Everything’s going to be all right: the power of leadership narratives

Of all the leadership narratives to emerge from WWII 'keep calm' is one of the most memorable.


How to construct leadership narratives is likely to be a talking point on the new NCVO programme Charity Leadership in the 2020s that I am co-creating with Rebecca Nestor. Here’s what I’m noticing and thinking as the programme takes shape.

If you have been into a gift shop in the last year or so you will probably have noticed the world war II slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ emblazoned on greetings cards, mugs and tea towels. In the beginning I found the ‘Keep Calm’ message mildly amusing. Self-deprecation is a British pastime. We like to poke fun at ourselves, our supposed ability to muddle along, hoping for the best. But as is the way with marketing ideas – and I speak from experience having kick-started the trend for greetings cards based on retro knitting patterns – ‘Keep Calm…’ has been overdone. It has been plastered to death in all kinds of goods. No-one is paying attention to the message any more.

Whatever happened to stoicism?

And yet for a remarkably long time ‘Keep Calm…’ seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the 2010s. Now everyone is talking about uncertainty, as if uncertainty were something completely new. Martin Jeffries in The Guardian agonises over how to choose a school for his children. And who will pick the strawberries, he asks, if ‘hard-working’ east-European pickers head home? Not having read The Guardian for a long time, I couldn’t help noticing what people who like to mock the UK’s best known liberal newspaper describe as a ‘hand-ringing’ tone. I was also struck by the dismissive tone of the online comments. Nothing remotely like a ‘twitter frenzy’, but still not very friendly or constructive.

By the way, ‘hard-working’ is another example of a word that I will not use to talk about leadership even though I know there is no such thing as overnight success. Because of the way ‘hard-working’ taken up by certain politicians, it’s impossible to say someone is hard-working without implying that a significant number of people in the UK are scroungers.

The power of leadership narratives

I believe one of the most important jobs for a leader is to create positive narratives that people can connect with. Winston Churchill famously did this when he said, ‘we shall fight on the beaches…we shall fight in the streets…’. With these words he offered reassurance. He made people believe that they would stand up for what they believed, that they would never give up the fight. I often wonder if there were some people at the time who found it hard to envisage themselves fighting on either the beaches or the streets. Would I have had the courage to fight? I’m not sure. I hope I would.

Leaders offer reassurance

More than ever before, politicians, CEOs, community leaders are under pressure to make sense of what’s happening in the world. President of Hollande of France keeps saying France is at war. But is it? My sense is that this leadership narrative is neither positive nor convincing. No-one really believes it. As I heard on the excellent post-Brexit edition of ‘The Bottom Line’, what businesses need now is a bit of reassurance (Keep calm…). At the preset time, any leader who could offer reassurance about what is going to happen next, and be believed, would be a storyteller of genius.

Can we manage uncertainty?

I don’t believe that we can manage uncertainty any more than we can predict the future. But as the stoics said, we can manage our reactions to uncertainty. And because of this I think talking about how leaders react as individuals to uncertainty could be a very good way in to exploring leadership narratives that offer at least a degree of reassurance.

This blog is designed to complement a blog about leadership and uncertainty that Rebecca Nestor and I co-wrote for the NCVO.

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