Leadership Communication

What Do Followers Need to Hear From Their Leaders?

Any leader who wants to  be an inspiring communicator should first heed the words of Ronald Reagan, who said, “I was not a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”

Before you try the fun stuff like language and delivery, you need to be absolutely sure that your message resonates with your followers.

I set out to write about what leaders need to say to inspire their followers, but I quickly realized that’s the wrong question. The important question is, “What do your followers need to hear?” As a leader, you are defined by the actions of your followers, and their actions depend hugely on what they hear from you. As in all communication, you need to start from their wants and needs. Just as you can’t teach unless they want to learn, and you can’t sell unless they want to buy, you can’t lead unless they want to follow.

So, what do followers need to hear?

I profoundly believe that people—most people—want more from their work than just a paycheck. Employees will try harder, think more creatively, and pour more of themselves into their work when they have three things: direction, meaning, and confidence. A leader communicates all three and inspires their best work; a manager may hit one or two one and leave potential energy unused; a mere boss ignores them and drains the life out of the workplace.

How do you choose what to say to provide direction, meaning and confidence? To simplify, let’s borrow Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving-men”:

I keep six honest serving-men  

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When  

And How and Where and Who.

Although Kipling probably did not have leadership communication in mind when he wrote those words, let me explain how answering these six questions will give you the ingredients you need for inspiring leadership communication:

WHERE are we going? The word itself, lead, implies a direction and final destination, so the first task of a leader is to offer a vision of a promised land which is much better than where they are today. Whether it is Churchill’s “broad, sunlit uplands”, or Google’s more prosaic “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, a shared vision guides, unites and inspires. Of course, it has to be something you truly and deeply buy into, not some buzzword-filled, meaningless pap conceived by committee.

WHY is it important? This a company’s reason for being. Jon Katzenbach said, “An intrinsic feeling of pride based on the relentless pursuit of worthwhile endeavors is a powerful motivating force.” People are inspired by meaning and purpose, by causes that are greater than themselves. Building a cathedral is more inspiring than simply laying bricks, even if the work is exactly the same. In a business environment, the purpose is unlikely to be as exalted as saving the world for democracy, but it should contain some service or benefit for customers. Put another way, what would they lose if your company did not exist?

WHO are we? There is a reason that Maslow put self-actualization at the top of his pyramid. We all have an idealized conception of who we are, and we will direct our most fervent energies and risk even our lives to act according to it. When Shakespeare’s Henry V utters the words, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”, he knew that every man listening would stay and fight against overwhelming odds—because that’s who they were. Today, an excellent corporate example is Ritz-Carlton’s motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

HOW will we conduct ourselves?  This is a statement of core values that are absolutely inviolate. The old saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts”, may seem quaint and outdated in today’s cutthroat business world, but at the end of the day, when your followers go home, they need to feel good about themselves and be able to look themselves in the mirror and like what they see. Besides, distinctive values can also differentiate you in the marketplace and serve as a competitive advantage that is almost impossible to copy. By the way, never forget that when it comes to values, your behavior as a leader speaks far louder than any words you can ever say.

WHAT do we have to do and WHEN? You can have the most powerful vision and compelling purpose and still fail to motivate your followers if they don’t have confidence that they can succeed. You have to show that you have confidence in them, and in your ability to win with them. At the same time, answering the what and when gives them the confidence that you are the appropriate person to lead them, because you have a realistic plan.

Answering the questions posed by these “six honest serving men” takes a lot of communication. It’s not something you can or even should attempt to do in one speech or meeting. In fact, especially if you’re taking over a demoralized or apathetic team, they won’t believe you at first. But if you’re consistently and insistently giving your followers what they want and need to hear—like a parched desert that finally receives rain—your message will sink in, take root, and bloom.

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August 10, 2010

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