Political shockwaves and leadership

Just over a year after he was elected, the shock of Trump’s presidency continues to raise questions about leadership.

In November 2016 Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. This is just one in a series of recent political events that have been shaking the global status quo; their impact on businesses and professionals the world over is impossible to overestimate.

With unexpected elections and political movements rocking the boat, we are being forced to ask ourselves some difficult questions about leadership. Has our idea of what makes a good leader started to change? Who do we want to lead us through these turbulent times?

Global politics in the workplace

When the team at ILM surveyed UK professionals earlier this year, 43% said that Brexit had changed their view on the importance of leadership. But it’s not just home events affecting British opinions: 40% of respondents said the 2016 US presidential election changed their stance on leadership.

Before and during Trump’s election campaign the idea that he would become one of the world’s most powerful leaders seemed unthinkable to many. But as his election became reality, Americans and Brits alike had to face some sober truths: Trump’s overly confident, dominant leadership was the change the American people wanted.

In the UK we have been fascinated and drawn in by these developments from across the pond; keeping up with Trump’s tweets and news updates in real time. In today’s hyper-connected world the impact of global politics has made us more knowledgeable about – and influenced by – foreign political events than ever.

Role models wanted

We asked UK professionals which of the current world leaders they were most inspired by. Despite – or more likely because of – the high-profile nature of Trump’s presidency, only 5% of UK professionals admitted they may try to emulate his distinctive leadership style in the future. However, this figure rose to 10% for those aged 16 to 24. So why are younger people more likely to want to copy Trump?

The answer is that we need and crave role models to help us develop professionally. Most of us will first look to our colleagues, and 74% of UK professionals we spoke to said they actively mirror the leadership styles of their co-workers. But when there’s a lack of strong leadership in the workplace employees – and in particular younger staff – look elsewhere for a role model, often turning to those they hear and read about.

It is therefore imperative that, particularly during times of instability, businesses make sure they are supporting their employees and providing them with good role models who are aligned with the goals of their organisation. This will avoid employees becoming overly reliant on emulating the behaviours of prominent world leaders, which may not be the most advisable, respected, or trusted in extreme circumstances.

Implementing mentoring schemes is a great way to mutually benefit employees across the business. While younger employees are provided with instant access to a colleague with more extensive workplace experiences that can help them advance professionally, older employees will be inspired by their younger counterparts to develop new skills and embrace a culture of continual learning.

Leadership for a stronger future

One year on from the US presidential election, and amid continued political uncertainty in the UK, Europe and the wider world, there’s no room for complacency. UK Plc suffer a productivity shortfall when compared to other G8 nations. As we strive to overcome this businesses need to focus on developing employees from the get go – empowering people throughout their organisation. If there’s one thing to be learned from unforeseen political events it’s that we need to ensure we have a stream of strong, effective and respectable leaders in the pipeline.

The only way to overcome this is to change the way we think of leadership in the first place. Rather than being tied in with promotions, pay rises and seniority, we need to see leadership as a set of skills and values that should be learnt from your very first day at work, and honed until your last.

So instead of adopting a top-down approach to leadership – as often observed in the Trump administration – employers should be thinking about how they can develop leadership in each of their employees. By breaking down the archaic hierarchies, adopting more collaborative working structures, and encouraging staff of all ages and seniorities to work together, we can ensure the very best leadership traits are naturally passed between staff.

Find out more about ILM's research, 'Addressing the Leadership Lag'.

John Williams, Director of Customer Insight and Proposition Development

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John Williams has worked at the City & Guilds Group for over two years as Director of Digital Strategy at ILM and now as Director of Customer Insight and Proposition Development for our Corporate Learning brands. Prior to working at the Group, John worked at London Business School, British Gas and Centrica.