Style vs Substance: great leaders get the balance right


As I write this article, the election has not occurred yet. But, as you read this, it has. This publication timing nuance made it difficult to commentate on the election outcome and, unfortunately, my crystal ball is in the shop.

However, one thing I can comment on is: despite the outcome, 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. 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’s created 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 context, I’m defining ‘style’ as more than a great pair shoes and a nice hairstyle – otherwise, Bill might be 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 her 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. 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?” By the time you read this, we shall know!

However, 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.


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