But I was struck by a more profound truth about reputation and leadership when – somewhat against my better judgement – I was recently persuaded to watch an episode of The Crown, Netflix’s award-winning drama series which follows the fortunes of the Royals through the second half of the 20th century.
The episode I saw focused on the Queen’s supposed response to the Aberfan tragedy in 1966 when 146 people were killed in a coal waste landslide in South Wales. Despite the urgings of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the Queen was portrayed as being initially reluctant to visit the scene of the disaster, feeling that there would be no point as she could contribute little of practical value and indeed might well be a hindrance to the work of the emergency services. After a period of several days, we see her eventually being persuaded by Wilson to visit the disaster scene, where her presence is warmly welcomed and brings much needed comfort to the families of the victims.
There is a lesson there for all business and political leaders which I believe is even more relevant today when social media and camera phones ensure that virtually no significant event passes unrecorded.
At times of crisis, leaders need to be visible. Even if they can’t do much to change the circumstances around them, they need to be seen to be there. It’s something that business leaders like Richard Branson sense instinctively. When a Virgin train crashed in Cumbria a few years ago, he was on the scene within hours, expressing sympathy for the victims and undertaking to get to the bottom of the reasons for the accident.
Compare this with the recent blanket condemnation faced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he initially refused to cut short his holiday in Hawaii to return and face the fires that continue to engulf his country. His defence – perfectly logical in its own way – was that there was nothing he could do and that the situation was best left to expert firefighters. His case was not helped when it emerged that a 50 second video had been posted on his social media accounts outlining further firefighting measures…but with a link to his party website soliciting political donations.
If people are suffering they draw comfort from the sense that their plight has been noted, that the seriousness of it has been registered; the presence of the most senior “leader” possible conveys an awareness of that seriousness. Sending a deputy won’t do – it suggests that the situation has been judged to be not important enough to warrant the presence of the senior person. George Osborne was heavily criticised as Chancellor when he sent out the hapless Chloe Smith, a junior minister, to face the Grand Inquisitor Jeremy Paxman and defend a significant fuel tax policy shift that would have a widespread impact across the UK. Smith was duly eviscerated but Osborne’s credibility – and courage – was brought into question.
A leader knows that he or she needs to project confidence, as well as sympathy, and a readiness to face up to challenges, however difficult that may seem. Cynics will sneer that individuals like Branson – particularly Branson – never pass up an opportunity to boost their personal profile, even in the midst of a tragedy, but the reality is that he has always been quick to recognise the need to give a human face to an “official” response. It suggests a willingness to engage and represents at the very least a symbolic gesture of commitment.
Nobody seriously expected Scott Morrison to be pointing a hose at the bushfires but, as thousands of Australians have watched their houses go up in smoke, they have needed some visual reassurance that the man at the top has been doing everything he possibly can to bring this nightmare to an end. And shareholders will testify that a CEO’s personal reputation is often closely bound up with that of the organisation that s/he leads. One only has to think of the collapse of the BP share price following Tony Hayward’s ill-judged comments about getting his “life back” following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It doesn’t mean that leaders have to be constantly thrusting themselves forward, chasing headlines; clearly, many highly successful businesses have low profile leaders. But it does mean that when something serious happens, genuine leaders recognise the potential danger to the reputation of their organisation if they are not seen to be on the bridge in the thick of the action.
Just ask the Queen.