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HMC NEWS: Style vs Substance: great leaders get the balance right

With the election results now confirmed and party negotiations with Winston soon to commence, I’ve been reflecting on the race we experienced over the past two months

Whether you are a National, Labour or other supporter there is one thing that’s hard to deny: we have experienced the power a charismatic leader can wield as Jacinda-mania took hold.

She put the brakes on the nosedive of Labour support, turned on a dime and took off fighting neck-and-neck with National.  Labour rose dramatically in the polls after Ardern became leader. Before she replaced Andrew Little, Labour's result in the 1News Colmar Brunton poll showed Labour sitting at just 24 per cent. Four weeks later, Labour sat at 43 per cent.

Andrew Little would never have made this happen.  In fact, few leaders could. 

But here she is, 37 years old with only nine years of Parliament under her belt.  Compare that to Bill English at 56 and 27 years a Parliamentarian.  Despite Jacinda’s political experience being one-third of Bill’s and life experience being a fraction of his, she was able to create intense competition where none existed on 31 July.

Watching Jacinda at work got me thinking: “When it comes to being a great leader, can style win out over substance?”  In this case, it didn’t get her over the line.  But her ‘style’ certainly helped her put up a great fight and cement her position as party leader.

In this context, I’m defining style as more than a great pair shoes and a nice hairstyle - otherwise, Bill is in trouble.

Having a great leadership style is about having charisma, connecting with people, motivating change and encouraging unity of vision.  And when I define substance, I’m thinking about knowledge, experience, training and ability to discern complex issues and make great decisions.

Clearly, on paper, Bill wins on the substance test.  Where Jacinda excels, however, is in presenting a leadership style that helped her and the party ratchet up the poles.

Despite the final election outcome, what is difficult to argue against is that leadership style carried a huge amount of weight in this election race.  And so much of Jacinda’s effectiveness boils down to being a great communicator.

Jacinda earned a communications degree at Waikato University and I reckon she’s employing every technique she ever learned at university – and more.  Her acute understanding of the power of effective communication is responsible for the comparisons she’s received to young world leaders such as France's Emmanuel Macron and Canada's Justin Trudeau.

So, what can every leader learn from the Jacinda style playbook? Here are four takeaways:

Connect emotionally

It’s not enough to have the best CV.  If you want to be a great leader, you must connect with your target audience (your team, your followers, your family) on an emotional level.  In the public relations profession we often refer to this as connecting with ‘hearts and minds’ of the people who matter most.  Connecting with the mind alone just isn’t enough.

Find what resonates and repeat it

Remember how Jacinda took a few days as a new leader to meet with her team before coming out strong with her election promises?  You can bet that time was spent researching and discussing what was going to resonate with voters and how best to deliver those messages.  And once she found what resonated, she repeated those messages again and again.

Be vulnerable

There’s a lot of good commentary on vulnerability and how this attribute contributes to great leadership.  If you want to find out more, search out Brené Brown who researches and writes a lot on the topic.  People love to follow a leader who is genuine, open and vulnerable.  When Jacinda was visibly saddened by our country’s suicide epidemic or talked about her love of single-malt whiskey or summer job as a DJ, she created a human connection and bond with many voters.

Practise and perfect

You can bet Jacinda and her team were practising speeches and debates behind closed doors – and they will continue to do so.  Her advisors were suggesting changes to her delivery down to the minutest detail and nuancing messages to get them just right.  Every leader can cultivate a higher-impact leadership style that connects with people, but it does take practise and a purposeful approach to perfecting.

So, getting back to my question, “Can style win over substance?”  In this instance, it didn’t, but it was a major factor in Labour’s final, respectable poll result. 

At the end of the day I do personally believe that the greatest leaders in history - and in our time - have a perfect balance of both. 

I’d love to hear what you think on style vs substance - drop me an email to discuss:

- Heather Claycomb