Tell It Like It Is


I recently observed the president of an up-and-coming division of a major corporation give a speech to a group of his direct reporting vice presidents and directors about the future of their business. From a textbook perspective, he seemed to violate almost every rule of effective presentation techniques. His scribbling on an easel was preschool art; his words and language were sometimes condescending to his audience; he was disheveled in appearance and distracting in his movements; his posture was slumped and his eye contact was disjointed, as were many of his thoughts. Yet at the end, his audience applauded and cheered, because he had somehow managed to touch them in a very meaningful way.

How could this be? Despite all of his fundamental no-no’s, how could he possibly grab these people like he did?

The answer – by giving them the sweet taste of leadership, for which they have been morally starved for so long.

Communicating like a leader is not the same as giving effective presentations. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can be as different as success and failure. Let’s look more closely at this individual, and uncover what other things besides presentation techniques fueled his success.

He was authentic! What they heard and saw was the real thing. He is an emotional, spontaneous, dominating, brilliant, impatient individual, and that is exactly the person they witnessed. No makeup, no costume, no TelePrompTer, no professional editing.

He was honest. He told them what he knew and what he thought. He pulled no punches on the tough issues nor did he attempt to camouflage bad news with artificially sweetened, but terribly misleading good news. And he openly expressed his feelings and shared his personal fears.

He created rapport with his audience in a most important way. He matched his talk to the level at which they were listening. By that I mean, the subject on which he spoke was a deeply emotional issue with his audience, and he spoke with the kind of passion and energy that clearly communicated an understanding of what they were truly feeling inside. (Their once great company has been taking a beating in the marketplace, the press and the income statement. For the first time, they are wrenching through the turmoil of massive down sizing , and the painful acceptance that their actual survival is in real jeopardy.) No matter how much thinking time these kinds of issues are given, they are still, matters of the heart and gut in their impact. An analytical, cerebral review of the situation would have been quite professional and corporately appropriate, but as pointless as looking east for the perfect sunset.

His words and his nonverbal behaviors were in-sync. When his face showed anger, so did his words. His emotion laden words were yelled out with an emotion filled voice. Although he did occasionally slip over the edge of appropriate communications, these were still his words and voice and expressions, not those prerecorded in him from some charm school on power speaking. He was consistent, and believable.

But the most significant thing he did, was give them a hopeful vision of the future. He provided a beacon to a destination, different from the agonizing course they are now on. He allowed them to embrace the promise of a better tomorrow and rekindled the self confidence and spirit of their past. He illuminated how valuable and important each one of them would be in conquering the hardships they would face. Despite the difficulty, he made it seem desirable and attainable.

By no means was this the perfect example of what it is to communicate like a leader. For all of the things that worked in his favor, his numerous violations may have unintentionally produced a few clouds of doubt and uncertainty. Although people were immediately inspired by his glimpse into the future, is it possible that some of his more questionable behavior raised a yellow caution flag in them? Do they really trust in him to lead them through the tough times, or view him as a visionary crackpot? Has he in fact, enlisted them in a common dream or just temporarily lathered them up with his intelligence and zeal?

Only time will tell if this man proves to be a credible and followed leader of his organization, but a couple of immediate conclusions on communicating like a leader can be made.

First, although proper communicating techniques are extremely helpful, principle is more important. Everyone has individual foibles that irritate others and create barriers to effectiveness. But these are much more easily forgiven, than are unpardonable sins like manipulating or humiliating others for personal gain, denying previously made promises, or not being honest. Credibility, which stems from principle and values, is the root of leadership, and above all else must be preserved. However, continuing to refine one’s natural style with proven techniques is still a worthwhile endeavor, as it can enable authenticity and credibility to shine through much more easily. Remember, the raw gem becomes much more precious as the jagged edges are smoothed and beveled. But no amount of polishing alone, as precise as it may be, will ever turn a piece of ordinary stone into a diamond.

Finally, no matter how successful one may be on any particular occasion, communicating like a leader is not a one time event. It is a dynamic mix of verbal, written, electronic and symbolic messages. It is choosing a few important themes and trumpeting them relentlessly. Most important, it is modeling on a day by day basis, the behaviors and actions that are visibly congruent with the spoken words. Consistent actions always communicate with astonishing clarity.

Warren Bennis once said, ” leaders are only as powerful as the ideas they can communicate.” Effectively communicating ideas (or visions or values) takes more than trying to sound authentic or appear passionate while giving an occasional speech. It takes being authentic and being passionate – all the time. This is the ultimate test that the fellow in our story and all other aspiring leaders must pass, if they truly hope to capture the lasting faith and commitment of their people.

Steven Coats is with International Leadership Associates. They will soon be offering a new leadership program on principle-centered vs. technique-based communications.