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We all have our views on what great leadership is all about.

From being a visionary, to inspiring others, to being calm under fire, to behaving with principles and integrity. We read about these critical leadership traits all the time.

But here’s something I don’t hear being championed so much, a way of behaving which has a little of a paradox about it: leading with the Common Touch.

What is this Common Touch exactly, and why is it a great way to lead?

The Common Touch is an idiom which means being able to communicate well with and understand ‘common folk’ as equals. In fairy tales, the Princess who is able to build rapport with the peasants has the Common Touch. The real life Princess Diana was said to have the Common Touch.

In the business world, it of course refers to the capacity of senior executives to easily engage with ‘subordinates’ on their level. With a total lack of arrogance or entitlement.

It means being comfortable chatting to an analyst at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. With body language which says “I’m fully engaged and really interested in hearing what you have to say” as opposed to “I’m looking down my nose at you, and I’m way more important than you”.

The rank and privilege that comes with leadership sadly encourages many leaders to too readily enjoy those benefits. After all, what’s the point of slaving away for all those years climbing the corporate ladder, only to eschew the fancy dining room and hang out with the ‘commoners’ instead?

Throughout my career, working in British, American and French organisations, very, very few leaders and senior execs chose to lead with the Common Touch.

All too often, titles were an excuse to create distance between seniors and juniors. Distance both physically (working in an ‘executive suite’ at the top of the building with security doors and the best views) and in terms of availability (too busy to listen to the troops) and communication style (I’m the leader, I talk, you listen ).

Having said that, one leader really shone as a genuine personification of the Common Touch, and that was Bob Diamond, former CEO of Barclays Capital. Here are some examples why:

  • Literally, on my first day at Barclays in early 2000, Bob was introduced to me as he walked the trading floor (a daily routine for him). He took five minutes to say “hi”, listen a little to my background, and wish me a great career in the firm, patting me on the shoulder in the way friends do with each other in a bar. Totally unscheduled, totally natural, totally sincere, totally authentic.
  • Bob was the same way with clients, regardless of their significance for the firm. I remember one of my clients (not a particularly senior guy) being astonished how Bob remembered his name two years after their only previous meeting. Two years! Bearing in mind the hundreds of clients who would be introduced to Bob at various events through the course of a year, that is astonishing.
  • On another occasion, Bob was golfing with one of my clients, and chatted away with him all the way round the golf course. The two could not have been more different – twenty year age gap, different nationalities, vast difference in wealth and experience (and golf handicap!) – and yet Bob was engaging with him as if they were two old school buddies catching up over a beer.

Bob Diamond’s nickname of course was “coach”, and he had an almost unnatural ability to build rapport with anyone. Practically everyone who came into contact with Bob came across a charming, unpretentious, friendly and engaged persona (although I’m sure he had his off days).

The value of leading with a Common Touch is enormous.

For starters, it allowed Bob to build a hugely loyal following. When someone so senior finds a way to engage with you, authentically, and make you feel totally comfortable with it, that gives you a great feeling. It allowed him to forge huge loyalty from clients as well, clients who just loved to do business with Bob (and Bob’s people).

Think about the trust that this Common Touch can build as well. If you can access your leader, and be able to engage with them on a level footing, you are more likely to trust them. Trust in leaders is enormous because it supports a belief in the decisions which drive the strategy of the organisation. If you aren’t trusted, you won’t have many followers.

Of course there were other benefits. When the leader listens to you, you feel as though you have more of a stake in the organisation. You will more likely offer up new ideas, and go the extra mile for the firm. A culture where leaders are accessible will create more of a community, where more people are aligned and interested in pursuing causes for the greater benefit of the community.

So was Bob Diamond unique as a leader, or is the Common Touch something that all leaders can acquire?

If you think about it, to act this way, with the Common Touch, is really just a choice. You can choose to be arrogant or aloof, or you can choose to be engaged and behave on an even footing at all levels of the corporate hierarchy.

I’m sure Bob’s approach, while of course being a very natural style for him, was also something that he cultivated – in that he knew that if it was a habit that he practiced every day, it would pay dividends.

Some other business leaders, such as Richard Branson, spring to mind as people who have an uncanny ability to get on with anyone, and more importantly treat everyone in their organisation with respect.

What’s also interesting, however is that, in addition to individual preferences, there are cultural forces at play here.

In his book “Outliers“, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of a Power – Distance Index. Developed by Geert Hofstede, this Index measures the extent to which the lower ranking people in society accept that power is distributed unequally.

A high index says that less powerful sections of society are highly submissive and accept (and endorse) a very hierarchical society where power inequality is the norm. They are very deferential in the presence of authority. A low index says that the culture pushes for a much more equal distribution of power.

Within Europe, the Nordic countries and Austria all enjoy a very low PDI – in other words the culture resists subservience and elitism – while France has a very high PDI, explaining the very hierarchical culture where those with authority are not readily challenged.

The UK and the US have a moderately low PDI, which might explain why Bob Diamond (an American) with his Common Touch was able to thrive with this style in a UK bank.

So, depending on your nationality, the Common Touch may, or may not, come easily. But, if you are in a position of leadership in a business operating in a low PDI country, and yet are aloof from your people, it might be worth taking a look in the mirror. Ask yourself if there is a better way to lead.