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.
In a conversation I had with John Spence on Friday, he told me he had just returned from a leadership development course that was held at a game preserve that featured lions and rhinos. That prompted me to ask him if he had seen any LINOs while he was there. “What’s a LINO?”, he asked.
“A Leader In Name Only”, I replied.
I won’t tell you his answer, but we both agreed that LINOs are far too common. Unlike rhinos, they are unfortunately not an endangered species. They are abundant and actually quite easy to spot—unless you are one, in which case you usually don’t know it and might need a little bit of help. So here goes.
You might be a LINO if…
- You talk more than you listen in meetings
- The only tool in your box is a hammer
- You think everyone laughs at your jokes because you’re really funny
- People change the subject when you walk in the room
- You think rules are always rules, no matter what
- People do exactly what you pay them for, and no more
- You’re always right
- You’re smarter than everyone around you
- You never try to catch people doing things right
- None of your subordinates ever get promoted into other parts of the company
- Morale always improves when you leave
- You’re absolutely certain none of these apply to you
Most consultative sales approaches, my own included, rely on the salesperson being able to sell the economic value of their solution, by connecting the solution to measurable financial and operational results. The value the customer uses to make the decision is extrinsic, and usually measurable in some way. In some cases, intangible or “soft” benefits that are not directly measurable can be important factors in the customer’s decision, even if they may need to find creative ways to justify these benefits numerically.
But even if we include these intangibles, we’re still dealing with the WIFM model, in which people are looking for some extrinsic reward or benefit in exchange for a favorable decision. Value is expressed in extrinsic and transactional terms.
Yet people also make decisions based on values, even to the extent that they will act against their own economic best interests, or willingly undergo pain or sacrifice in pursuit of some larger goal than extrinsic reward. Persuaders who can enlist the power of values can tap into the powerful force of intrinsic motivation.
In The Art of Woo, there’s a story of how Bono approached Senator Jesse Helms to enlist his support for African debt relief so that those nations could devote more resources towards combatting AIDS. He began his pitch with a data-filled explanation of the problem, (this approach had worked very well with Bill Gates), but quickly saw that Helms was losing interest. Bono, a born-again Christian who knew Helms was also, switched to the language of the Bible and quoted Scripture to make his case. By the end of the meeting, Helms rose to his feet to embrace him, and went on to help raise $435 million for the cause.
Leaders and organizations have long used values to instill commitment instead of mere compliance: to guide and motivate their behaviors and decisions without needing to be constantly monitored, directed and rewarded. Some might say that’s the key difference between leadership and management.
As a salesperson, connecting your idea or solution to your customer’s values can be tremendously powerful: it can show a deep understanding of who they are; it can get you willing champions who will sell your idea internally when you’re not there; it can even win over those who stand to lose out in the short term if your idea is adopted. Best of all, it’s a gift to them, because it helps people bring out the best in themselves. If there is such a thing as a perpetual motion machine of persuasion, that’s it.
But values-based selling can be like TNT, very powerful yet tricky to use. It’s tricky because as an outsider it can be difficult to find out what the customer’s governing values are, and clumsiness in your approach can easily backfire on you.
You have to really understand your customer to know what they truly value. It’s not enough to go to their website and copy down their vision and values statements—too often these are the stuff of plaques and platitudes that no one takes seriously; I used to refer to them in my sales training classes until I quickly realized that most of the participants couldn’t even pick out their own corporate values statements in a multiple choice question. In some companies they’re actually held in contempt, and woe to the salesperson who tries to spout them.
In addition, trying to combine values with value can backfire on you. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of a marketer of a fire safety video who tested an identity appeal against an incentive appeal. The first question was “Would you like to see the film for possible purchase for your educational programs?” The second question was “Would your firefighters prefer a large electric popcorn popper or an excellent set of chef’s carving knives as a thank-you for reviewing the film?” The first question received unanimous “yeses”; the second question was discontinued after receiving the first two replies: “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@% popcorn popper?” Because the firefighters valued their role as safety educators, they resented the implication that they might need external rewards to recommend the film.
HOW TO SELL ON VALUES
To use values as part of your sales message without getting burned, it’s critical to know your audience and then to apply just the right touch to your message.
Know your audience: how to discover their values
- Start with their written values. Sometimes they are what people really value, and it can help to at least open the conversation and improve your questions.
- Research beyond the customer’s web site; check out articles written by others, speeches by their top executives, etc.
- Ask your champions and coaches: if you want to try something in a presentation or a sales call, run it by one of them first to see what they think.
- Ask and listen: when you’re asking your questions to uncover their business and personal goals, listen for stories, examples and words that indicate personal or corporate values. If you don’t hear any, you can probe a little deeper, by asking whya certain goal is important to them. Listen carefully for things such as:
- Why and how were previous important decisions made?
- Who are their heroes and why?
- What do they measure and reward?
- Get them out of the office. In social situations, people are much more apt to open up about their personal motivations and values.
Apply the right touch
Even if you get their values absolutely spot-on, you may provoke pushback by tying your message too explicitly. People tend to resent being reminded about their obligations to higher values from outsiders, so it’s better to get them to think of these values on their own and make the connections themselves. Fortunately, the process you go through in discovering their values has the added benefit of bringing those values to the top of their minds as you’re talking to them.
During your situation questioning, it’s appropriate to get them to talk about what’s important to them. You can ask about their business goals, and when told, go a step further and ask why a particular goal is important to them.
If you have a good enough relationship with someone, it’s easier to be more transparent in your appeal, so you can be more direct by getting your coach or champion to make the appeal for you.