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We need transparency in business to re-build trust in leaders, says Unilever CEO

Trust in our leaders is "extremely low" and it cannot be re-built without "transparency at the very top", Unilever CEO Paul Polman has said.

Speaking yesterday at London Business School's Global Leadership Summit, Polman called upon business leaders to address problems that are affecting employees nationwide and answer their questions.

"People want to know: why is my pay so low and why is my job continually at risk, and as leaders we must look at these questions," Polman said.

"But to have trust you must first have transparency, this is the basis for prosperity."

He added: "To drive an agenda of economic change, it's important we don't get knee-jerk reactions from politicians and short-term decisions based on sound-bites that do long-term damage."

Polman was speaking on a panel, which also included David Sproul, CEO at Deloitte UK, and Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice in organisational behaviour at the London Business School. They were discussing 'what role leaders play in driving positive social, economic and environmental change'.

Gratton told HR magazine leaders need a "narrative" which describes what they believe in, why they believe in it and what they're going to do.

"In any social situation you're more likely to trust someone if they're clear and transparent about their beliefs," Gratton said. "To trust our leaders, we don't necessarily have to like them, but we do have to believe they're competent and the more they can demonstrate in what they say and what they do, the more we can trust them."

In research published yesterday by the London Business School, 73% of business executives said tough economic times call for a radical approach to leadership. And Gratton said strong leaders could help address the "escalating" global challenges of our "fragile world".

She said: "Trust in corporations is low, they are seen as short-term, overly focused on shareholder value and insular in their perspective.

"In big global challenges, the leader's personal narrative is crucial. These narratives often come from crucible experiences - moments in the lives of the leader when they are confronted with people or experiences, which have had a profound impact on the way they think about the world."

Also speaking at the event was professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, Nigel Nicholson, who told HR magazine there wasn't a "crisis" just yet but the "human instinct to look for heroic figures is a problem".

He said: "We do need to guard ourselves against our own desires to be bewitched by charismatic shaman.

"These rise to the top when people are dispossessed and have a special need for a father figure - that is not what a leader should be."

The tenth annual Global Leadership Summit brought together business leaders who led organisations through the 2008 financial crisis.