Beyond image consultants

Andrea Schüller on May 11, 2015

This post is going to have a very short shelf life. Or is it? I’ll take the gamble of using current news to make a broader point about what contributes to the perceived credibility of leaders.

I’m currently in the UK, where the general election last Thursday created a night of high drama, a clear winner and a few notable losers. As a German I clearly have no business in commenting on choices made by the British electorate.

So I’ll just say this: politics in modern democracies, where leaders are exposed to comments and criticism 24/7 through the various media channels, is a harsh business and I applaud everybody who gets stuck in for their beliefs, regardless of whether I share them. It is a hard grind and easy to mock from a safe spectator seat, a glass of wine in hand. Yes, I’m often guilty of that.

It’s not the election result per se that fascinates me, it’s people.

Unsurprisingly it’s not the election result per se that fascinates me, but the reactions of two people who resigned as leaders of their respective parties on Friday: Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. I confess that I’m baffled and impressed by how they showed up during what must have been a true ordeal for them.

As I stayed glued to the election coverage online, listened to the radio commentators and read the papers, I wanted to silently applaud both men for dealing well with a result, which one of them described as ‘immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I could ever have feared.’

It’s modern life that demands for these men to get in front of cameras at such moments of personal despair and to feed the world’s media some quotable lines with an earnest, brave face.

Ed Miliband, the politician who has been mocked as a socially awkward geek, in my eyes pulled it off rather nicely, when he solemnly took ‘total responsibility’ and then grinned like a schoolboy about to go on summer holiday as he thanked voters for the ‘most unlikely cult of the 21st century’ – Milifandom.’

A brilliant quip – superbly delivered

This is somebody, who a political commentator said of a couple of month ago: ‘him becoming prime minister is akin to making the most bullied kid in school head boy.’ Miliband might have had that line written for him by somebody else, but he delivered it with such panache that I inwardly held two thumbs up for him. This little quip, which contained so much insight into his public image and private battles, is something us reportedly stoic Germans can only watch – and learn from.

The determination not to crack under pressure

Nick Clegg was a different story. He clearly fought through a pre-prepared speech that was aimed at setting the record of his party’s achievements straight. I did hear the carefully crafted words, yet they mattered less to me. They spun a story. Fair enough. What did really impress me however was that he himself seemed the most authentic and raw I’ve seen him on TV since 2010. Still true to his election manager’s instructions, but also just an utterly defeated, saddened human being, determined not to crack under pressure. The shining armour of polished words and learned gestures was still in place, but it had become see-through and underneath you saw a man who had wanted to make a contribution.

When voters in the UK now ask for less ‘professional politicians’ they are asking to be represented by people who have not yet put on such an armour. Who don’t shy away from saying what they truly think and a prepared to deal with the fact that not everybody will like them for it.

That will be tricky, because once you’re exposed to relentless scrutiny and judgement, you yearn for that protective, professional armament.

Great sounding but often hollow buzzwords have become part of our global corporate ‘uniform’

My formative years in the UK were the late 90s – the time of New Labour and its spin doctors. Whilst some part of me envied the obvious talent of them to, literally, spin their tales and turn everything into a concise, apparently meaningful sound bite (unsurprisingly, I’m more of the 10 page memorandum type), I sensed that some of the English they taught me wasn’t ‘real’ English. I was set to win buzzword bingo with all the sound-bite lingo I gobbled up – indiscriminately.

I smile, when I watch the well-educated high potentials all over the world, speaking English as a second language, using some of these phrases with ease and often, like me, without noticing if they actually mean anything. They are as much part of their corporate persona as the suits and briefcases. We use them to show that we fit in. We use them to blend in. We use them to sound clever.

Beyond words and learned behaviour

We’ve all become such smooth operators. Media training, presentation training, coaching … my fellow professionals and I are not blameless in creating sleek and occasionally bland professionals. If showing your weaknesses, the little cracks in your armour, can be turned so relentlessly against you, you prepare.

Where am I going with this?

I believe, in the end, it’s the solidity of ‘us’ that matters. Do we have sound beliefs that compel us to act? Do we still have the capacity to knowingly smile at our imperfections? Do we listen to people who tell us when we’re trying to become all things to all people, just to avoid harsh judgement? Does power have become an end in itself?

Image consultants and yes, coaches: they can only go so far in making people look good, even under fire. In the end we have to trust that when the chips are down, when it’s just ‘us’ behind whatever words, that ‘us’ has substance. It’s what gives us credibility, beyond our expertise and certainly beyond ‘image’.

I look forward to hearing what you think. How does pressure reveal our substance?