Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Rage,” is causing predictable reactions in Washington, D.C. Cable news pundits at the ends of the political spectrum are either applauding the president for his downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 or accusing him of lying to the public about the mortal consequences and doing nothing about it. Churchillian World War II Blitzkrieg quotes are part of the banter with both sides going to their corners, reciting them to make their points and satiate their tribes. The White House claims the president’s comments meant to calm, not panic the nation. Opponents claim the president’s remarks downplayed (the president’s words) the seriousness of the pandemic, resulting in needless loss of life.
People often ask me what the most challenging aspect of leading is. Without hesitation, I answer communication, all types of communication…written, spoken, nonverbal, compounded by emotion, gestures, expressions, and exacerbated by ill-chosen words and misguided behaviors. My parents, as well as my Jesuit professors, drove home in me that you can have the most incredible thought in the world, but if you can’t effectively communicate it, your idea is for naught, and no one will benefit!
Clear, direct, purposeful, and inspirational communication is a skill few people possess, and fewer leaders practice. Good ideas are lost because they are poorly communicated. Misunderstandings occur because the communicator creates confusion resulting from their lack of directness or clarity in their message. Tweets, texts and emails are written and communicated at large that contain caustic and invective language, which are without purpose and ultimately cause visceral reactions from the receivers. How often have you asked yourself at work: How could this have happened? Why did this issue escalate to the point where team members are pointing fingers, and tempers are flaring? Why didn’t we do a better job of communicating this change to the field?
There are lots of regrets expressed by leaders who wish they could retrieve a poorly communicated message because it caused an unintended outcome counter to the vision, mission, goals and objectives they are trying to achieve. There is no level of leadership immune to poor communication. I dealt with this issue every day and recognized over the years that how well I communicated, vertically and horizontally, internally and externally, significantly impacted my team’s ability to achieve our collective goals. And, like any other critical skill, clear, direct, purposeful and inspirational communication, whether written, spoken, or nonverbal, requires considerable effort on each of our parts to get it right.
Hand in glove with communication is listening. I contend excellent communicators are excellent listeners. Excellent listeners easily recognize the concerns of the team member and reflect those concerns by what they say, write, or nonverbally express. Listening provides a much-needed perspective, and the wise leader listens much more than she speaks.
So how should a leader communicate when circumstances are dire? Indeed, there is merit in any strategy that controls chaos and panic. On the other hand, there is a fault in not being forthright and truthful about the consequences of a once-in-a-century pandemic. It’s easy now to reach back and pluck quotes from the titans of historical and consequential events like FDR and Churchill, but they, too, were criticized at times for their communication. Their messages were too bold and audacious, or too timid and heedful.
So, as a leader, how do you get it right? Under any circumstances, but most importantly, those that can be dire, check to see your message is direct, clear, purposeful and inspirational. Experienced leaders know if their messages pass this test, then their delivery will stoke confidence, determination and resoluteness in their followers. Choose your words wisely. State what you know and don’t understand in the clearest, elemental terms. Don’t obfuscate, sugarcoat, overstate, or understate the problem. Convey what facts, beliefs, opinions, or educated guesses are. And most importantly, if you don’t know something that may impact the outcome, say so without reservation. Understanding, clarity and thoughtfulness reduce panic and chaos.
Give purpose to your message and be inspirational in your delivery. Your desired outcome is to call your followers to action and create success. Without meaning, your message is hollow. Purpose serves as the connective tissue between team members and the leader. Your followers want to understand what their sacrifices and hardships mean to the overall success of the team.
Finally, be inspirational in the words you use, the gestures you portray, and the tone you project. You being inspirational means always projecting a hopeful conclusion. Hope is a potent elixir for those who are challenged; it is an act of the will and often can serve as the single most important differentiator between success or failure.
The single most difficult thing for leaders to do is communicate, all types of communication…written, spoken, nonverbal, compounded by emotion, gestures, expressions, and exacerbated by ill-chosen words and misguided behaviors. Don’t be the leader who regrets delivery of a message because it was poorly communicated and caused a costly, unintended outcome counter to the vision, mission, goals and objectives you were trying to achieve. Develop the skills to directly, clearly, purposefully, and inspirationally communicate with your followers. That’s how we lead, think, plan, and act through this pandemic. Now, let’s get after it!
Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.