That notion has been on my mind for a month or so now.
What do I mean by it?
We’re about to find out!
Last month I visited the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business for a Leadership Communication Council meeting, and the keynoter, Lieutenant General Charles Pede, said plainly that when he was Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Army, people knew he’d only be talking about one or two or three things at any given communication opportunity—and the same things every time. “Oh, I’d answer questions” about other matters, he said. But his talking points never varied; I don’t have they exact quote, but he said something like, “They pretty much knew what they were going to hear from me.”
And he was perfectly comfortable with that.
Why are so many CEOs not?
Do they think they’re paid to have an earth-shattering new idea every two weeks?
No, they’re paid to be wise, to show a steady hand, to execute on a long-term plan, and to help everyone who holds a stake in the organization follow the thread over the long haul.
Later in the same meeting, a participant referred to a top leader repeating the same messages over and over and over again as “playing the hits.”
Nobody wants to hear James Taylor’s new stuff. And the CEO doesn’t need to come out with an original manifesto every time she or he arrives at the town hall. In fact, it’s reassuring to hear the same ideas repeated, in different ways and with different examples. You’ve got a friend.
(Sort of like I realize I’m actually doing with this post, as I see it echoes something I wrote last February, about the leadership style of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, titled, “This Is How Leaders Should Communicate Now.” And there’s something I’m thinking about for this blog next week on a similar theme.)
A top leader communicates best not through a variety of messaging, but by consistent modeling through a variety of means: Speeches and blog posts, yes; but also informal videos, in-person Q&As in groups large and small, social media posts, even candid-camera encounters.
And someone who supports such a person should endeavor not to transform her or him into a prolific producer of new thoughts—but to show the best of that person, in the most articulate way, from a dozen different angles, so people really get a sense of what sort of human being they’re dealing with—and what sort of an example that leader seeks to set for everybody in the organization.
The leader should be seen listening. Seen showing good humor. Seen asking hard questions in a respectful way. Seen celebrating exceptional work. Seen visiting customers on site, wearing a hard hat. Seen doing all the good things the leader does. Seen communicating, much more than heard blathering.
By the end of one year, everyone in and around an organization should feel like they really know the leader: know what makes the leader special, and what makes the leader a lot like them. By the end of another year, everyone should feel like they know the leader a little better. But more to the point, they should feel they trust the leader a little more, because what they’ve seen is what they’re still getting.
So that when a new idea does come—or a new circumstance arises, that makes a new message necessary—that new message gets the attention it deserves and the trust that anything new requires.
I think that’s what I mean: That top leaders and the people who support them should be thinking strategically less about novel messages for the boss to send—but about various ways that the leader can model a coherent and dynamic culture through consistent communications, seen from various angles.
(Excellent leader not included.)