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.
Are your communication skills keeping up with your career progression?
As you rise through your organization, the purpose and the character of your presentations tends to shift. When you’re an individual contributor at the beginning of your career, your main task is to inform. You may need to update management on the status of a project, or give them information that they can use to factor in to their own thinking and decisions. Your principal currency is information.
As you ascend the ranks and hit middle management, you find yourself having to do more in cooperation with others, and you may increasingly be asked by more senior management to suggest solutions and advocate for a decision, so your principal task is to influence. The principal currency of this form of presentation is value, and the payoff is profit.
At some point, there is a good chance that you will be called to a third task: to inspire. It may be because you have reached a senior leadership position, or because circumstances call for enhanced effort and commitment, reassurance, or creative energy. For this highest form of speaking (indeed, at this level it’s not a presentation; it’s a speech), the only currency that works is not value but values, and the payoff is pride.
When Henry V spoke to his assembled knights and archers before the battle of Agincourt, he did not offer information. When Westmoreland wished that they had reinforcements from England, he did not say, “Men, even though we are outnumbered by the French, the greater range of our longbows will allow us to achieve fire superiority for 2 minutes before they close with us, which will allow us to degrade their fighting efficiency by 46%…” He also didn’t exhort them to fight hard because they would be able to profit from capturing French nobles and exchanging them for ransom. Instead, he appealed to values that he held dear and more importantly knew that they shared with him: honor, courage, and glory.
Values can change over time—honor, courage and glory may not be the most important values that your subordinates crave, but the feelings that values produce are timeless, primarily self-satisfaction, full engagement, and most importantly, pride.
The difference between value and values is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, or the difference between a transaction that improves profit and a transformation that boosts pride.
Henry disdains extrinsic motivation in his speech:
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
He even offers payment to those who would choose value over values:
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
He then appeals to personal pride, which he knows will resonate with his listeners:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d, And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall see this day, and live old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Even above personal pride is communal pride. Henry knows the power of appealing to a sense of belonging to something special, larger than one’s personal selfish desires:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition;
If you want to inspire, you must appeal to higher values than personal gain. WIFM (what’s in it for me?) doesn’t work for inspirational speeches, but WIFU (What’s in it for us?) does. If Kennedy had said, “let me tell you what your country can do for you,” would anyone have remembered his inaugural address?
In fact, injecting personal gain may insult your listeners, as attested to in the story related by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Made To Stick. A marketer was testing messages to help sell a fire safety educational film to firefighters. He first asked fire units if they would like to review the film for their educational programs, and the replies were enthusiastically positive. Then, he asked them if they would prefer a popcorn popper or a set of steak knives for reviewing the film. The general response was “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@! popcorn popper?!”
Values don’t appeal to everyone. There will always be cynics who will sneer and roll their eyes. But values are more important than you might think. When you ask most people, they assume that others are more driven by personal gain, but they themselves are not. We tend to overestimate the extent to which others are driven by personal gain.
Do you really need to raise your game? The ability to skillfully inform and influence others got you this far, so why mess with what got you here?
That would be the easy way, but first consider this. According to Gallup, only 32% of American workers are engaged; worldwide, the number is only 13%! Those sad numbers are clear evidence that there is a leadership drought in the world today. We have plenty of bosses today, but not enough leaders. Bosses can always squeak by through coercion and “coin-operated” compliance, but it takes a leader to engage and inspire.
You can add to the problem, or you can contribute to the solution. It’s up to you.
 Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, p. 188.
 Perspective Taking: Misstepping into Others’ Shoes, Nicholas Epley and Eugene M. Caruso.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to miss The Mooch. He packed more communication lessons in a shorter time than anyone I’ve ever seen.
There’s an old saying: “No man is completely useless. He can always serve as a bad example.” So, in that spirit, let’s see what we can learn from Anthony’s spectacular flameout:
· The danger of information compulsion. Tom Wolfe coined the term, which is the overwhelming need that people have to tell you something you don’t know, especially when it helps to puff up their own importance. Good listeners know that simply remaining quiet can yield amazing amounts of information from those who suffer from it.
· Impression management is not inauthentic; it’s smart. Nowadays, it’s popular to tout the value of being authentic, and letting your true self come out to others. Yet, when your true self is vain, profane and vindictive, you might want to think about toning it down a bit. It’s called calculated authenticity, and it’s essential, especially when you’re in the public eye.
· Flattery has its limits. Flattery can be surprisingly useful, as I wrote in my last two blog posts, but apparently even Donald Trump has his threshold of embarrassment.
· Nothing is private anymore. Scaramucci claimed that he thought his conversation with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker was off the record, which Lizza disputes. Regardless, it’s extremely prudent to assume the mike is on at all times.
· Prepare, prepare, prepare. The most effective communicators know precisely what they want to accomplish and how they want to say things when they go into a sales call, which is essentially what a media interview is. His indiscretion was not as serious as Gunter Schabowski’s, which essentially opened up the Berlin Wall, but it was close.
· Choose your timing. It was probably not coincidental that all of this was happening when Scaramucci’s divorce was being finalized. I doubt we’ll ever know if he was thinking at full capacity, but he might have waited to let things settle down a bit before reaching out to the media.
· If you don’t have something good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I’ve written blog posts about almost every one of the lessons that The Mooch should have learned. Maybe if he had been a regular reader of this blog, he would still have a job today!
In the last post, we saw that flattery works, even when it is patently obvious to the receiver that you have an ulterior motive for saying nice things about them. That said, I admit that there are three things wrong with following my advice to be a suck-up. First, you may feel a bit slimy doing it, even when you know it’s the smart thing to do. Second, your peers or any outside observers may think less of you. Finally, while the research shows that there’s a low risk of having it backfire on you, there are more skillful and less awkward ways of ingratiating yourself. As Mark Twain said,
The happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts, and the happy delivery of it another.
In case you don’t have the “gift”, here are some suggested techniques to improve your complimenting skills:
Probably the most important rule of all is to keep it real by complimenting them for something that you genuinely admire. When you believe it, you are much more likely to say it authentically, and the recipient is much more likely to accept it gladly without question.
Find something different to compliment them on. If it’s something less obvious than what they hear all the time from others, it’s more likely to get their attention, and it also signals that you cared enough to research them carefully before meeting them.
Be specific in your praise. I confess that once or twice, when I’ve had someone compliment me about one of my books, I’ve asked them what they specifically liked about it, and it became obvious that they had not read it.
Of course, these first three suggestions require If it’s someone you’re meeting for the first time, research them as much as you can—the deeper the better. It shows you care, and it’s so easy nowadays that not doing it can be seen as insulting.
Ask them for advice. Everyone loves to be considered important and/or knowledgeable, and asking them for advice is an indirect way of expressing your admiration while potentially getting something valuable in return.
Go behind their backs. In other words, don’t praise them directly. If you praise them to others, you can be sure it will get back to them and seem even more heartfelt for being said to someone else.
Separate the praise from the need. Praise followed by an immediate request is too transparent, so invest into the bank of goodwill early with your compliments before you need anything.
Soft-pedal your praise. Just like a backhanded compliment can offend, you can a faux insult can please: “Wow, that’s actually not such a dumb idea!” Be careful with this one, but it works really well with some personalities, especially people who are a little uncomfortable with suck-ups.
Listen to the other person. I believe that the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation but actually listening—paying the other person the compliment of believing that what they have to say matters.
Finally, adjust your attitude toward complimenting others. If you consider flattery beneath you, ask yourself how making another other person feel important can be a bad thing.