The Chinese have a concept called Wu Wei which is derived from Confucianism and is considered a central pillar of their ancient statecraft. It refers to the effortless action of a leader, understood as an ideal form of government, and especially the behaviour of the Emperor. It is a state of doing without doing — unconflicting personal harmony, free-flowing spontaneity and savoir-faire. It is a principle that has guided their leaders throughout history and one from which we can learn a lot.
At the onset of the Corona pandemic, like most of you, I kept glued to my LinkedIn feed to see where the wind was blowing and to get an indication of where we might be heading. It was a moment to get a rare glimpse of how leaders respond in real time crisis, and to also witness the embarrassing shortcomings of others.
It is said that true leaders are tested in battle and not in times of peace.
As everything was unraveling at lightening speed, there wasn’t the usual luxury to sit back and forge strategies with an army of advisors and develop smart strategies. It was a time where you had to be authentic and speak from the heart. You had to act fast and you had to communicate right.
It was a time where it was ok to say you don’t exactly know what is happening. It was a time to be human, to be compassionate, to be tuned in and sensitive.
It definitely wasn’t a time for business as usual. There were so many companies, particularly in tech that demonstrated amazing tone deafness and lack of basic human empathy even as casualties were rising and uncertainty was mounting.
Is leadership innate or acquired?
Ultimately, leaders are born the way they are. Whether it’s Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Richard Branson, Elon Musk or Winston Churchill, you’re wired as you leave the womb, and if not, then from a very early age.
Not every CEO has that alpha charisma. God knows that in tech, most don’t. Many are introverts who find themselves at the helm of a multi-million dollar company, with hundreds of employees, affecting the lives of many more, but who would really just prefer talking code and not venturing out of their comfort zone.
But like it or not, today’s reality forces them to embrace a leadership that often goes against their grain. They are responsible for their employees, they need to take a stance on the pressing issues of the day, whether it’s the impact on the environment, racial inequality, geo-political shifts of power, privacy, ethical practices…not to mention being able to constantly articulate and communicate the company’s vision and ensure it is aligned with the ever-changing markets and consumer sentiment.
Yes, leadership is something you are born with, but it‘s also something that can be cultivated.
So, what exactly is thought leadership?
In its simplest form, thought leadership refers to “intellectual influence and innovative or pioneering thinking” — according to the Oxford dictionary.
In today’s hyper-transparent culture companies are constantly scrutinised and being judged by the thoughts and actions of their CEO’s. This affects the decision process not only of customers, but the likelihood of luring strong candidates, retaining employees, increasing awareness and managing reputations.
With today’s trend of more buyer research prior to brand engagement, thought leadership becomes the window through which organisations can showcase their DNA.
Communicating leadership creates context for your company’s plans and decisions. It builds trust, expands your network and enhances your market perception.
The risks & rewards of staying silent
Most business leaders become leaders by doing and not talking (and letting their doing do the talking). However, in today’s brand economy, there are serious risks to companies that don’t have a voice, but also significant rewards for those that do. There are multiple channels to communicate your position. For those that have charisma and feel comfortable in front of a camera, video is a great option. For those that get fidgety in front of a camera a well-written 500-word post can do the trick. It’s about timing. It’s about reacting in real-time.
Either way, silence is not an option.
Shaping a leader’s voice
Companies and leaders often need the perspective of an outsider to help craft a voice that is both genuine as well as strategic. It’s important to gain a deep understanding of the company as well as a familiarity with its leadership.
Strategic storytelling is perhaps the most effective tool in crafting a voice of leadership. Think of it as a mix between marketing and journalism combined with an in-depth knowledge of your business and a finger on the pulse of public sentiment.
What can today’s business leaders learn from Wu Wei?
A quiet and confident style of leadership. Don’t be obsessed with self-promotion, but rather focus on bringing value to your audience; educate them, share new ideas, insights and be in context with their life. This will be more effective in the long run. In a time where everyone shouts loudest, quiet reserve stands out most. Actions speak louder than words.
Owning the “Big Idea”
Find the big idea (s) you want to own. The leader never gets technical, never talks about money, or features. For that they have ministers (or marketing / social media / etc..). They provide the bird’s view, the bigger picture…
To be a leader requires commitment and that means creating consistent content. Depending on the company and the leader, it’s important to determine a frequency and velocity of content as well as mapping out the different platforms, groups and publications where you want your voice to be heard.
Committing to the process
To brand yourself in the psyche of your followers, you must develop a unique style that reflects your personality and plays to your strengths. It needs to be authentic and genuine. This requires time to perfect, especially when a 3rd party storyteller needs to capture your voice.
You don’t become a thought leader overnight. It takes time, a whole lot of work and perhaps even a bit of luck.
But for companies and leaders who are committed to the process, have an agenda to push or a burning desire for recognition, the payoff can be huge.
For every company and leader that chooses to stay mute, there is another company and another challenger to the throne who is willing to make their voice heard. Even if your competitive landscape already has a clear leader, there are many opportunities for companies that can craft a unique narrative and voice.