Date posted: 08/05/2017 3 min read

Lessons for populist leaders in disruptive times

Rob Ward AM FCA on the leadership lessons we need to learn as populist movements in democracies grow.

In brief

  • What happens when populist leaders become unpopular?
  • Rob Ward AM FCA shares his opinions and provides insight into leadership lessons for government, business and society.
  • Any disruption made to the existing social order will scare people. Take them on a journey, don't wait until they are calling for your dismissal.

By Rob Ward AM FCA.

Our world continues to work through shifts in models of leadership. Clearly, the most recent example is the election of an unpopular 45th President of the United States. Obviously not enough voters share this view, otherwise Donald Trump would not be sitting in the White House. But those who do not want him as their leader are in sufficient numbers to cause a negative reaction unseen in my lifetime.

Worldwide, dissatisfaction with political leadership has given rise to populist movements in developed nations such as the US, UK and elsewhere. However, those protesting the election of populist leaders are a reminder that a win at the ballot box is not a licence to act in a way that is not inclusive or disregards diverse views. They oppose any hint that a tyranny of the majority is now in place.

Any disruption you make to the existing social order will scare many people.

Historically, rulers who are out of touch with their communities have been associated with tyrants in developing nations. What makes the rise of populist leaders striking is that they are emerging in democracies with a sizeable middle class.

So are Brexit and the recent events in the US our first-world Arab Spring? And if they are, what could be the outcome of new populist leaders presiding over an environment of such unpopulism? Do they in fact destroy our system as we know it? That might be a bridge too far but not totally out of the question.

Consider the unsettling commentary around principles that many of us have assumed as providing the stability in our lives: the potential breakup of the European Union; claims that NATO is obsolete; bans on Green Card holders entering their current home, albeit not homeland, and more.

When populist leaders become unpopular

In most aspects of life, whether in a competition or where views differ, there will be winners and losers. In such a society, the skilful populist leader will be true to those who voted for him or her, while including all in shaping the future.

Populist governments which emerge from serious dissatisfaction with the status quo are often referred to as the result of a movement. When electorates are seriously divided in a world where all people can find a voice through social media and other devices, and the populist leader ignores the other side of the divide, they do so to all our peril.

Maybe we all need to take a deep breath and consider the lessons not only for our political leaders but for all of us.

Leadership lessons for government, business and society

For existing leaders

1. Start acting immediately in the interests of all the people they serve.

2. Stop using slogans, clichés and platitudes that highlight self-interest as opposed to public interest.

3. Have the courage to make tough decisions that are in the interest of the people and maybe not in the interest of their short-term political survival.

4. Acknowledge that many individuals oppose policies and decisions for emotional reasons. Providing facts without recognising the fear – no matter how irrational – is a waste of time.

5. Recognise that many people are not comfortable in the public domain, whether in a meeting or on social media. The only time they will voice their view will be at the ballot box.

For new populist leaders

1. Don’t allow your success to turn you into a bully.

2. Surround yourself with the best people, not the yes people.

3. Recognise the difference between the skills needed to win office and those needed to run office.

4. Don’t make enemies unnecessarily. If you cannot keep them within speaking distance, treat them respectfully when they depart.

5. Remember the reasons why you succeeded in the first place. Act in everyone’s interests.

6. Don’t compromise on principles, but never stop listening.

7. Any disruption you make to the existing social order will scare many people. Talk authentically to people so they join you on the journey of change at the beginning of your ascension, rather than wait till they are calling for your dismissal.

8. While disruption at any level of society can lead to renewal, have the insight to know when it is leading to a serious splintering in social cohesion.Inclusion works. Division doesn’t. May our new leaders have the wisdom to see this.

Rob Ward AM FCA is head of Leadership & Advocacy at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Acuity Magazine and can be read in full online for free here.