail? But assertiveness in this context does not equal single-mindedness as having well-placed confidence in your approach means listening and anticipating likely responses before acting (as opposed to actively avoiding criticism).

Extending beyond rating our own abilities, it surely follows we all need greater confidence in the impact of our profession if we want to been seen as true leaders, not only by colleagues but also in the Boardroom where it ultimately counts. Any self-respecting PR will understand the importance of reputation and communications to financial performance meaning leaders in our industry have the capacity to bring about a significant change in corporate fortunes. If we recognise that and have greater faith in our expertise, surely the leader inside can be unlocked.

[1] State of the Profession, CIPR 2018

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