Proof

What the 17th Century did for CEO Communications

by Ben Wickham

Archibald Armstrong was one of the most influential people in 17th century England. You’ve probably never heard of him, but at the time the people of London were clamouring to buy books about his exploits.

Archibald, a Scot, served in the court of the king and had, as they said back then, “the King’s ear”. He was one of the most powerful people in the land – he could make or break the king’s reputation and that of the people who surrounded him. Not bad for someone who started out in life stealing sheep.

17th century England had developed a love affair with jesters (an Anglo-French word meaning storytellers) and naturally the king’s court had its own storyteller. The jester would sing, dance, juggle and mock. He (it was always a he) was also the only person in court who could say what they really thought to the king without running the risk of having their head separated from their shoulders.

“Just keepin’ it real, your CEOness”

And here’s the really interesting thing: over 300 years later the role of the king’s jester – the individual who can speak with absolute candidness, authority and openness without risk – is still valuable. With one difference: we’ve traded kings for CEOs.

CEOs, as figureheads, are our 21st century kings and queens. With so much turmoil and uncertainty in their kingdoms, it’s never been more important for them to be vocal and visible. Employees – indeed all stakeholders – need certainty, purpose, clarity, direction, vision and strength. In turn, CEOs need a jester who can keep them on track, manage their reputation and help build the public and image they need.

Asking the questions others daren’t ask

Global research into CEO reputation shows that managers and employees want CEOs to be a lot more visible than most currently are. To be leaders and not mangers. I was working with a CEO recently who was supposed to do a piece to camera about strategy and vision. It was for the company’s global staff. Shortly beforehand I was presented with a 45-page deck of slides. “For messaging.” When I arrived I took the CEO to one side and asked a simple question: “Do you want to be the leader people follow into battle, or do you want to be the guy that delivers PowerPoints?” His answer was clear: the leader. We reset the shoot, set it up as an interview and for 45 minutes we talked candidly about leadership, vision, purpose, dreams, ambition… The end result was great. Compelling.

The world is changing and the visibility of C-Levels in every area has never been more important. We need kings’ jesters to ask the right questions.

 

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