Citizens’ Distrust of Leaders – Implications for Organizations and Internal Communication


While the Tiger Woods controversy took the sporting and corporate worlds by storm, another incident in India shook the establishment and the trust in their politicians and leaders.

A well known politician was allegedly caught in a compromising situation within a state’s highest office bringing a new low to how leaders are perceived. Though we can argue that it may be a cultural issue in India to turn a blind eye to such transgressions it is believed leaders are gauged by their track record in their respective constituencies and not as much as what they do in their personal lives.

over the ages

Punam Keller in her outlook for 2010 (Brand Equity – January 6, 2010) talks of the world seeking ‘scandal free’ ambassadors and how we will see more average people playing that role.

So what is the relevance to organization and internal communication? A lot really.  Numerous research points to positive leadership behavior increasing organizational commitment and trust. So much so that employees’ intention to stay and productivity are impacted directly by how they perceive their leaders.

Be prepared to be scrutinized and treated as equals: According to a guidance prescribed for selecting government leaders in India there are three key attributes – ability, behavior and character needed for garnering respect.  With freely available information and the speed at which it travels, organizations need to understand that its leaders can no longer be exempt from public scrutiny. What they do at work and outside will always be questioned and monitored even if it has no direct relevance to the company’s business. Be it in their neighborhoods, supermarkets they frequent, clubs they visit and schools their children attend.

Organizations and leaders expected to exhibit consistent behavior: People expect leaders to exhibit consistent behavior and high morals or prepared to face trial.  Currently, the balance is skewed against employees with their behavior monitored on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. What they blog and how they treat their domestic help (see Infy example) and which stocks they trade in if they happen to work for certain financial firms. We also have examples from soccer where coaches prevent their players from interacting with their spouses or girlfriends during key games to cricket when the board disallows players from speaking to the press or writing for columns without permission.  However, we will soon see situations where employees and citizens examine closely and prevent leaders from taking their personalities outside office lightly. There is a need for leaders to align themselves more with the organization’s core values and their personal ethics.

Manage personal image and morals: We are all well aware of how the Satyam episode eroded trust. So also the Phaneesh Murthy case. I foresee leaders leveraging the services of ‘internal’ image consultants to reinvent themselves not just to understand themselves but to articulate their images better. Personal image audits will come of age. While Tiger Woods and his escapades were splashed in all forms of media, it also throws up interesting challenges for corporate leaders to manage their images.

Those who followed the episode must have noticed that Accenture reviewed their contract and pulled out Tiger from their advertising based on personal behavior or “the moral clause”.

Social media usage among leaders will increase: With the growing importance and power of social media and ‘collective wisdom’ leaders will have no choice to either embrace this new media or perish.  Today, with employees living beyond the firewalls how adept a leader is in understanding what employees discuss will be the measure of their success. Leaders who are yet to get on to the social media world will need to quickly upgrade their skills or be lost in the chatter.

Role modeling revisited: Wikipedia defines a role model as “any person who serves as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others”. In an interesting study among school students in India, 30% of children polled said for them their parents were their role models, and 13% said teachers – so almost half of the students felt that parents and teachers were their role models. Where were the politicians, celebrities and leaders? None of them received over 6% in votes.

Leaders will need to make a concerted effort to revisit the meaning of ‘role modeling’ and be inspirational through their actions.

Agree with me? Do you have other ideas and recommendations for leaders to be respected? Share them here.