Over the past year, I had the unique experience of travelling to more than 50 cities across three continents to talk with business leaders about my book, The Leadership Contract, and how they could be more accountable in their daily leadership duties.
In short, it was an awesome experience.
The business leaders I engaged with are facing all sorts of challenges: Economic uncertainty, global competition and the fierce battle for talent.
Adding to the drama was the fact that my meetings with business leaders often occurred against a backdrop of explosive political leadership challenges, many of which demonstrated that on a global basis, both within companies and countries, accountable leadership is hard to find.
Probably the biggest leadership story of the year occurred in the United States, as Donald Trump was elected president after a campaign in which both he and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton achieved infamy for being among the least popular politicians ever to vie for the White House.
I travelled to 26 U.S. cities during the election, and everyone I talked to had the same question: “How did we get here?” After the election, many of those same people asked me, “What are we going to do now?” I could sense the anguish and uncertainty in their voices.
In Brazil, South America’s largest country, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached amidst corruption allegations. Her successor, Michel Temer, was in the job less than six months before he too was drawn into a corruption scandal involving illegal payments from engineering companies looking for government work. I happened to be in Sao Paolo the weekend that millions of Brazilians protested on the street to demonstrate their disgust with their corrupt government. Again, uncertainty filled people’s minds and hearts.
I spent a week in Colombia, a few weeks after a momentus event when Colombians voted to reject a peace deal between the government and former rebel group the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc). The deal took over four years to negotiate and would have ended five decades of war. However, in the end, the country was shocked at the outcome, and left surprised and uncertain about how to move forward. Again, more feelings of angst and uncertainty.
I was in Europe at several points during the year to witness the lead up to and fallout from the United Kingdom’s shocking decision to leave the European Union. The “Brexit” referendum not only rocked international markets, it led to a rash of resignations of political leaders, including many of the anti-EU leaders and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Many Brits were stunned and are still feeling their way through the transition.
More recently, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after his citizens rejected a series of constitutional reforms in a referendum. The resignation has set off a political crisis in Italy, with no clear choice among other party leaders to form government. I was in Milan a few weeks before the referendum, but I could sense everyone’s apprehension as to what was going to unfold.
Through all of these stories and events, a central theme has emerged for me: The inability of leaders to understand the true desires and wants of the people they are leading.
In the Brexit vote, the “stay” campaign completely missed the boat on the groundswell of angry, disaffected voters who believed deeply that mainstream politicians had ignored their needs for too long. A similar dynamic played out in the Italian referendum, in Colombia and in the U.S. presidential election.
To me these stories point to what can happen when leaders get too complacent or arrogant, and eventually lose touch with the people they lead. Even if we are just leading a company, or a team within that company, we can’t underestimate the powerful response that can come from people if they are angry, resentful, or feel disrespected and ignored.
That is the lesson I will take from the state of leadership in 2016.
What about you? As you reflect on your own leadership role, what insights are you gaining from the year? Leave a comment and let me know.
My final gut check of this year asks: How will you remember your leadership in 2016?