What Macron's language tells us about modern leadership

13 June 2017

The revealing words used by France's new President hold lessons for business, argues Fiona Kennedy.

In a nail-biting finish to the 2017 French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron fought off far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting to win a resounding victory. Macron may not have been quite the outsider he liked to suggest – he belonged to an inner circle of high-ranking civil servants considered to be the most powerful social group in the country – but nor did he embed himself in one of the established political parties. Instead, he put himself at the head of a new movement – En Marche (now République En Marche) ­– and preached an inclusive and progressive globalism.

Above all, what Macron brings to the new job, says Fiona Kennedy, a researcher at the Business School-based New Zealand Leadership Institute, is a curiously contemporary notion of leadership.

"Macron uses intense images of emptiness to evoke the need for a new, optimistic chapter for the people of France, and employs words such as 'mystical' and 'transcendent' to describe his own role as president," says Dr Kennedy.

She says that for Macron emptiness manifests itself in three ways.

First, his reading of his identity as President is shaped by his conviction that “there is an empty seat at the heart of French political life". According to the Guardian newspaper's Paris correspondent Angelique Chrisafis, Macron believes that France feels this absence deeply and has been trying to compensate for it since Louis XVI was executed in 1793, during the French Revolution. Macron believes this loss has been felt most acutely since the death of General Charles de Gaulle. He refers to this absence as creating “an emotional, imaginary, collective void” and the experience of “terror” for the people of France.

Second, says Kennedy, Macron paints the political system in France as the embodiment of emptiness. He has shaped his own identity as a maverick who is going to expose that emptiness. In one thundering election speech, he told supporters that he had seen and felt that emptiness for himself, from the inside. Drawing on his experience as economy minister and advisor to President François Hollande, he decried the French political system as “vacuous", "failing” and “self-interested”.

Macron’s third image of emptiness relates to his picture of France as a story in progress; one having sufficient unclaimed space that the future is open and people can participate in its creation. After learning that he would face Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting, Macron called on people “…to open a new page in our political life and to take action so that everyone is able to find his or her place in France or Europe”.

"Macron’s conviction that people long for the 'empty seat' to be filled, and his images of an arid political system, speak to leadership not as a person or activity but as a yearning and a potentiality. In this trope, the leadership of a lost King could not be further from the moribund political system that voters distrust," says Kennedy.

She says Macron’s engagement with leadership as a potential that is longed for but missing, echoes a way of thinking about leadership explored by Simon Kelly at the University of Bradford. However, Kelly goes further, suggesting that for leadership to shine, it requires an inferior idea – and often that idea is management – to be sacrificed.

"What Kelly argues is that leadership is an emptiness which, far from doing nothing, captures our imagination and helps us explore new possibilities".

Kennedy says that Macron's momentum is a powerful reminder to leaders that engaging with absences, including those that are vague and unnamed, is vital to the work of disrupting the tame and the prosaic  – in organisations as well as in politics.

"Those who are engaged in leadership must find their own ways of doing this, for example, by asking: What are we not seeing, or not naming, in this organisation? Or: What is there, of importance, that is not in our conversations?"

Fiona Kennedy

Dr Fiona Kennedy is a Researcher and Senior Leadership Facilitator at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, which is based at the University of Auckland Business School.



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