Leading during uncertainty – Lessons from Ireland’s proposed new triumvirate

By Kate O'Neill

As we have watched the protests unfold across the US and the chaos, fear and division escalate across different states, the true role of a leader has become startlingly clear by its very absence. It is the failure to lead through the protest and effectively manage the situation that has led to sustained disruption in cities across the US. What we have witnessed in the last few weeks is the apparent failure of America’s self-styled ‘greatest leader’ to reach any understanding of the issue, preferring instead to batten down the hatches and cling  to the language and behaviour which makes him popular with one section of society. Many commentators have remarked that this may be the moment President Trump truly lost his grip on power by failing to unify a nation divided.   

In the same period, here in Ireland a new programme for Government has been announced and three new leaders have emerged after a significant period of instability and an uncertain electoral mandate to form a Government. 

In the last few weeks, all of us have inwardly or outwardly questioned what it means to be a leader; what it takes to make real change, to address significant issues and to manage the conflicting interests of different stakeholders. Ireland will need skilful leaders at the helm of Government over the next few years not only to ensure the economic structures are there to help us in recovery, but also manage the many issues in housing, education and the environment that have pervaded political discourse in the last few years and to capitalise on new opportunities that have emerged. 

So how do we think Ireland’s proposed new triumvirate  - Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar as rotating Taoisigh and Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan with his ‘enhanced role’ - will navigate their way through the politics of the day and the different challenges they face individually? 

Each of them face a different set of circumstances that offers insight into modern day leadership challenges.  

Eamon Ryan – Communications Skills  

Eamon Ryan will be seen as the voice of change in Government. The public and his own party will be keen to hear a credible and strong voice representing them in Government. Under Green Party rules, a vote to decide on who will be its leader must take place within six months of any general election. Deputy Ryan will need to stay focussed from a communications perspective in order to enhance his reputation and hold on to his leadership role. As a man who appears to genuinely walk the walk, his big challenge now is to talk the talk. 

 

Words, language and oratory have defined the leadership of many individuals, be it in the political or business environment. Such speeches have been etched into memory and have echoed across centuries – be it for better or for worse.  

In the 21st Century, communication has changed dramatically and we see less and less of the lengthy speeches delivered through television addresses or mass civic gatherings. But the impact is still the same.  

A few words spoken during parliamentary discussion can be broadcast to thousands via Twitter in minutes. The right communication at the right time will always have the power to unite or divide. All leaders should invest in developing their communication skills and establishing the right tone of voice. 

 

Leo Varadkar – Reputation Equity 

In addition to strong communication skills, leaders must have trust and respect among their followers and their opponents. Through their words and their actions, leaders need to rely on reputation equity in times of crisis to help them navigate perilous situations. That is the trust and the ‘benefit of the doubt’ offered to them because of the strength of their leadership and their credibility over time.  

Varadkar’s time as a leader has been interesting to watch – with his popularity and reputation hitting highs and lows. He was hailed for his navigation of Brexit but ultimately did not win over the electorate in Election 2020.  

Once again, in a time of crisis, his leadership and reputation is at an all-time high driven by his handling of Government over the past three months. His approval ratings are higher than ever before, sitting at 75% according to this week’s Ipsos MRBI poll, a testament to his skills as a leader.  

In the new Government, Varadkar will no longer have the onus of managing a crisis and being the face of leadership. He will need to continue to hold on to his reputation equity and carefully manage his stakeholders and responsibilities to ensure optimal exposure, before taking back the role of Taoiseach at the end of 2022.  

The true test for Varadkar will be his ability to lead from the back seat and demonstrate, as he did not fully do in the past election, that he can give the voters what they want in the next general election.  

Micheál Martin – Stakeholder Management  

After a long time vying for the top job, it appears Micheál Martin will become Ireland's next Taoiseach until 2022. According to this week’s Ipsos MRBI poll, support for Micheál and his party is at 14%, demonstrating that as a new incoming Government, Fianna Fáil will have to develop a strong reputation strategy to optimise Martin's reputation as national leader. 

It is imperative at this juncture that a dialogue is opened up with dissenting voices and with the general public. In a post Covid landscape there may be an opportunity to unite the country under a common purpose and begin bridging the divisions that had been of concern to the electorate. Additionally, Martin needs to set himself apart through strong decision-making and ensure Fianna Fáil’s agenda is clear in the minds of the public and that their successes are recognised. 

 

The first few months of his leadership will test his diplomacy skills, ability to compromise and gather grassroots support.  These qualities; strong decision-making, good communications and the ability to listen, understand and deliberate are the qualities that all leaders should adhere to – be it among peers, within a workplace or as the highest elected official of a country.  

 

However, above all, leaders are recognised for their actions. In February, the Irish electorate clearly identified a desire for change. We now appear to have a new Government, and it will be up to them to manage stakeholder expectations, from within their own parties, collectively as a coalition and ultimately the public in order to prove their skills as leaders and effect change where they can. 

The question is, can they do better than some of their counterparts on the global stage? 

For more on Corporate Leadership, check out a recent blog post on how to manage through uncertainty

 

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