Why soundbite leadership can be dangerous and distracting

Despite these challenging times, we’ve never been more focused on, committed to, and active in helping organisations of all kinds move beyond push-push-push models of performance and into more post-conventional ways of relating, thinking, leading, meeting and working.

Interestingly, in the stripped back reality that we’re all currently operating in, the dysfunctions that typically hold teams and organisations back are becoming more pronounced and exaggerated, enabling us (and them) to see, more clearly than ever, what is getting in the way of them leaping forward, let alone grabbing this unique moment in time.

One of the things I’ve noticed getting in the way more is what I call Soundbite Leadership, and I see it manifest in two distinctive forms.

The first type of Soundbite Leadership is from the social media ‘gurus’ — whose research and/or carefully crafted opinion is beautifully consumable. They’re the ‘it’ thing. And, generally, it’s good stuff. There is no doubt that many of these are on the money, capturing the zeitgeist in easy-to-remember soundbites, which are then sprinkled like fairy dust over an entranced crowd.

However, after violently agreeing with what’s being espoused, and even adopting the soundbite, we still need to confront the reality of ‘how’ to shift our organisational lives. This brings me to why I am increasingly nervous about this phenomenon. Very few of these soundbites ever point to practice (ie. the how to shift things). And many remain overly simplistic diagnoses of symptoms that are much deeper, systemic and complex. While naming them is a great start, shifting them is something altogether different.

We then find people using the latest ‘in-phrases’, unwittingly (if I’m being generous) masking the real issues and papering over the real challenges and changes that need to be addressed. It’s nowhere near as toxic as fake news but has similar undertones. Therefore, sooner or later it becomes easier to just move onto the next soundbite, rather than really do anything substantial about the current one.

We’ve seen organisations get distracted by these soundbites for weeks, months and sometimes even years. This is especially dangerous for large, complex organisations where the need for deeper, more systemic change is so acute.

This phenomenon also fuels the generation of lots of ‘stuff’ in organisations, where more and more courses, trainings and models (which are all, no doubt, good in their own right) get thrown at their people. Typically, no one curates it all, or joins the dots for their people, because it hasn’t really been thought through. People then become overloaded, pulled in this direction and then that direction, desperately trying to be seen to use the right language, at the right time, in front of the right people.

All of this costs organisations enormous and unnecessary amounts of time, money and human energy which they could have spent in much more focused and productive ways, shifting the bigger, legacy patterns that are really getting in their way, and/or learning how to do their ‘work’ in more transformational ways.

Which takes us to the second manifestation of Soundbite Leadership — the internal equivalent — where the CEO becomes the protagonist in the story.

It has become the ‘in’ thing, even an expectation, for CEOs (or any figurehead leader) to become social media starlets. It’s the channel of choice. And why not at one level, because it is extremely accessible and consumable for both their people and the public at large.

However, there are a number of interesting challenges that come with it. These include…

1. How the medium itself is set up for and is driven by hooks and punchy one-liners, with the sole intention of grabbing people’s attention in an already saturated environment. This subtly encourages leaders over time to over-reach, over-exaggerate and over-simplify.

2. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of a growing gap between the rhetoric from the top and the reality on the ground — which when it happens, and it often does, is a sure way of undermining the brand of, and eroding the trust in, the leader.

3. Unaware of this gap, leaders start to believe the hype and fall into the trap of talking about themselves (which is the very point of these platforms), so we hear about their views, experiences, musings and interests, making it by default all about them.

4. Cynicism increases further as it becomes clear that optics are being massaged, profiles manicured and the soundbites themselves fed from a wider team of ‘advisers’.

5. The line also starts to blur between internal and external communications, so everything gets sanitised, just in case, and your people start to hear the real (albeit dumbed down) news at the same time as everyone else.

6. Ultimately, your people stop listening, because of the relentless cadence of feeding the social media beast, making it harder and harder to discern signal from noise.

However, the opportunities from increased connectivity are really interesting, especially if you can move beyond message-based communication and into more outcome and impact-based communication. This is a movement away from seeking eyeballs and likes, to taking yourself and others on a journey by knowing how and when to use your voice to prime, inspire, disrupt, challenge, support, focus, appreciate, nourish and evoke. These are all critical and inherent dimensions of leading people to, and helping them work at, their performance edge — so they can move beyond (pseudo) high-performance (ie. just the high end of a norm) and into peak performance (ie. stepping into the unknown, shaping the unmade future and working with breakthrough-recovery cycles).

To do this, leaders need to learn how to use their voice to…

1. Bring to life day-to-day challenges, priorities, issues, dilemmas, hotspots — while steering away from any lightweight (although potentially very worthy) hobby horse or fad.

2. Open up a real window into ‘their’ world, with humble disclosures, real-time self-reflections and authentic enquiries into their own leadership edges.

3. Ask and animate the most important questions that we need to quest into together — while resisting giving people answers. Answers stop us listening and learning, and ironically de-energise human systems, draining them of their vitality and curiosity.

4. Embody the movement from an individualist performance paradigm to a much more relational and team based one, by sharing the thinking behind their team’s thinking, and by revealing the heat, edge, choice and mindset shifts that you are trying to navigate and traverse together.

5. Attend to ‘the how’ by sharing and exploring personal practice (successes and failures, experiments and challenges) to role-model their own capacity to grow and develop; as well as build communities of practice that are driving real change by focusing on the differences that will make the greatest difference.

This is how leaders can use their voice to initiate, to support, to provide perspective, to challenge, and ultimately to unleash the human energy of complex systems.

Throwing stuff at people each week doesn’t do it — because shallow, flippant and ‘easy’ isn’t what shifts systems, and never gets the best out of people.

The challenge is to talk, listen and most importantly think together with your people in a way that has depth as well as breadth, and that keeps it real.

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